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Saturday, December 1, 2007

The Pope is a man who is electrified by ideas

Vox Nova Catholic perspectives on culture, society, and politics Home About the Contributors About Vox Nova Holding fast to what is true and good
I sometimes am asked by Vox Nova readers why Karl Marx is included in our blog banner given the atrocities committed by 20th century communist states. I tend to reply that there are many good ideas in Marx’s writings, and that not all of it must be jettisoned because “Marxism,” which is its own animal, has had a cold, bloody and unjust face. But, more importantly, Marx has so profoundly shaped our understanding of economics, politics and the alienation the individual feels within both that one can no longer “do” political theory without passing through Marx, for better or for worse, much like one can no longer “do” philosophy without first passing through Kant. They have fundamentally changed the way we “do” these crafts.
Pope Benedict XVI thinks along very similar lines, and he has displayed this in his new encyclical Spe Salvi. He draws upon the neo-Marxist school of thought known as Critical Theory, which has its roots in the revolutionary work of the Frankfurt School. When making a point about the need to critique modernity, which I myself attempted here a while back, he draws from the philosophical and political theory of those great Frankfurt thinkers, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. What the Pope shows is that we can take many good ideas from thinkers who we would otherwise discard as non- or a-religious, politically questionable (I think here especially of Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre), or whatever else we may believe about them. Hold fast to what is good and true!
Consider Spe Salvi 22 on the need for a critique of the idea of progress. Pope Benedict XVI draws from Adorno’s sober look at both the limits of modernity and the folly of uncritical trust in progress:

On this subject, all we can attempt here are a few brief observations. First we must ask ourselves: what does “progress” really mean; what does it promise and what does it not promise? In the nineteenth century, faith in progress was already subject to critique. In the twentieth century, Theodor W. Adorno formulated the problem of faith in progress quite drastically: he said that progress, seen accurately, is progress from the sling to the atom bomb. Now this is certainly an aspect of progress that must not be concealed. To put it another way: the ambiguity of progress becomes evident. Without doubt, it offers new possibilities for good, but it also opens up appalling possibilities for evil—possibilities that formerly did not exist. We have all witnessed the way in which progress, in the wrong hands, can become and has indeed become a terrifying progress in evil. If technical progress is not matched by corresponding progress in man’s ethical formation, in man’s inner growth (cf. Eph 3:16; 2 Cor 4:16), then it is not progress at all, but a threat for man and for the world.


Pope Benedict XVI displays a very discerning eye when he comments on Horkheimer’s critique of religion, holding to the latter’s criticism of atheism but abandoning, of course, the latter’s univocal concept of image in terms of a positive religion:
A world which has to create its own justice is a world without hope. No one and nothing can answer for centuries of suffering. No one and nothing can guarantee that the cynicism of power—whatever beguiling ideological mask it adopts—will cease to dominate the world. This is why the great thinkers of the Frankfurt School, Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, were equally critical of atheism and theism. Horkheimer radically excluded the possibility of ever finding a this-worldly substitute for God, while at the same time he rejected the image of a good and just God. In an extreme radicalization of the Old Testament prohibition of images, he speaks of a “longing for the totally Other” that remains inaccessible—a cry of yearning directed at world history. Adorno also firmly upheld this total rejection of images, which naturally meant the exclusion of any “image” of a loving God. On the other hand, he also constantly emphasized this “negative” dialectic and asserted that justice —true justice—would require a world “where not only present suffering would be wiped out, but also that which is irrevocably past would be undone.” This, would mean, however—to express it with positive and hence, for him, inadequate symbols—that there can be no justice without a resurrection of the dead. Yet this would have to involve “the resurrection of the flesh, something that is totally foreign to idealism and the realm of Absolute spirit.”
Christians likewise can and must constantly learn from the strict rejection of images that is contained in God’s first commandment (cf. Ex 20:4). The truth of negative theology was highlighted by the Fourth Lateran Council, which explicitly stated that however great the similarity that may be established between Creator and creature, the dissimilarity between them is always greater.32 In any case, for the believer the rejection of images cannot be carried so far that one ends up, as Horkheimer and Adorno would like, by saying “no” to both theses—theism and atheism. (42-43)
The Pope is a man who is electrified by ideas. Whether it be his use of Descartes, Nietzsche and Plato in Deus Caritas Est or his use of Kant, Adorno and Horkheimer in Spe Salvi, he demonstrates that ideas in themselves can be good and true despite how those ideas may have been implemented or lived out throughout modernity. Not all Catholics need to be intellectuals–God knows, we may need less!–but those who choose to go that route cannot miss the cue given by the Pope: the battle for faith and hope is taking place in response to, and in dialogue with, modernity.
A side thought: Who would have thought that there would be more citations of Adorno than St. Thomas Aquinas in an encyclical on hope?!? Wow.
This entry was posted on November 30, 2007 at 5:06 pm and is filed under Philosophy, Politics, Pope Benedict XVI, Vox Nova. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site. 7 Responses to “Holding fast to what is true and good”
radicalcatholicmom Says: November 30, 2007 at 5:46 pm
The first time I ever read Marx, I was blown away by him. I found I agreed with him on the problem, but did not quite agree with him on his solutions. But I found his voice echoed in Dorothy Day’s writings, too. Many people don’t think there is a problem so just agreeing on that point is half the battle.
Interesting. I will have to read the Pope’s latest work.
Katerina Ivanovna Says: November 30, 2007 at 6:09 pm
Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum also recognizes the truths contained in the concerns that brought about the communist approach, but obviously, he does not agree with the route its implementation took.
Truth is truth no matter where it comes from or who says it.
Zach Says: November 30, 2007 at 6:41 pm
RCM, if it’s possible to state concisely, could you describe “the problem” according to Karl Marx, and how/why you agreed with him?
Blackadder Says: November 30, 2007 at 7:41 pm
My experience with Marx was somewhat different. When I read the Manifesto in college, I was struck by a couple of things. The first was the Marx seemed to be much more motivated by hatred of the bourgeoisie than it was by concern for the poor and the downtrodden (hatred of the bourgeoisie is apparently a common phenomenon; Merton confesses that he harbored such a hatred in the Seven Storey Mountain, and that it was only reading the works of the Little Flower, that great bourgeois saint, that helped him get over it). It also seemed pretty clear that anyone who actually tried to put into practice the policies advocated by Marx in the Manifesto was bound to commit the sort of atrocities that have in fact been committed in every Communist country.
Later, a friend whose opinion I valued told me that while Marx’s economics were wrong, he had some good things to say about alienation. So I read his The Alienation of Labor, and was similarly unimpressed. One wants to say that something that has spoken to so many must have something to it, but if there is I can’t see it.
My feelings on the matter are expressed (better than I ever could in my own words) in the following article by Theodore Dalrymple entitled “How - and How Not - to Love Mankind”:
http://www.city-journal.org/html/11_3_urbanities-how_and_how_no.html
Policraticus Says: November 30, 2007 at 9:07 pm
I always felt that Marx’s (and Engel’s) Communist Manifesto was overrated and not a good guide to the philosophical and economic views of Marx. I think the early economic and political manuscripts (1840’s) and his Das Kapital are much better for gaining a grasp on what Marx was trying to do. With regard to alienation, alienation of labor is only one of his forms of alienation, and think his account of alienation from nature and from one another is very accurate.
Kyle R. Cupp Says: December 1, 2007 at 12:41 am
My first questions when I approach any philosopher (whether he is Aquinas or Marcuse, Derrida or Marx) are, what can I learn from him? What questions is he asking? What are his projects? What contributions does he make to knowledge?
Donald R. McClarey Says: December 1, 2007 at 1:17 am
Marx has a consistent record as an economic prognosticator: virtually every one of his predictions failed to come true. As an organizing force for most of the left in the 20th century he does have a claim to historical significance. I think this is the true central tenet of Marxism:
” Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions.’
The old bohemian was both wrong and right. Religion is not illusory, certainly not Judaism and Christianity. However Marx did help create an illusory substitute for religion: Marxism. His faith has never been the faith of the people. However, it has frequently been the faith of intellectuals of the Left alienated from their own societies. Fascists borrowed Marxian concepts, substituting the Nation and Race for Proletarians and Class. Marx gave to the World new faiths to fight and kill for. An amazing, albeit disastrous, achievement for a lazy, cranky, reading room revolutionary.
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