Thursday, October 29, 2009

Is the Pope a Marxist?

Some conservative Catholics are upset about a partly positive appraisal of the thought of Karl Marx that the philospher Georg Sans published recently in the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano. According to Sans, a devout Catholic who teaches at the Vatican's own Gregorian University, Marx was correct to see that capitalism causes 'social alienation' by allowing 'the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few'. Sans goes on to suggest that Marx cannot be held responsible for the depredations of some of the twentieth century dictators who ruled in his name.

In a response to Sans' text, The Times wonders whether Marx might be about to become the latest intellectual to be rehabilitated by the Vatican:

With reassessments such as [Sans'] it may be wondered which formerly unacceptable figure could be next. Last year the Vatican erected a statue of Galileo as a way of saying sorry for trying the astronomer in 1633 for his observation that the Earth moved around the Sun; in February a leading official declared Darwin’s theory of evolution compatible with the Christian faith, and in July L’Osservatore praised Oscar Wilde, the gay playwright, as “a man who behind a mask of amorality asked himself what was just and what was mistaken”.

Some of the right-wing Catholics who grew up saying prayers for the downfall of communism have had difficulty assimilating Sans' arguments, and have suggested that his article does not in any way reflect the opinions of the Pope. For their part, many left-wing Catholics have responded enthusiastically to Sans' words, hoping that they presage a greater tolerance for progressive trends within the church like liberation theology.

It seems to me that both the conservatives and the left-wingers have misunderstood the reasons for the appearance of Sans' article. The notion that the article sneaked under the radar of censors seems unlikely, given Joseph Ratzinger's reputation for tightly controlling discussion within the official and semi-official organs of his church. It was Ratzinger's zealous pursuit of heresy amongst Catholic intellectuals that earned him the nickname 'God's Rottweiler' during the reign of Pope John Paul the second.

The idea that Ratzinger has suddenly become a supporter of some sort of clerical socialism seems even more unlikely, given his history of defrocking priests who get too involved in worldly matters like strikes and anti-war demonstrations.

The explanation for the appearance of Sans' article may lie in an extraordinary but little-noticed Encyclical which the Pope issued in 2007 called Spe Salvi, or In Hope We Were Saved. Spe Salvi includes a long and surprisingly sophisticated assessment not only of the thought of Marx, but of the whole history of Western thought since the Enlightenment.

According to Ratzinger, Marxism is an extreme example of a wider tendency, visible in the West since the beginning of the Enlightenment, to cast aside the notion that man is a limited being who must be guided by God, and to seek to improve human life through the creation of new technology and the refinement of social organisation. This 'humanist' tendency finds expression in the philosophy of Descartes and Voltaire and the science of Galileo, as well as in the ideas of Marx. By putting humanity at the centre of the universe, and forgetting that what is valuable in humanity comes from God, secularists, rationalists, Marxists, and believers in the ‘invisible hand’ of the free market all set themselves up for disaster. The failures of twentieth century Stalinist regimes flow from Marx's thinking, but they also flow from the hubris of the Enlightenment.

It is useful to contrast Ratzinger's view of these subjects with the interpretation that dominated conservative thinking during the Cold War era. In both its sophisticated version, which was advanced by philosophers like Karl Popper, and its simplistic version, which appealed to tub thumpers like Reagan and Ratzinger's predecessor in the Vatican, this interpretation contrasts the unhealthy tradition of Marxism with the healthy Western traditions of democracy, capitalism, and science. Marxism is a mockery of the Enlightenment, not a logical outcome of the Enlightenment.

It is worth noting that Spe Salvi does not lack a few kind words for Marx. Ratzinger praises Marx's 'great intentions', and also notes his 'acute' understanding of nineteenth century European society. Given that Marx's intentions were always to get rid of capitalism, and given that his commentaries on nineteenth century Europe were full of condemnations of the rapacity of capitalism and imperialism, Ratzinger's words of praise represent quite a departure from conservative orthodoxy. Cold Warriors like Pope John Paul the second tended to depict Marx as a thoroughly evil individual, with a warped understanding of reality.

If we read Georg Sans' article properly, we can see that the interpretation of Marx it advances is very similar to that in Spe Salvi. Sans qualifies his praise for Marx with criticisms of the man's 'materialist' view of the world, which allows no place for the spirit, and warns of an over-confidence in the ability of man and science to solve worldly problems.

It seems, then, that the Vatican has already made a reassessment of Marx, but that the results of this reassessment are more mysterious than either the right or the left of the Catholic church, let alone the media, will allow. How can we explain the peculiar interpretations that Ratzinger has advanced of Marx, and of the Western intellectual tradition since the Enlightenment? If they are not indebted either to left-wing Catholicism or Cold Warrior ideology, where do they come from?

It seems to me that Ratzinger's interpretation of modern Western thought owes a great deal to Martin Heidegger, the controversial German philosopher who cut his teeth as a Catholic critic of modernity before turning against the church, falling in and out of love with Nazism, and retreating, in the last decades of his long life, into a sort of quietism.

Like a lot of conservative, rural Germans, Heidegger was forced into a defensive political posture by the turbulence of early twentieth century Europe and the threat of socialist revolution; unlike his fellow reactionaries, Heidegger traced the chaos around him far back into the intellectual history of his continent. Heidegger believed that the problems of the modern world were rooted in a 'technological' mode of thinking which had gathered strength during the Enlightenment. This type of thinking put humanity at the centre of the universe, and treated nature as a mere 'standing reserve' available for human use. Humans themselves were analysed by 'technological' thinkers like Descartes and Freud as self-contained individuals, when in fact human existence and human consciousness only make sense when they are considered in the context of community, history, and nature. Heidegger explained all of the warring ideologies of the twentieth century - Marxism, social democracy, liberal capitalism, and (after he had recovered from his infatuation with Hitler) fascism - as mere symptoms of the underlying tendency of human beings to think in a 'technological' way.

Heidegger believed that technological thinking stemmed from a 'forgetfulness of being'; in his later work, especially, he tried to practice a meditative thinking, influenced by the arts rather than the sciences, in an effort to recover some of what had been lost. Heidegger's concept of 'being' is deliberately, sometimes infuriatingly, mysterious, and many of his critics have argued that it is simply a substitute for the God that he formally abandoned when he left the Catholic church in his early twenties. It seems to me that, if the word 'God' were exchanged for the word 'being', then parts of Ratzinger's 2007 Enyclical could have been written by Heidegger. And it is not only in the passages of Spe Salvi that discuss Marx and modern Western thought that we find possible echoes of Heidegger. When he turns from worldly matters to consider the afterlife that awaits faithful Catholics, Ratzinger uses language and imagery which distinguish him from many contemporary religious thinkers:

To continue living for ever — endlessly — appears more like a curse than a gift. Death, admittedly, one would wish to postpone for as long as possible. But to live always, without end—this, all things considered, can only be monotonous and ultimately unbearable...

In some way we want life itself, true life, untouched even by death; yet at the same time we do not know the thing towards which we feel driven. We cannot stop reaching out for it, and yet we know that all we can experience or accomplish is not what we yearn for. This unknown “thing” is the true “hope”...

To imagine ourselves outside the temporality that imprisons us and in some way to sense that eternity is not an unending succession of days in the calendar, but something more like the supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality — this we can only attempt. It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time — the before and after — no longer exists.

Ratzinger's words fly in the face of the tendency of many Christian leaders to describe the afterlife they promise to their followers in decidedly worldly terms. Billy Graham provided a particularly crass example of this tendency when he imagined heaven as a 'place where we cruise along streets paved with gold in our cadillacs'. Even if some of them would cringe at Graham's appeal to materialism, many Christians in the West would share his vision of heaven as a perfected version of the world we know today, not an essentially unimaginable place outside the confines or protections of temporality where we lose not only our worldly desire but our very selves.

Ratzinger's understanding (or deliberate refusal of an understanding) of the afterlife looks back to the tradition of negative theology established in the early centuries of the church by the likes of Pseudo-Dionysus, and developed in the Middle Ages by mystics like the anonymous English author of The Cloud of Unknowing. Negative theology opposes attempts to 'prove' God through reason and argument, and considers the idea that God can even be described in human language and imagery as sacrilegious. As the lecherous but brilliant professor of negative theology who is the anti-hero of John Updike's novel Roger's Version asks, why believe in a God you can understand?

Along with the theologian Karl Barth, Martin Heidegger has been the great modern scholar of negative theology, and it is easy to imagine Ratzinger's description of the ineffability of the afterlife coming from one of Heidegger's more gnomic texts. Ratzinger's insistence on the centrality of death to human existence, and on the worthlessness of life without death, might also remind us Heidegger's famous early work Being and Time, which argued that the humans who ignored the inevitability of their deaths live inauthentic lives.

Despite the obscurity of his prose and the diabolical political positions he adopted in the 1930s, Heidegger exercised an immense influence over twentieth century European thought, and a sophisticated intellectual like Ratzinger would have encountered texts like Being in Time early in his career.

If Ratzinger has adopted some key Heideggerian ideas, what does this tell us about him? It cannot be denied that Heidegger identified some very negative qualities in the modern world. He was a ferocious critic of the special type of alienation that is part of life in many urbanised nations, he despised the shallowness of consumer culture in capitalist nations, and he was horrified by the damage done to the environment by industrial technology. But Heidegger's wholesale rejection of modernity meant that he was unable to suggest any way of ameliorating the ills that he diagnosed, and he retreated into a quietism that was only punctuated by his brief but horrific flirtation with Nazism. In his last interview, given to the German newspaper Die Spiegel in 1966, Heidegger refused to support any political system, insisting that 'only the coming of a God can save us'.

There is a similar hopelessness implicit in Ratzinger's 2007 Encyclical. Human attempts to improve and transform the world are doomed to failure, because what is valuable in humans comes from God, yet God is, as some of the more metaphysical passages of the Encyclical show, a fundamentally 'unknown thing'. Ratzinger has neither faith in human progress, nor the sort of crass belief in an easily accessible, manipulable God that made the likes of Billy Graham or even Pope John Paul the second such popular figures amongst Western audiences keen for quick-fix theology. Like Heidegger's last interview, Spe Salvi has a sort of bleak integrity, but it should not enthuse either the left or the right wings of the Catholic church.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Seconds after your death you will know the truth of the doctrine you mock.

4:52 pm  
Blogger GZ said...

Seconds? Does temporality exist in your afterlife?

6:08 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Enowning has linked tho this post -

6:22 pm  
Anonymous Keri h said...

Re Anon's weird comment- since I wont have a functioning brain, how would I know anything?

Maps - I'd more or less written Heidigger off, with a very superficial reading of some of his work. This piece motivates me to go back and reread the few books I have- thanks.

7:25 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Vatican Condemns Hallowe'en As Anti-Christian

The Vatican has condemned Hallowe'en as anti-Christian, saying it is based on a sinister and dangerous "undercurrent of occultism".

By Nick Squires in Rome 30 Oct 2009

The Roman Catholic Church has become alarmed in recent years by the spread of Hallowe'en traditions from the US to other countries around the world. The Holy See has warned that parents should not allow their children to dress up as ghosts and ghouls on Saturday, calling Hallowe'en a pagan celebration of "terror, fear and death".

The Roman Catholic Church has become alarmed in recent years by the spread of Hallowe'en traditions from the US to other countries around the world.

The Vatican issued the warning through its official newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, in an article headlined "Hallowe'en's Dangerous Messages". The paper quoted a liturgical expert, Joan Maria Canals, who said: "Hallowe'en has an undercurrent of occultism and is absolutely anti-Christian."

Parents should "be aware of this and try to direct the meaning of the feast towards wholesomeness and beauty rather than terror, fear and death," said Father Canals, a member of a Spanish commission on church rites. Last year a newspaper controlled by the Italian bishops, Avvenire, called for a boycott of Hallowe'en, calling it a "dangerous celebration of horror and the macabre" which could encourage "pitiless [Satanic] sects without scruples".

Earlier this week the Catholic Church in Spain also condemned the growing popularity of Halloween, saying it threatened to overshadow the Christian festival of All Saints' Day.

The Bishop of Siguenza-Guadalajara, Jose Sanchez, said there was a risk that Halloween could "replace Christian customs like devotion to saints and praying for the dead."

10:42 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In Salt of the Earth: the Church at the End of the Millenium, a book of interviews with a German journalist named Peter Seewald, Ratzinger says that as a young man he was deeply influenced by Heidegger.

10:55 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Hi Keri,

I find Heidegger pretty heavy going, but there is some good secondary literature on him. Rudiger Safanski's Martin Heidegger: Between Good and Evil is a superb biography which mixes lucid discussions of the man's work with detail about the contexts in which that work was produced. It reads like a novel at times.

University of Auckland philosopher Julian Young produced several books about Heidegger in the late nineties, after being diagnosed with terminal cancer and deciding to spend his time in a hospital bed tapping away on a laptop.

Young was evetually cured by a brand-new treatment, and when his book The Death of God and the Meaning of Life, which considers the whole of the history of Western philosophy in a Sophie's Choice sort of survey, before arguing that the late work of Heidegger is the most desirable response to the decline in the traditional belief in God, received considerable media attention when it was published. Young's book on Heidegger and Nazism is much more academic, but it is well-written and analytically rigorous - in fact, it's a model of academic polemic.

8:00 am  
Blogger Edward said...

Fascinating post Maps. I'm only superficially familiar with Heidigger's work, but this post is a very interesting contextualisation of the Pope's theological ponderings. And what you say seems to make sense to me re: the right and left Catholics seemingly missing the point. Very interesting. Will have to find some time to read up on this myself.
And anon, who's mocking your doctrine? Doesn't seem like Maps was at all to me. Frickin retard. Read before you speak.

11:40 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maps is determined to go to hell, is all I was saying.

Do you want to go down there too?

4:05 pm  
Blogger Edward said...

Ok anon. that's all you were saying. Somewhat utterly irrelevant from the content of the post, but ok. I guess that's how spam works.
As for me, I didn't know anonymous internet blog commenters had the power to send me there. Interesting. And not at all self-righteous.
Anyway, not really interested in such discussions here right now sorry.

5:22 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Maps was Julian Young from the U.S.? As I recall there was Prof there in 1994 who had cancer or "got" cancer or was said to be terminally ill, (I thought he had to return to the US)...he as lecturing on various subjects including the Enlightenment, and philosophers such as Heidegger and Nietzsche - actually there was another - younger philosopher from the US also who was lecturing on Camus, Sartre and Heidegger - also there were lectures about Foucault.

It was all very interesting. I wrote an essay on Heidegger basically it was against Heidegger's view of techne or his (basically negative) view of technology or its uses and misuses - but Heidgeger is fascinating (he is rather obscure - I read him more like I am reading a kind of poetry - unfortunately his connections to Nazism (and he never apologised for supporting Hitler - and he was a very enthusiastic Nazi - he didn't just dabble)...

There is very good documentary on Nieztsche and Hiedegger on YouTube - it was originally on the BBC.

His writings are actually quite poetic - he loved Holderlin's work and van Gogh...he was another of those flawed or "strange" geniuses who, like Pound, tend to disturb or anger us while they create great creative works.
He had an affair with Hannah Arendt (Jewish philosopher and activist) before he became a Nazi - she condemned him after the war but when she met him - she fell for him again (he had Hitlerian (or Te Kootian?) magnetism of personality) and forgave him! We are strange beings...Being or Dassein, and phenomenology via Husserl, was Heidegger's thing...he links to Sartre and even Wittgenstein.
But he betrayed Husserl who was Jewish. H wrote letters about people (that either he didn't like or he thought were not good Aryans) to the to the Gestapo. He did that to a lot of others.

6:35 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Does the Pope drink beer?

10:40 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some years ago I heard this in a sermon: “Most likely, whereever you go (whether hell or heaven) you will take some with you.”

“By mercy and truth iniquity is purged; and by the fear of the LORD men depart from evil.” (Proverbs 16:6).

God wants us to adore Him on our knees. Do all of us kneel in prayer and adoration of Jesus in the Most Holy Eucharist? We should.


Eternal torment....

Mar 9:43 And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched:
Mar 9:44 Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.
Mar 9:45 And if thy foot offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter halt into life, than having two feet to be cast into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched:
Mar 9:46 Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.
Mar 9:47 And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire:
Mar 9:48 Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.

GET PRAYING GUYS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1

11:04 pm  
Blogger Jeff Rubard said...

I once told someone that the Pope thought he was the Lindbergh Baby, although we all know what happened to that kid. We won't be discussing that at our "thing" with Jeff Noon, though.

9:25 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Pope is on drugs.
He is on drugs BIG time.

9:41 am  
Blogger maps said...


I note that Young did his undergradute degree in Britain. He seemed to me to have a Kiwi accent. The American you're thinking of might be Robert Wicks.

I think the question of Heidegger and Nazism revolves not around whether he was seriously involved -he undoubtedly was - but around how long he was involved, and whether all his work is contaminated by the involvement.

Young's view is that Heidegger had become disillusioned with Nazism by the time he was relieved of his rectorship of Freiburg University in the mid-30s, and that there are coded attacks on Nazism and racism in the lectures he gave on Nietzsche in 1937-38.

Apparently spies were placed in Heidegger's classes and his criticisms of biologism and racism were noted, but this hardly makes him, as his son argued, a 'resistance fighter against Nazism'. I think he was an arorgant but otherworldy philosopher who got on an almighty power-trip after being appointed rector at Freiburg by the Nazis - he was so vain that he thought he could become 'Fuhrer to the Fuhrer' by converting Hitler to Heideggerianism! - and then went off into a quietist sulk when the Nazis tired of him. Not an admirable man.

Nevertheless, I doubt that we can say that most Heideggerian texts are ipso facto Nazi texts - if we were to do so, we would have to condemn the Heideggerian early work of Marcuse, as well as some of the most famous work of Sartre, as Nazi!

Incidentally, I found this text by Ratzinger on the interpretation of the Bible. It explicitly discusses Heidegger and Richard Bultman, a Heideggerian theologian:

11:29 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kia ora Maps,
Nga mihi nunui ki a koe. Ka pai te kaupapa o taa tuhinga nei a paa ana ki te haahi Katorika. Good on you Maps for taking aim at a much larger target than the Dargaville volunteers and the wandering Celticists!
I sent your article to a mate who has a statue of Lenin above his TV and who played soccer for his Marist high school. Part of his response:
"But you can't help feeling any analysis of the church vs Marx has to take allowance of the line-up of material forces. When anyone citing Marx gets their hands on the reins of power, the church stands alongside Mammon. But when Russia topples and Wall St is triumphant, the church shifts left."
Now, Ratz. got on well with Kung and other "radical" Catholic theologians until '68, when he seems to have got cold feet and joined the Church's thought police.
They have just published a part of his doctoral, or post-doctoral?, thesis which was condemned by one of the assessors. Apparently, it contained a sympathetic analysis of the thought of Joaquin di Fiore, a 'radical' twelfth century monk, much beloved of contemporary radicals like Dario Fo.
Ratz. would seem to be as complex an ex-Hitler youth member as you could wish.



1:57 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...







6:54 pm  
Blogger Lucia Maria said...

Hi Maps,


I wish I had time for a serious critique of what you have written here.

I think the problem is that you are not Catholic, and can't think like a Catholic, therefore you have to interpret everything through a non-Catholic lens which distorts the true meaning of everything.

You think that Ratzinger is influenced by Heidegger, without even pausing to consider that Heidegger could instead have been influenced by his Catholicism. A Catholicism that is the prime influence of the Pope.

The only remedy to this is to read more Catholic writings. That way you will see that what the Pope writes about is not unusual or unexpected.

3:52 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don’t really know if the Pope is going to Hell. He’ll probably be among the number of most, if not all, the popes through history who are now burning there for rejecting Christ’s blood as full payment for their sins.

Those who choose to live according to their works will be judged by their works. Salvation is by grace alone and not of works. If one rejects that, and trusts in their religion, they’ll be judged according to that and found wanting. All popes have lived according to that doctrine and by scripture we know their fate. Maybe some have rejected that doctrine of devils and found true salvation, I’m not sure, never heard of any.

1:39 pm  
Anonymous kenp said...

The thing is, of course, that anyone who thinks before they talk knows that no serious person thinks every person should make exactly the same as every other person.

8:58 pm  
Anonymous David said...

Earlier this week the Catholic Church in Spain also condemned the growing popularity of Halloween, saying it threatened to overshadow the Christian festival of All Saints' Day.

8:25 pm  
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1:43 pm  
Blogger Unknown said...

I like to get up early to go out and breathe fresh air. I feel that it is good for health and a good habit

5:04 pm  
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