A few days ago, CNN launched a four-part documentary on “The Most Powerful Man in History” Surprisingly, this man turned out to be Pope Francis.
CNN is a one-sided left-leaning network with remorseless “breaking news”, most often with endless material critical of President Trump. Why has it seen fit to eulogize the Papacy? Is it merely that the present Pope is an interesting figure? Or is there more to it?
Perhaps the remaining instalments in the series will ask whether the Catholic Church, long considered the last bastion of the stability of principle in the public order, can change and become reconciled with and a promoter of “modernity”.
What might this reconciliation entail for CNN? Basically, a change in the tradition whereby certain basic elements that were long held to be unchangeable can now be reformed. So the series title, “the most powerful man in history”, could be ironic. In that case, it would mean that the source of the Church’s power is no longer recognized by it.
Or, CNN could mean that one man has proven his power by accepting fully the tenets of relativist modernity. This “small” change could be effected if the “greatest man in history” were to accept the doctrine that no objective order can be found in nature. This change would mean that the Church could conform to modern times just as Christ conformed to His time – in CNN’s view.
Principles do not abide over time in the modernist scheme of things. Mercy and compassion are more important than stability. They overcome the strictures and rigidity of universal principles. So the CNN tag line could mean that the Catholic Church is on the brink of accepting the principles of the modern world. This change has already been effected in most other Christian denominations. In political terms, this change would recognize the replacement of principle with power. Henceforth, the power of the state would decide theological issues.
What Ratzinger had to say
In a Munich newspaper on the last day of 1977, over 40 years ago now, Joseph Ratzinger – later to become Benedict XVI -- asked this question: “How can we distinguish unjust power from justice and the lawful power of justice?” He continued: “The core of the answer lies in a very simple and basic fact, a very ancient insight…(namely,) the end never justifies the means. What is wrong in itself continues to be wrong, however noble the end to which it is directed.” These words go back at least to Socrates and Christ, to the foundations of our culture. It is an issue on which every generation must take a position.
Essentially, we are confronted by the fact that some things are “wrong in themselves”. Their wrongness does not change even if their formulation is transferred into articles of public law and widely practiced and enforced. The violation of what is “wrong in itself” will always have personal and societal consequences. Yet the “wrongness” does not arise from the consequences. Rather, the consequences flow from the violation of the principle, from the objective disorder in the act.
These dire consequences, moreover, are evidently not limited to this life. Indeed, as Plato saw, it often happens that evil is not punished in this world. This fact is why he thought the world has to be considered unjust unless a transcendent judgment of human lives after death took place.
In the history of thought, three objections to the view that some things were wrong in themselves have emerged.
One was the Muslim view that all reality depends directly on the will of Allah. Allah is himself bound by no limit of reason. Such a restriction would presumably limit his absolute power. Power becomes principle. Thus, it was legitimate to do whatever Allah commanded, even if it was said to be evil. What made something good or evil was only Allah’s will, which always could, with equal justice, be its opposite.
The Machiavellian view was similar and based in the same voluntarism that recognized no limit of reason on the will. The Prince would be much freer, more at liberty, if he were able to do evil as well as good acts in the pursuit of his goal. His new power enabled him to carry out his principle more thoroughly and efficiently.
The third view is simply to deny, however slim the evidence, any order in nature that allows for distinctions between good and evil as existing in things themselves. The events of nature, it is claimed, have no intelligent cause. Everything is relative to everything else.
Modernity, relativism and gnosticism
Since Ratzinger’s words were first written, our culture no longer generally maintains the view that anything can be “wrong in itself”—except perhaps the view that something is wrong in itself. Truth is said to be bound by time and place. What is true at one time can be false at another time. What is valid in one place may be forbidden in another.
Ratzinger in 1977 presumed that such a thing as human nature did exist. It remained unchanged over time and space. He held, in other words, that what-it-is-to-be-a-human-being does not change when manifested in embodied persons. Beings that are conceived to be so malleable that no common standards are found among them have nothing in common but their uncommonness.
Moreover, if we conceive that no history of ours has any importance in our lives, it follows that the future is likewise empty. An empty future would indicate a future capable of being filled only with our own imaginings, now transformed into ideas, gadgets, and technology designed to allow us to modify our very being. We have no standard by which to measure ourselves.
Historically, this kind of thought was called “Gnosticism". That is, the world is not filled with reason and revelation of what reality, including man and God, is. Rather, the world is to be filled with our own power, subject to no distinctions of good and evil.
Thus, the CNN documentary may prove to be a thought-provoking reminder of what is at stake when we talk too loosely about “the greatest man in history”. Pope Francis, or any Pope for that matter, cannot change what is right and what is wrong.
The Gospel of John begins with the words: ‘In the beginning was the Word ...” And this “Word” came to dwell amongst us. This “Word” is depicted not as “power” but as logos. In the end, the great issue is whether we see in history “Word” or “Power”. It makes a difference, even on television.
Rev. James V. Schall SJ taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. He is the author of numerous books. His latest was published last month, The Universe We Think In.