More Wisdom from Pope Benedict XVI: On Freedom, Autonomy, and Love

Following on from yesterday’s post, in which I quoted from another of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s interviews with Peter Seewald, I would like to share another extract from those discussions. This time it is a much more extended reflection, but worth quoting (almost) in full, as Pope Benedict analyses with great precision one of the central problems of our age – rejection of authority and the assertion of abstract individual ‘rights’ and liberty over and against the claims of the other. By uncovering the depth of this problem, he is then able to relate it to the Christian ideal of renunciation and self-giving love, and thereby highlights just how perfect a cure for our selfishness this ideal is:

In today’s world view, the ideas of autonomy and of anti-authoritarianism, if we can put it like that, have become extremely dominant. As dominant as what we were talking about, namely, the concept of power. The two terms become the only category that really counts in our social life. The consequences, however, are evident: if the autonomous subject has the last word, then its desires are simply unlimited. It then wants to snatch as much from life as it can get out of it. This is, I think, really a very major problem of life today. People say: Life is basically complicated and short; I want to get as much out of it as possible, and no one has the right to stand in my way. Before all else I have to be able to seize my piece of life, to fulfil myself, and no one has the right to interfere with me. Anyone who would stand in my way is an enemy of my very self…

…This claim to be the ultimate and sole authority over oneself, and the claim to have the right to appropriate as much of life as possible, while no one has the right to stand in his way, is part and parcel of the sense of life on offer to man today. In this sense, the “Thou shalt not” – there are normative criteria to which we must submit – is an encroachment, indeed, an outright attack against which people defend themselves. Ultimately, what is once more at issue is the basic question of questions: How does man find happiness? How does he live rightly? Is it true that man can be happy only if he himself is his own norm?

Not long ago I mentioned in a conversation with friends that here in the area around Frascati they are preparing to prune the grapevines and that they bear fruit only if they are pruned once a year, that pruning is a condition of fruitfulness. In the light of the Gospel, of John 15, that’s immediately clear to us as a parable of human existence and of the communion of the Church. If the courage to prune is lacking, only leaves still grow. Applied to the Church: there is only paper, whereas no more life is brought forth. But let’s say it with the words of Christ, who tells us: At the very moment when you think you have to possess yourself and defend yourself, precisely then you ruin yourself. Because you are not built as an island whose only foundation is itself. Rather, you are built for love, and therefore for giving, for renunciation, for the pruning of yourself. Only if you give yourself, if you lose yourself, as Christ puts it, will you be able to live.

This basic option has to stand out in all its starkness. It is offered to man’s freedom. But it should still really be made plain that to live by making one’s own claims is a false recipe for life. The refusal of suffering and the refusal of creatureliness, hence, of being held to a standard, is ultimately the refusal of love itself, and that ruins man. For it is precisely his submitting to a claim and allowing himself to be pruned that enables him to mature and bear fruit…

…Somewhere deep down man knows: I have to be challenged, and I have to learn to form myself according to a higher standard and to give myself and lose myself.

Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millenium (1997), pp.167-168, Ignatius Press.

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