The Power of Reason: Benedict XVI and the Classics

Mateusz Stróżyński

On the morning of 11 February 2013, Pope Benedict XVI (1927–2022), born as Joseph Ratzinger, resigned from the papacy after nearly eight years in the Petrine office. There were only two historical precedents for this act; both took place in the midst of severe crises in the Church.[1] The papacy of Benedict XVI was also marked by scandals in the Church (the long-standing sexual abuse scandal being the most conspicuous); there was speculation that his resignation could have been caused by this, or even by some conspiracy against him. The reason he himself gave that February morning was his declining health; indeed, he was 78 when he became Pope – the oldest man to have been elected in the two-millenium history of the office. As with the two previous papal resignations, opponents of the Pope’s successor Francis used Benedict’s resignation to claim that Benedict remained the true Pope.

Benedict announced his dramatic decision in Latin. There would have been nothing odd about this in 1294, or in 1415, when his predecessors declared their resignation in that language, but in 2013 the world was already a Latinless place. If you want to make something go “viral” across the globe, you post it in English, on Twitter or Facebook, or somewhere else on social media.

Pope Benedict XVI on the papal throne (2011).

Benedict spoke Latin to the assembled group of cardinals. Official Vatican documents are still published in Latin, but they are also published in modern languages. Since the reforms following the Second Vatican Council (1962–5), Latin has remained the sacred and official language of the Roman Catholic Church, both in theory and according to Church law, but in practice its use has drastically diminished, both administratively and in the prayer life of the Church. And yet Benedict was the first Pope since the Second Vatican Council explicitly to defend the use of traditional, ancient Latin rituals in Catholic liturgy, beginning with his Apostolic Exhortation entitled Sacramentum Caritatis (22February 2007).[2]

He was also the first Pope ever to tweet, and he chose to do that in Latin, writingUnitati christifidelium integre studentes quid iubet Dominus? Orare semper, iustitiam factitare, amare probitatem, humiles secum ambulare,” that is, “What does the Lord command those who seriously strive for the case of the unity of the Christian faithful? Pray always, practise justice, love honesty, and walk with Him in humility.” Latin was loaded with meaning for Benedict XVI.

Latin inscription on the ‘Vatican Obelisk’, brought to Rome from Egypt by Caligula in AD 37; moved to St Peter’s Square in 1586 by Pope Sixtus V. The text means “Christ conquers, Christ reigns, Christ rules; may Christ defend His people from all evil.”

When he announced his resignation in Latin, no translation was provided for the cardinals. They needed to understand Latin, at least at some rudimentary level, to grasp the momentous decision that had just been communicated to them. And they did. The Dean of the College of Cardinals, Angelo Sodano, came to the pulpit and expressed his bewilderment, while the room remained completely silent. The first journalist to break the story of the resignation was Giovanna Chirri, who watched the meeting on closed-circuit TV. She could understand the meaning of Benedict’s announcement because she had studied Latin in high school. She immediately called her editors to tell them about the resignation.

Again, the significance of the fact that Benedict used Latin, not Italian, is hard to underestimate. From his last book-long interview with Peter Seewald, we learn not only that he wrote his resignation statement just two weeks before the day he announced it, but that he composed it in Latin. When asked by Seewald why he chose this language, he replied: “Because you do something so important in Latin. Furthermore, Latin is the language that I’ve so mastered that I can write in it properly. I could have written it in Italian, but with the danger that there would be a couple of mistakes in it.”[3] Not only did he invoke centuries of European history and the history of the Church: he also suggested that the most important material should be communicated in Latin, even if hardly anyone understands that language today.

In the interview, Benedict recalled the time when he was fourteen and used to translate Church texts from Greek and Latin – “more for fun than anything else”, he said.[4] A couple of years later, shortly before the end of the war, when he was taken into custody by American soldiers, the young Ratzinger was distracting himself by composing Greek verse in his notepad.

Detail of the head of St Benedict of Nursia from a fresco in the Covento di San Marco, Florence, Fra’ Angelico, 1441.

Benedict’s very papal name referenced Saint Benedict of Nursia (AD 480–548), a Roman noble, who had been educated in Classical culture, but then became disillusioned with it and pursued a life of spiritual exercises instead. He founded the famous Monte Cassino monastery, and wrote a set of regulations in Latin, the Regula Sancti Benedicti (Rule of Saint Benedict) to govern the monks living there. This community of ‘Benedictines’ grew to become the most popular of the medieval monastic orders. Latin manuscripts that were copied by Benedictine monks helped ensure the survival of the Classical tradition after the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century.

St Benedict is considered the patron saint of Europe. Joseph Ratzinger thus wanted to emphasize that the roots of contemporary Europe reach back to antiquity: Classical culture, the Roman Empire, Christianity, and, of course, Latin. This emphasis on themeta continuity of the Latin-speaking European tradition can be seen also in Benedict’s publications, both in his official documents – which include his three major encyclicals (Deus caritas est (God is love) of 2005; Spe salvi (We are saved by hope) of 2007; Caritas in veritate (Love in truth) of 2009 – and in his more personal meditation on the life of Christ, the Jesus of Nazareth trilogy of books (2007–12). By the 1980s, Ratzinger was considered one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century, long before he became Pope. He has been often depicted as the “intellectual” pope, especially in contrast with the extroverted style of his predecessor, St John Paul II.

The importance of reason as something which can be shared by believers and non-believers alike was one of the most important principles that Benedict XVI tried to uphold throughout his life. He based his views on the ancient philosophical concept of ‘Cosmic Reason’ or, in Greek, logos (λόγος). Classical Greek culture of the 5th and 4th centuries BC was based on the claim that logos (understood as encompassing both speech and reason) was fundamental to human flourishing. Aristotle (384–322 BC), in the first book of his Politics, famously defines man as a “political (or social) animal” (πολιτικὸν ζῷον, politikon zōon). Thereafter he immediately explains why we are able to live together in harmony: “And why man is a political animal in a greater measure than any bee or any gregarious animal is clear. For nature, as we declare, does nothing without purpose; and man alone of the animals possesses logos.”[5]

Aristotle with a bust of Homer, Rembrandt, 1653 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA).

Stoic philosophers believed that Logos is God or Nature, the very rational structure of the universe, in which all humans, whatever their sex, race, or social status, enjoy an equal share, since our minds all share in this Cosmic Reason. Marcus Aurelius (AD 121–80) begins the second book of his Meditations with the claim that we should treat others as brothers, because we have a share in the same mind, and we are a “portion” (ἀπόμοιρα, apomoira) of the divine nature. This Greek philosophical concept of Cosmic Reason appears, mysteriously, in the Prologue to the Gospel of John (AD c.90), which declares that Cosmic Logos or Reason, through which everything was created, and which is the light which enlightens everyone coming into this world, became flesh in order to give us the power to become the sons of God (Jn 1:1–18). Because of this, Christians from the beginning have believed in a rational God and a rational world: after all, God Himself is Reason. This view appears also in the writings of Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 BC–AD c.50), a Hellenized Jewish author who exercised great influence on the Church Fathers.

In fact, Fr Joseph Ratzinger had been one of the most prominent progressive theologians during the Second Vatican Council. But, as early as 1967, he was publicly criticising the overly liberalising tendencies of the post-conciliar reformers.[6] He not only engaged with sophisticated theological issues, he also commented on contemporary cultural phenomena, as in his 2004 public debate in Munich with Jürgen Habermas (born 1929), an eminent left-wing German philosopher,[7] or in his 2006 lecture at the University of Regensburg.[8] In both cases, he argued that rational discourse should be the ground for a dialogue between Christianity and opposing worldviews, including humanistic secularism (in the case of the Habermas debate) and Islam. Habermas was more than happy to use the common language of reason. Sadly, Pope Benedict’s proposals in the Regensburg Lecture were misrepresented, which led in some countries, not to rational debate, but street riots, the fire-bombing and vandalism of churches, threats against Christian communities in the Middle East and the abduction and murder of at least one priest.

Benedict XVI when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; the philosopher Jürgen Habermas.

In his first encyclical, Deus caritas est, Benedict XVI wrote: “The ancient world had dimly perceived that man’s real food – what truly nourishes him as man – is ultimately the Logos, eternal wisdom: this same Logos now truly becomes food for us – as love.”[9] And in the last part of his Jesus of Nazareth trilogy, entitled The Infancy Narratives, we read: “It was in [Jesus] that the Logos, the creative logic behind all things, entered the world. The eternal Logos became man.”[10]

The Magi (or ‘Three Wise Men’) who, according to the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew (Mt 2:1–12), came to worship the newborn Jesus, represent for Benedict the universal and natural impulse of human nature to look for the truth through reason. They remind Christians of the fact that “religious and philosophical wisdom is obviously an incentive to set off in the right direction, it is the wisdom that ultimately leads people to Christ.”[11] To Benedict’s mind, a figure who resembles the Magi in his unrelenting, rational quest for the truth is Socrates (469–399 BC) who, just like the Three Wise Men, represents in our culture the act of “questioning above and beyond conventional religion toward the higher truth”.[12]

Adoration of the Magi, Gentile da Fabriano, 1423 (Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy).

In his second encyclical, Spe salvi, Benedict invoked an ancient, forgotten image of Christ the philosopher:

Towards the end of the third century, on the sarcophagus of a child in Rome, we find for the first time, in the context of the resurrection of Lazarus, the figure of Christ as the true philosopher, holding the Gospel in one hand and the philosopher’s travelling staff in the other. With his staff, he conquers death; the Gospel brings the truth that itinerant philosophers had searched for in vain. In this image, which then became a common feature of sarcophagus art for a long time, we see clearly what both educated and simple people found in Christ: he tells us who man truly is and what a man must do in order to be truly human. He shows us the way, and this way is the truth. He himself is both the way and the truth, and therefore he is also the life which all of us are seeking. He also shows us the way beyond death; only someone able to do this is a true teacher of life.[13]

For Benedict XVI, Jesus Christ as the true Incarnation of Reason can be approached on two levels, a theoretical and a practical one, according to the ancient claim that philosophy was not merely the way to understand the world, but also to live a happy and good life. First, as he claims in the first part of his Jesus of Nazareth, the Incarnation of Logos is a transformation of the world:

The world is now seen as something rational: it emerges from eternal reason, and this creative reason is the only true power over the world and in the world. Faith in the one God is the only thing that truly liberates the world and makes it “rational”. When faith is absent, the world only appears to be more rational. In reality the indeterminable powers of chance now claim their due.[14]

Second, Benedict XVI viewed Christianity as a practical philosophy, much like Stoicism, which has again become very popular today. Christ, on that 3rd-century sarcophagus, was depicted as a philosopher, because “the philosopher was someone who knew how to teach the essential art: the art of being authentically human – the art of living and dying.”[15]

Zeno of Citium (c. 334272 BC), founder of the Stoic school, as depicted in Thomas Stanley’s History of Philosophy, 1655–61).

Despite the 19th-century myth that secular humanism defends rationality against the “irrational superstitions” of Christianity, Christianity in fact has Reason at its very centre, just like Greek philosophy. By contrast, modern “rationalism” has flung open the door to welcome the hostility towards reason and rational debate that we often observe nowadays. Ratzinger embodied the ancient view of Christian intellectuals, that it is entirely misguided and simple-minded to accept Christianity as 100% right but simultaneously regard all other religions and philosophies as 100% wrong. Rather, Ratzinger argued that Christianity expresses the same ultimate truth that can be found in other philosophies and religions, but without their mistakes and imperfections. Furthermore, it enjoys the fullness of the salvific power emanating from the incarnated Logos.

Benedict XVI makes all this clear in his reference to the famous letter of Pope Saint Gregory the Great (AD 540–604) to an Anglo-Saxon king of Kent, Aethelbert (c. 550–616), in which the Pope forbids the king to destroy Pagan temples, advising him instead simply to remove images of the Pagan gods from them. After this “purification” of the shrines, it will prove advisable to carry on with traditional Pagan customs whilst giving them new, Christian meaning. The Pagan gods are no longer ‘gods’, now that true Reason has become flesh; at the same time, however, this Reason has revealed the truth about them, and shown how those ancient ‘gods’ are merely a weak reflection or a premonition of the true God.[16] 

Aethelbert of Kent in a stained-glass window (mid-15th century) originally in the Old Library of All Souls College, Oxford, but now located in the College Chapel.

Another such example is Benedict XVI’s use of the allegorical interpretation of the fruit of the sycamore tree that can be found in St Basil the Great’s (AD 330–79) Commentary on Isaiah.[17] The biblical sycamore (ficus sycomorus) is a species of fig tree that easily produces an abundance of fruits, as St Basil notes (πολυφορώτατον καρπῶν, poluphorōtaton karpōn), but its fruits are not very sweet. That is why the sycamore needs a process whereby the fruit is punctured days before being gathered, to help with the ripening process.

St Basil claims that this is precisely what Christianity does with Pagan religion, and indeed with the whole of Classical Greco-Roman culture. It doesn’t just “burn it down”; instead it strives to transform it all in order to make it even more beneficial. The means to transform Pagan, Classical culture into something truly ‘sweet’, in the eyes of St Basil – and of Benedict XVI who quotes him, is once more the power of reason, or logos.[18]

The sycamore fig.

In such a spirit, Benedict XVI speaks of Plato’s Gorgias (c. 380 BC), claiming that the vision of the fate of the soul after death, as described by Socrates,[19] “expresses a premonition of just judgment that in many respects remains true and salutary for Christians too.”[20] Also, the Pope points out that Plato’s view that we gain immortality by contemplating the eternal Ideas is essentially identical to Christian doctrine, with the significant difference that the eternal world of the Platonic Ideas has become flesh in the person of Jesus, who is the Truth.[21] Benedict XVI also refers to Plato’s Symposium (c. 380 BC) in his encyclical about love, Deus caritas est. There he embraces the fundamental Platonic intuition that the natural power of ἔρως (erōs), or love, ultimately attracts everyone to God as the highest Beauty and Good.

Another “premonition” is Plato’s description of the suffering and death of the perfectly just man (described in the Republic 2.361e–362a). Plato was probably thinking of his teacher, Socrates, when he wrote that a perfectly just man “will have to endure the lash, the rack, chains, the branding-iron in his eyes, and finally, after every extremity of suffering, he will be crucified, and so will learn his lesson that not to be but to seem just is what we ought to desire.”[22] 

Also in the famous Myth of the Cave, in Republic Book 7, Plato points out (again, having Socrates in mind) that if someone, moved by pity for the condition of the prisoners in the cave, tried to liberate them from their shadowy underground captivity, they would not be grateful but would surely kill him.[23] Many Christians saw in those statements a prophecy about Christ; Benedict XVI seemed to share this view. He even claimed that the image of mocking divine Wisdom, which can be found in the Book of Wisdom (Wis 2:10–20), might have been directly influenced by Plato’s Republic.[24] And the Book of Wisdom is considered by Catholics to have been inspired by the Holy Spirit.

The beginning of Vergil’s Eclogues in a 15th-century manuscript (Vatican, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Vat. Pal. lat. 1632, f.3r, c.1473).

Furthermore, Benedict XVI followed some ancient Christian authors in his belief that the Fourth Eclogue by the Roman poet Vergil (70–19 BC) features a prophecy of the birth of Christ. In this poem, Vergil describes the coming of the Golden Age, associated with the birth of a divine child (Latin puer) from a virgin (Latin virgo):

ultima Cumaei venit iam carminis aetas;
magnus ab integro saeclorm nascitur ordo:
iam redit et Virgo, redeunt Saturnia regna;
iam nova progenies caelo demittitur alto.
tu modo nascenti puero, quo ferrea primum
desinet ac toto surget gens aurea mundo,
casta fave, Lucina: tuus iam regnat Apollo.

Now the last age by Cumae’s Sibyl sung
has come and gone, and the majestic roll
of circling centuries begins anew:
justice[25] returns, returns old Saturn’s reign,
with a new breed of men sent down from heaven.
Only do thou, at the boy’s birth in whom
the iron shall cease, the golden race arise.
befriend him, chaste Lucina; ’tis thine own
Apollo reigns.

(Eclogues 4.4–10, tr. J.B. Greenough)

For Ratzinger, this can be seen as a “possible intuition of the mystery of the virgin birth”, which is followed by “the birth of a new great world order from that which is ‘undefiled’ (ab integro)”.[26] In the Pope’s eyes, both Greek philosophy and Pagan myths are not merely the “lies of the poets”, as the Greeks and Romans themselves often called them,[27] but “dreams of hope” – “silent and confused dreams of a new beginning,”[28] which finally came true in the birth of Jesus. In this, he is curiously close to the views of the Oxford Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and O. Barfield.

Addison’s Walk, Magdalen College, Oxford.

The conversion of Lewis to Christianity (which took place after a long talk with Tolkien on Addison’s Walk in Magdalen College on 19 September 1931) was essentially his recognition that Pagan myths are not merely beautiful lies. Tolkien argued that they are true in the sense that they are symbolic expressions of the one Truth. And he managed to persuade Lewis that what happened in Bethlehem was really “prophesied” by Plato and Vergil: “myth became fact.”[29]

Mateusz Stróżyński is a Classicist, philosopher, psychologist, and psychotherapist, working as Associate Professor in the Institute of Classical Philology at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland. He is interested in ancient philosophy, especially the Platonic tradition. 

Further Reading

T. Rowland, Ratzinger’s Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI (Oxford UP, 2008).

M. Stróżyński, “Classical culture and European identity: pagan antiquity in the writings of Pope Benedict XVI,” Classica Cracoviensia 17 (2014) 171–88.


1 On 5 July 1294, Peter of Morrone, a pious ascetic, was elected Pope Celestine V after two years of impasse. The radical branch of the Franciscan order believed he was to be a Papa Angelicus, an “angelic Pope”, foretold by apocalyptic writings of the time, who would cleanse the Church of its worldliness and sin. But Celestine V wasn’t interested in the administrative work involved. After a couple of months in office, he declared at the beginning of Advent that he was entering his yearly silent retreat for Advent, to the dismay of the officials of the Roman curia. When he was told that he couldn’t really do that as Pope, Celestine resigned, on 13 December 1294. The second resignation, over a hundred years later, ended the so-called Great Western Schism, a scandalous period in the history of the mediaeval Church (1378–1417), during which there were two, and later even three, competing claimants to the Petrine office. In 1414, an ecumenical council was convoked in the German city of Constance (Konstanz) in order to deal with the crisis. Two of the three popes, Gregory XII and John XXIII, agreed to resign, while Benedict XIII refused to do so, fleeing to the protection of the King of Aragon. Despite the election of Pope Martin V, he continued to claim to be Pope until his death in 1423.
2 See, for example, section 62 of this Apostolic Exhortation: “In order to express more clearly the unity and universality of the Church, I wish to endorse the proposal made by the Synod of Bishops, in harmony with the directives of the Second Vatican Council that, with the exception of the readings, the homily and the prayer of the faithful, it is fitting that such liturgies be celebrated in Latin. Similarly, the better-known prayers of the Church’s tradition should be recited in Latin and, if possible, selections of Gregorian chant should be sung. Speaking more generally, I ask that future priests, from their time in the seminary, receive the preparation needed to understand and to celebrate Mass in Latin, and also to use Latin texts and execute Gregorian chant; nor should we forget that the faithful can be taught to recite the more common prayers in Latin, and also to sing parts of the liturgy to Gregorian chant.”
3 Benedict XVI, Last Testament: In His Own Words (tr. J. Philips, Bloomsbury, London, 2016) 17.
4 Ibid., 54.
5 Politics, I.1253a, tr. H. Rackham.
6 Pope Benedict’s three major books on the Second Vatican Council reward close study. Theological Highlights of Vatican II (1966) is the work of a radical reformer; The Ratzinger Report: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church (with Vittorio Messori, 1985) provides sober re-evaluation; and the rueful recollections in Milestones: Memoirs 1927–1977 (1998) given by Cardinal Ratzinger, as he then was, show just how far his thinking developed.
7 J. Ratzinger & J. Habermas, Dialectics of Secularization. On Reason and Religion (tr. B. McNeil, Ignatius, San Francisco, CA, 2006).
8 A scholarly edition of this lecture appeared later, with extensive commentary by the late Fr James Schall SJ (St Augustine’s Press, South Bend, IN, 2007).
9 Deus caritas est, §13. The English text can be found here.
10 J. Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives (tr. P.J. Whitmore, Bloomsbury, London, 2012) 63.
11 Ibid., 93.
12 Ibid., 95–6.
13 Spe salvi, §6, available in English here.
14 J. Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth. From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration (tr. A.J. Walker, Bloomsbury, London, 2007) 173–4.
15 Ibid.
16 See further his Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions (tr. H. Taylor, Ignatius, San Francisco, CA, 2004).
17 See further his On the Way to Jesus Christ (tr. M.J. Miller, Ignatius, San Francisco, CA, 2005).
18 The phrase is διὰ τοῦ λόγοῦ (dia tou logou) in St Basil’s Greek, which occurs at In Is. 9.228 = Patrologia Graeca 30, 516D–517A.
19 Plato Gorgias 525a–526c.
20 Spe salvi, §44.
21 J. Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth, Part Two, Holy Week: from the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection (tr. the Vatican Secretariat of State, Ignatius, San Francisco, CA, 2011) 84.
22 361e (tr. P. Shorey).
23 Republic 7.517a.
24 Jesus of Nazareth, Part Two (as n.22) 209–10.
25 In the Latin this is literally “virgin” (Virgo).
26 Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives (as n.10) 54.
27 The proverbial phrase πολλὰ ψεύδονται ἀοιδοί (polla pseudontai aoidoi, “many a lie poets tell”) first appears in Aristotle’s Metaphysics (I.983a).
28 Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives (as n.26) 54.
29 “Myth Became Fact” is the title of Lewis’ 1944 essay, republished in God in the Dock (Grand Rapids, MI, 1970) 54–60. As it happens, this is the very phrase used, long before Tolkien’s argument with Lewis on Addison’s Walk, by another close friend of Lewis, Owen Barfield, in their private debate in the 1920s – a dispute which Lewis called their “Great War”. Barfield, in turn, had found the idea in a work by the German theosophist Rudolph Steiner, Das Christentum als mystische Tatsache und die Mysterien des Altertums (Basel, 1902; Eng. Trans., London, 1914).