Benedict: The Last 20th Century Man: UPDATED


It seems almost silly to say I am bringing coverage of Benedict XVI’s extraordinary sojourn in America to a close (actually, my final final thoughts are here) because the truth is I will likely be reading all of his addresses more closely and bringing them up in coming weeks, but the wall-to-wall writing will end here. I do want, though, to end with a thought that blipped through my head when Benedict was in DC, and again as he addressed the United Nations.

Benedict XVI is the last man of the 20th century to walk the global stage. He saw tyranny overtake his country and the minds and imaginations of his countrymen, as well as his own liberty. He watched the cold war play out and worked closely with one of the destructors of that system. That he viewed all of these things through the lens of faith and mystery means that his perspective is not only singular, it is supernatural, as well.

Before we knew him as Benedict, while he was still Joseph Ratzinger, he was telling us what he knew, but between his “rottweiller” caricature and all the religious wrappings, we missed it:

“…the population of an entirely planned and controlled world are going to be inexpressibly lonely … and they will then discover the little community of believers as something quite new. As a hope that is there for them, as the answer they have secretly always been asking for.” [emphasis mine - admin] — (from God and the World)

He knows. Listen to this 20th century man who sees what comes ahead because he vividly remembers all that came before – all that we want to believe we’ve left behind. He recognizes the tyrant because he has seen it, has felt its breath on his very neck. And in that statement, he acknowledges for us that the tyrant this time will eat up liberty so thoroughly that only in the spirit will freedom be found, nourished and strengthened. A totalitarian world without a spiritual defense will be unsurvivable.

Someone asked me why I did not write about Bill Maher’s standard-issue hate words about Benedict – timed to coincide with his visit and thus garner Maher the most attention.

I did not comment on Maher because it seemed pointless to; every word he speaks about Benedict proclaims himself, and his own lonely creed of atheism.

Bill Maher is a 21st century man; a fervent atheist, as fierce in his secular faith as the holiest of rollers. When I consider that line by then-Cardinal Ratzinger…”the population of an entirely planned and controlled world are going to be inexpressibly lonely…” I think Maher is already living there in that cold place, where one may lunch with the cool kids who hold court in the lunchroom, but then go home to a solitary room, hoping in nothing beyond their still-deigning to like you tomorrow.

Atheism may be the burgeoning movement, but that’s only because atheism is so easy. It requires nothing more of you than your willingness to cultivate cynicism, which is the laziest thing to grow. It lives of a piece with Benedict’s “dictatorship of relativism” and his counsel that

“relativism…does not recognize anything as definitive [its] ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.

…An “adult” faith is not a faith that follows the trends of fashion and the latest novelty; a mature adult faith is deeply rooted in friendship with Christ. It is this friendship that opens us up to all that is good and gives us a criterion by which to distinguish the true from the false, and deceipt from truth.

Relativism is a growth-stunter. When nothing matters and you answer for nothing, you’re living the life of a child, and a nation of children cannot survive for very long. Relativism-embracing Europe is dying for that reason, because growing up and parenting others is not just difficult, it is selfless; in relationships one is answerable to another.

In Christ we have a relationship, and Jesus calls us on it. We are answerable to Him, and (insofar as he has promised it) he to us.

Benedict knows this, just as he knew that sex scandals and bishops – including himself – must be called on and made answerable by and to the faithful, who in turn have their own responsibilities and relationships to maintain. This is hard stuff, not easy; it requires the cultivation of faith and trust, not cynicism. It requires the difficult, painful work of looking at things one would rather not, and asking forgiveness and trying to heal and rebuild. If we do that work, we can – eventually – look each other in the face, standing free and independent, living honorably together, in truth, and with no need to hide. We’ll be able to withstand the vagaries of life with hope, and joy and real peace.

Relativism is a game of hide-and-seek. Benedict XVI is calling out, “olly-olly-ox-in-free.” He’s saying “let’s get everyone out from the shadows” including the church itself.

That is the work of adult faith and if we now continue in this vein, we will be strengthened; we will grow; we will survive and be ready to face that cold, lonely “planned and controlled” world, and to ultimately defeat it. We begin again, as we mean to continue.

UPDATE: Just finishing my thought: Benedict is only a man – with all that coverage you might wonder if I have forgotten that, but I have not. He is a man, trying to shepherd the 21st Century, with the wisdom gleaned in the last century, the most deadly century. Actually, he is the last active soldier of the greatest generation, still standing, still fighting, and he will, I think, cast a giant shadow

Linking to this piece, Brian Saint-Paul at Inside Catholic makes a very insightful observation:

21st century man has skipped the last 100 years entirely. That’s why he can continue to parrot the parlour atheism of the 19th century without the 20th century’s sad lesson on where such things lead.

Beautifully said.


If you’ve enjoyed the coverage here, I hope you’ll consider supporting the site either through the donation buttons or by buying the Benedict Books You Know You Crave through Amazon via this site, or by purchasing some of the (I promise you) absolutely splendid coffee from the Mystic Monks (see right sidebar) whose Dark Roast, Columbian and Hazelnut coffees are the smoothest and most delicious coffees I’ve ever had. I hate to rattle the tin cup, but – you know…sigh.

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Sissy Willis

    I think I’ll order some of that coffee and sip it in one of my Pope Benedict XVI Teddy Bear Mugs.

    Your pope blogging has been an inspiration. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  • Viola Jaynes

    Dear Anchoress, I’ve really enjoyed you covering on Pope XVI and he had so many, many good things to say.

    I’ve read not too long ago from one of my favorite spiritual teachers that Atheism is really a form of naivete. I think you were right, it would have been pointless to counter Bill Maher. He will have to come to terms with his belief (atheism is still a believe) on this own terms, in his own time.

    Thank you again for your writing and I look forward to reading much more as you take a closer look in what the Pope had to say. We are living in very precarious times and it will be the body believers that must stand strong.

  • Peregrine John

    I recently re-read A Wind in the Door by Madeline L’Engle. The problems with the farandolae not wanting to Deepen is a very direct analogy to the infantile relativism we are plagued with today (and apparently since before she wrote the book). The little creatures could not comprehend giving up apparent freedom to gain more freedom than they could imagine, and preferred to destroy their elders than risk maturing. It all sounds so familiar.

    She says it all so much better than I can, of course. I do recommend the series.

  • Sigmund Carl and Alfred

    If Bill Maher knew as much about the Church and how it works as he does about comedy, he would nort have made his ridiculous remarks.

    A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.

    The Church is not a corporation that sells a product. Rather, the Church is an idea- one that has had enormous influence.

    There have been rebellious priests and bishop and renegade nun and deacons. Expression is not stifled in the church. In fact, the church is a great model of tolerance. You have to go a long way before you are booted out.

    If Maher believes the Church to be the ‘Bear Stearns’ of child abuse, I would call the Department of Education the Citibank of child molestation. After all, don’t schools follow the dictates of the federal government for educational standards?

    The notion isn’t so far fetched.
    Start here:,2933,124269,00.html

  • Foothillcurmudgeon

    Erasmus, a 16th Century theologian and contemporary of Martin Luther, said, “To be condemned by evil men is, as it were, to be praised.”
    Said nearly 400 years ago, it applies to folks like Bill Maher, today.

  • kellyjf1

    So well said about Maher and his ilk. The loneliness and the laziness of atheism. Wow! I hadn’t thought in those terms but I will now. My anger at the Maher, Hitchens and Dawkins has been replaced with sorrow. Thanks Anchoress!

  • Joe Odegaard

    I would like to read more of the article from which the quote “the population of an entirely planned and controlled world are going to be inexpressibly lonely ” is taken. Where can I find that?

    I will check back later…


  • TheAnchoress

    Joe, the quote is from a book-length interview w/ then Cardinal Ratzinger, entitled God and the World. Hows’ that for a broad and vast subject? An excerpt:

    Many years ago, you made a prophetic statement about the Church of the future: ‘The Church,’ you said at that time, ‘will become small, and will to a great
    extent have to start over again. But after a time of testing, an internalized and simplified Church will radiate great power and influence; for the population of an entirely planned and controlled world are going to be inexpressibly lonely…and they will then
    discover the little community of believers as something quite new – as a hope that is there for them, as the answer they have secretly always been asking for.’ It looks as though you are going to be right about this. But how are things going to develop in Europe?

    Ratzinger/Benedict XVI:
    First of all: Is the Church really going to get smaller? When I said that, I was reproached from all sides for pessimism. And nowadays nothing seems less tolerated than what people call pessimism – and which is often in fact just realism. Meanwhile, most people admit that at the present stage of things in Europe the number of baptized Christians is simply dwindling. In a city like Magdeburg, only 8 percent of the people are still Christians – and mark you, that’s all kinds of Christians, put together. Such statistical findings show the existence of trends that are indisputable. In that sense, the extent to which church and society are seen as synonymous in some cultural areas, with us in Germany, for instance, will diminish. We simply have to face up to this.

    What does that mean?

    The traditional Church can be very lovely, but this is not something necessary. The Church of the first three centuries was a small church and nevertheless was not a sectarian community. On the contrary, she was not partitioned off; rather, she saw herself as responsible for the poor, for the sick, for everyone. All those who sought a faith in one God, who sought a promise, found their place in her.

    The synagogue, Judaism in the Roman Empire, had surrounded itself with this circle of ‘God-fearers,’ who were affiliated with it and thereby achieved a great opening up. The catechumenate of the early Church was very similar. Here people who didn’t feel able to identify with Christianity completely could, as it were, attach themselves to the Church, so as to see whether they would take the step of joining her.
    This consciousness of not being a closed club, but of always being open to everyone and everything, is an inseparable part of the Church. And it is precisely with the shrinking of Christian congregations we
    are experiencing that we shall have to consider looking for openness along the lines of such types of affiliation, of being able to associate oneself.

    …We will have to accept losses, but we will always remain an open Church. The Church can never be a closed and self-sufficient group. We will have to be missionaries, above all in the sense that we keep
    before the eyes of society those values that ought to form its conscience, values that are the basis of its political existence and of a truly human community.

    In that sense, the struggle for what the traditional Church used to be – and what she will continue to be in certain countries and will yet become in others – will certainly go on. The Church will have to intervene in the law-making process and to keep before people’s eyes the great and unchanging human elements that go to build up the society of men. For if law no longer has any common moral basis, then it is no longer valid as law.

    -God and the World

  • Joe Odegaard

    Thank you Anchoress. Wow I have a busy day but I will try to post some thoughts upon reading the above, tonight when I’ve finished all the work of today.

  • Joe Odegaard

    Hi Again. (4:00 am) Further thoughts — I have felt for a while that the low birth rate will be one of the things that will cause an immense loneliness to descend, especially in Europe. My wife and I have friends in Italy, and almost none of them have children & they are getting older. & Here in the USA, well my mom died last year, & we 8 children were a great comfort to her and now we have each other. But our friends in Europe? it will be a lonesome time …

    And I remember some thoughts from the book “The Formation of Christendom” (I will find the author later & post the quote here) that after the high Middle Ages, there was a collapse of sorts, and humanity began to rebuild, socially as it were, with the Renaissance, but the goals were lower.

    More later