Culture of Death

Culture of Death August 22, 2018

In her introduction to Ratzinger’s Faith, Tracey Rowland contrasts the emphases of John Paul II and those of Benedict XVI with regard to what each called the “culture of death.” Though neither is a dualist, John Paul focused more on the destruction of bodies while Benedict called attention to the destruction of souls:

“John Paul II was focused on practices which completely destroy the human body or at least undermine its dignity through a severance of the good from the true, while Ratzinger has focused on practices which diminish the possibilities of the soul or the self, for its own transcendence. The marketing of vulgar art, music, and literature and the generation of a very low, even barbaric, mass culture is seen by Ratzinger to be one of the serious pathologies of contemporary western culture” (9).

To put it otherwise, John Paul was concerned with the crisis of the true and the good. Ratzinger, more Balthasarian, worried over the crisis of the beautiful.

For Ratzinger, this crisis had penetrated into the liturgy itself, in what he saw as the decay of church music: “The movement of spiritualization in creation is understood properly as bringing creation into the mode of being of the Holy Spirit and its consequent transformation, exemplified in the crucified and resurrected Christ. In this sense, the taking up of music into the liturgy must be its taking up into the Spirit, a transformation which implies both death and resurrection” (quoted 132).

He rejected the notion that church music was to be judged by purely pragmatic standards – i.e., does it affect worshipers in a healthy way. Part of his critique, though, was that “utilitarian” standards of church music ultimately make music useless:

“A Church which only makes use of ‘utility’ music has fallen for what is, in fact, useless. She too becomes ineffectual. For her mission is a far higher one . . . The Church must not settle down with what is merely comfortable and serviceable at the parish level; she must arouse the voice of the cosmos and, by glorifying the Creator, elicit the glory of the cosmos itself, making it also glorious, beautiful, habitable and beloved. Next to the saints, the art which the Church has produced is the only real ‘apologia’ for her history” (133).

For Benedict, this concern is not tangential to the central mission of the church. On the contrary, “The Church is to transform, improve, ‘humanize’ the world—but how can she do that if at the same time she turns her back on beauty, which is so closely allied to love? For together, beauty and love form the true consolation in this world, bringing it as near as possible to the world of the resurrection. The Church must maintain high standards; she must be a place where beauty can be at home; she must lead the struggle for that ‘spiritualisation’ without which the world becomes the ‘first circle of hell’” (quoted 133).

Neglect of beauty is, for Benedict, as much a reflection of the modern culture of death as abortion.

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