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Joseph Ratzinger and Human Freedom

January 4, 2023


During a time of great change, Joseph Ratzinger entered the world. He was born in 1927 as Germany struggled to cope with its obligations set down in the Treaty of Versailles after the First World War. Resentment was growing toward minorities and other countries seen as complicit in Germany’s hardship. Nationalism was on the rise, as was a certain Adolf Hitler, who became chancellor of Germany in 1933, six years after Joseph Ratzinger was born. Central to the ideology of National Socialism was self-determination by will to power and the survival of the fittest. From a very young age, the future pope came to see how this exercise of absolute freedom by the strong and powerful leads to war and death. For him, there had to be an alternative to the use of freedom where the few decide for the many what is right and wrong and even who lives and who dies.

He found this alternative vision of human freedom in the Word of God. In 1981, as Archbishop of Munich, he gave four homilies on the creation narratives in the book of Genesis in his cathedral during Lent that year. In those homilies, he pointed to the nature of sin as a misuse of freedom when we try to usurp the place of God, who is the real arbitrator of good and evil and the source of life. In the fourth and last of these homilies, he warned about the consequences of pursuing freedom “without standards.” In a critique of modernity, he pointed out that any kind of prohibition or external constraints had come to be seen as “robbing human beings of their freedom and of the most precious things of life.” He continued: “It is then that they make the decision not to accept the limitations of their existence . . . not to be bound by the limitations imposed by good and evil or by morality in general . . . and that means in turn that the measure of human beings is what they can do and not what they are.”

He cautioned that when we reject the standards of good and evil, humans “do not free themselves but place themselves in opposition to the truth. And that means they are destroying themselves and the world.”

If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful, and great.

The context of these homilies is critically important. They were given only 36 years after the end of the Second World War, and his listeners would have been predominantly German. Very few would have missed the connection between his warnings about the abuse of freedom and the horrors of the war, still fresh in the national memory. Yet while his words were relevant in the context of Germany, they were perfectly consistent with the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, given sixteen years previous where Joseph Ratzinger was present as a theological advisor to the German bishops. On human freedom, Vatican II states:

Only in freedom can man direct himself toward goodness. Our contemporaries make much of this freedom and pursue it eagerly; and rightly to be sure. Often however they foster it perversely as a license for doing whatever pleases them, even if it is evil. . . . Since man’s freedom has been damaged by sin, only by the aid of God’s grace can he bring such a relationship with God into full flower.

Gaudium et Spes

Since those homilies in 1981, whether as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith or later as Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger was remarkably consistent in his teaching on the true nature of human freedom. Authentic freedom must be related to the truth revealed by God and be consistent with the good. In contrast, the aim of Nazism, Marxism, and other atheistic regimes is to achieve an unrestricted freedom that has everything at its disposal “and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires” (Homily of Cardinal Ratzinger on April 18, 2005, prior to the conclave and his election as pope).

This is the background to understand one of the key points of his inaugural homily as pope on April 24, 2005, in St Peter’s Square in Rome. In a tribute to his predecessor, John Paul II, the new pope recalled the words of John Paul’s first homily as pope back in 1978, urging people who desired to be free “not to be afraid” because faith in Christ and commitment to the Gospel are not the enemies of freedom but rather guarantee freedom. He then added his own teaching on human liberty:

Are we not perhaps all afraid in some way? If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? . . . No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation.

In other words, grace perfects our natural aspiration to be free. By grace, all the faculties of the human being are purified, transformed, and uplifted by divine love. Later in his pontificate, Pope Benedict clarified in his encyclical Spe Salvi that this friendship with Christ that guarantees our freedom is a gift that must be continually nurtured for “freedom is always fragile . . . Freedom must be constantly won over for the cause of good.” Like any relationship of trust, our friendship with the Lord must be nurtured through prayer and the sacraments where we encounter the Holy Spirit who safeguards our liberty for “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3:17).

Joseph Ratzinger lived through a time when he witnessed first hand the carnage caused by the abuse of human freedom. The horror of war in his early years certainly influenced his theology but not as much as the real source of his inspiration on the topic, which was the Word of God and the faith tradition of the Church. We have been created freely by God who endows us with the gift of freedom. While we might want to rid ourselves from any limitation to our freedom to achieve self-expression, God’s Word teaches that only freedom from false gods, attachments, and our own egos can leave us free for goodness, truth, and the beautiful life that God created us for.

Joseph Ratzinger invited us to see that real freedom is possible with God’s friendship and how together in the Church we can be a bulwark against an exercise of freedom that only disappoints and enslaves. As we mourn his passing, we thank God for the clarity of his thought on so many topics, especially the gift of true freedom that leads to justice, peace, and happiness.

May he forever rest in peace.