The Moral Imagination -  Michael Matheson Miller
The Moral Imagination
Ep.50 On Benedict XVI -Reason, Freedom, Beauty, and the Intellectual Sources of Secularism and the New Evangelization

Ep.50 On Benedict XVI -Reason, Freedom, Beauty, and the Intellectual Sources of Secularism and the New Evangelization

Pope Benedict XVI / Joseph Ratzinger passed away on December 31 at the age of 95 years old. His writing and teaching have been a major influence on my thinking. So in honor of his memory and gratitude for his example, this episode is a talk I gave on Pope Benedict XVI on Five Crises of Culture and the Intellectual sources of Secularism and the New Evangelization. I go through five intellectual themes/crises that Benedict identifies in the West “where the roots of Christianity are deep but who have experienced a serious crisis of faith due to secularization."

  • Truth and the Dictatorship of Relativism

  • Reason

  • Progress

  • Freedom

  • Beauty

I examine how he describes and explains the challenges of our age; how he addresses each of them on their own terms, and the proposes a Gospel response. One element of the crisis of faith is grounded in intellectual sources. We think, and too often live, like secularists and adopt often without thinking a secular framework. But secularism is not neutral. As Benedict argues, “We must develop and adult faith.”

An "adult" faith is not a faith that follows the trends of fashion and the latest novelty; a mature adult faith is deeply rooted in friendship with Christ. It is this friendship that opens us up to all that is good and gives us a criterion by which to distinguish the true from the false, and deceit from truth. We must develop this adult faith; we must guide the flock of Christ to this faith. And it is this faith - only faith - that creates unity and is fulfilled in love.”

In this talk I provide a lot of quotes and references. You can find show notes, links, and outline of the talk at


See the outline / handout of the talk below.

Also see Amazon links to books I refer to in the talk below. I also provide Amazon link to the encyclicals, but you can get all the encyclicals for free at

There a lot of books listed and if you are unsure where to start I would suggest you begin with the following:

  • Books: Jesus of Nazareth Vol 1, Milestones, and Last Testament

  • Collection of more complex essays: Values in a Time of Upheaval

  • Encyclicals Spe Salvi and Deus Caritas Est

  • Short Readings: Here are some links

Homily before the Conclave — “Dictatorship of Relativsm”

Regensberg Address — on the crisis of reason in the west

Cardinal Ratzinger on Europe’s Crisis of Culture at Subiaco

Benedict XVI Paris Lecture Meeting with Representatives from the World of Culture

Additional Links mentioned in talk

Roger Scruton: Beauty and Desecration  

Roger Scruton: Kitsch and the Modern Predicament 

I Grateful to Authenticum and Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish for the invitation to speak and for recording and providing me with the audio of this lecture. You can learn more about the Authenticum Lecture Series

 OUTLINE/HANDOUT Benedict XVI—Five Crises of Culture and the Intellectual sources of Secularism and the New Evangelization

Michael Matheson Miller

The New Evangelization

Re-Propose the Gospel "to those regions awaiting the first evangelization AND to those regions where the roots of Christianity are deep but who have experienced a serious crisis of faith due to secularization." Benedict XVI

 Theme:  Think Like Christians

Focus on Intellectual roots of secularization and the crisis of faith and the work of Benedict XVI We must not approach the social and political order in a purely secular manner.  Benedict is I think a model for new evangelization because he takes the situation of our current time on its own terms and then addresses it in light of reason and the Gospel.

Paul VI: Evangelii Nuntiandi

 "The conditions of the society in which we live oblige all of us therefore to revise methods, to seek by every means to study how we can bring the Christian message to modern man. For it is only in the Christian message that modern man can find the answer to his questions and the energy for his commitment of human solidarity."

John Paul II: Redemptoris Missio  

“I wish to invite the Church to renew her missionary commitment.” 

“…it is the primary service which the Church can render to every individual and to all humanity in the modern world, a world which has experienced marvelous achievements but which seems to have lost its sense of ultimate realities and of existence itself. "Christ the Redeemer," I wrote in my first encyclical, "fully reveals man to himself.... The person who wishes to understand himself thoroughly...must...draw near to Christ.... [The] Redemption that took place through the cross has definitively restored to man his dignity and given back meaning to his life in the world."

Benedict XVI

“Throughout the centuries, the Church has never ceased to proclaim the salvific mystery of the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, but today that same message needs renewed vigor to convince contemporary man, who is often distracted and insensitive…

“For this reason, the new evangelization must try to find ways of making the proclamation of salvation more effective; a proclamation without which personal existence remains contradictory and deprived of what is essential. Even for those who remain tied to their Christian roots, but who live the difficult relationship with modernity, it is important to realize that being Christian is not a type of clothing to wear in private or on special occasions, but is something living and all-encompassing, able to contain all that is good in modern life.” 

BXVI to Participants in the Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization

“We…have this mission: to encounter our contemporaries so as to make His love known to them. Not so much by teaching, never by judging, but by being travelling companions. Like the deacon Philip, who – the Acts of the Apostles tell us – stood up, set out, ran towards the Ethiopian people and, as a friend, sat down beside them, entering into dialogue with the man who had a great desire for God in the midst of many doubts” 

—Pope Francis: International Meeting  for Academic Centers and  Schools of New Evangelization

Five Crises of Culture and Key Themes in the Thought of Bendict XVI 

1.     Truth and the Dictatorship of Relativism

“How many winds of doctrine have we known in recent decades, how many ideological currents, how many ways of thinking. The small boat of the thought of many Christians has often been tossed about by these waves - flung from one extreme to another: from Marxism to liberalism, even to libertinism; from collectivism to radical individualism; from atheism to a vague religious mysticism; from agnosticism to syncretism and so forth. Every day new sects spring up, and what St Paul says about human deception and the trickery that strives to entice people into error (cf. Eph 4: 14) comes true.

“Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be "tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine", seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one's own ego and desires.”  

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Mass Pro Eligendo Romano Pontifice

After fall of Soviet Union relativism did not die but combined with desire for gratification to form a potent mix.  (CF to Augusto Del Noce on the shift from Christian Bourgeois to Pure Bourgeois)

Is Relativism Coherent?

  1. Denial of Truth is self-refuting

  2. Truth exists and is knowable

  3. But this does not mean we know it

  4. Relativism can be nothing other than a dictatorship

  5. Relativism leads to ideology

  6. St. Thomas Aquinas: Truth is conforming the mind to reality

  7. Josef Pieper: Seeing the World as it is and acting accordingly

Gospel Response -

In the homily where he speaks the Dictatorship of Relativism Benedict does not stop at intellectual refutation.  He responds with the person of Jesus.  He says:

“We, however, have a different goal: the Son of God, the true man. He is the measure of true humanism. An "adult" faith is not a faith that follows the trends of fashion and the latest novelty; a mature adult faith is deeply rooted in friendship with Christ. It is this friendship that opens us up to all that is good and gives us a criterion by which to distinguish the true from the false, and deceipt from truth.

We must develop this adult faith; we must guide the flock of Christ to this faith. And it is this faith - only faith - that creates unity and is fulfilled in love.”

            Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Mass Pro Eligendo Romano Pontifice

2. Reason

  1. Regensburg Address

  2. Crisis of Reason—which is a crisis of politics which is a crisis of humanity

  3. We have limited reason to the empirical

  4. This is incoherent on its own terms because one cannot verify this claim empirically

  5. Must expand reason beyond the empirical otherwise it is not rational

The problem goes beyond incoherence.  It leads to what C.S. Lewis has called “the abolition of man.”  Empiricist rationality takes all the fundamental human experiences – love, beauty, goodness, hope, mercy, forgiveness, compassion, and justice and relegates them outside the realm of reason. Love and justice then are no longer rational but pure emotion or chemical reactions.  

But this is false. In contrast we have what Lewis calls “reasonable emotions,” what Karol Wojtyla (St. John Paul II) calls “spiritual emotions” and what Dietrich von Hildebrand calls “intelligible spiritual affectivity.” Love is not simply raw emotion or chemical reaction. It includes that because we are embodied persons, but it also is reasonable. This is why the tradition defines love as an “act of the will” that “seeks the good of the other.”

“Critical Thinking” Exercise    (Thanks to Professor Mark Roberts for this insight)

__JS Bach was born in 1685

__JS Bach wrote beautiful music

__Pope Pius XII was the Bishop of Rome

__Pope Pius XII was a good Pope

__Bell Bottoms were popular in the 1970s

__Bell Bottoms are cool

__ ____________________________________

__ Murder is Bad…

And here we see the problems arise. First, the opposite of a fact is not an opinion. The opposite of a fact is a false proposition. Opinions are justified belief. Opinions could be classified as good or bad depending upon how reasonable they are. Opinions are true or false if they align with a true proposition. Second, as C.S. Lewis explains in The Abolition of Man, this type of exercise deforms our intellects and our moral sensibilities. He writes:

It is not a theory they put into his mind, but an assumption, which ten years hence, its origin forgotten and its presence unconscious, will condition him to take one side in a controversy which he has never recognized as a controversy at all.” 

“We make men without chests and expect from them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.”

“In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”  

Limiting reason to the empirical has disastrous impact on politics and justice. The end of politics is (or should be) justice – but justice is not empirical.  As Ratzinger explains:

“Politics is the realm of Reason, not of a merely technological, calculating reason, but of moral reason, since the goal of the state, and hence, the ultimate goal of politics, has a moral nature, namely peace and justice.”

  1. Limiting reason to the empirical relegates all questions about truth, beauty, goodness, justice, and morality to the realm of subjective opinion and emotion (Regensburg Address)

  2. Return to Plato’s Thrasymachus: Justice is merely the right of the stronger:

  3. Power equals truth—or in our situation it is power, efficiency or consensus equals truth.

“…the majority cannot be an ultimate principle since there are values that no majority is entitled to annul. It can never be right to kill innocent persons, and no power can make this legitimate.  Here too, what is ultimately at stake is the defense of reason.  Reason—that is moral reason—is above the majority.”  “Political Visions and Political Praxis” 

Gospel Response: Faith purifies and heals reason. Reason must be expanded and additionally purified by Faith and the Church’s teaching Faith can contribute to correct politics. It can “illuminate and heal” reason.  

In the last century…it was the testimony of the martyrs that limited the excess of power, thus making a decisive contribution to the convalescence of reason”

Joseph Ratzinger: To Change or to Preserve? Political Visions and Political Praxis

“Reason only becomes truly human when it is open to the saving forces of faith and if it looks beyond itself.”  

Spe Salvi 23

Progress and Eschatology

  1. Myth of Progress—the kingdom of heaven on earth.

o   Progress is good – we are called to complete creation. But we cannot be saved by progress

o   The problem is a “faith in progress” and a kingdom of man, not the kingdom of God.

o   Progress will lead, through new vision of reason, to total freedom.

o   Eric Voegelin: “Immanentization of the Eschaton” Trying to create heaven on earth

o   Real error is found in misunderstanding of nature of man.

o   Politics built on false concept of progress are illusory and ultimately deny human freedom and man himself

o   Progress unhinged from morality and the truth about man is dangerous.

o   No longer about what I ought to do, but simply what I can do

o   Modern concepts of Progress derive from limitation of reason and “new correlation between science and praxis.” 

“Now this “redemption”, the restoration of the lost “Paradise” is no longer expected from faith, but from the newly discovered link between science and praxis. It is not that faith is simply denied; rather it is displaced onto another level—that of purely private and other-worldly affairs—and at the same time it becomes somehow irrelevant for the world. This programmatic vision has determined the trajectory of modern times and it also shapes the present-day crisis of faith which is essentially a crisis of Christian hope. Thus hope too, in Bacon, acquires a new form. Now it is called: faith in progress. For Bacon, it is clear that the recent spate of discoveries and inventions is just the beginning; through the interplay of science and praxis, totally new discoveries will follow, a totally new world will emerge, the kingdom of man[16]. He even put forward a vision of foreseeable inventions—including the aeroplane and the submarine. As the ideology of progress developed further, joy at visible advances in human potential remained a continuing confirmation of faith in progress as such.” 

Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi paragraph 17

Response: Hope Tempers and Orders Progress

Reflect on the Last Things

1.     Politics is the realm of reason—and it is concerned with the present, not the future.

2.     But man is not merely oriented to the present—man is destined for eternal life with God—beyond politics.

3.     As Christians we must keep the last things in our view. Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell are real and death escapes no man. 

True Hope: In place of the myth of progress which enslaves we need a true understanding of Christian Hope--True hope can only be found in God  Spe Salvi # 27

A Proper Eschatology helps us avoid Utopianism

o   “A definitely ideal society presupposes the end of freedom”

o   The only person who could actually do this is God—and even he doesn’t do that:  God takes us seriously   cf Light of the World  

“Within this human history of ours the absolutely ideal situation will never exist and a perfected ordering of freedom will never be achieved… the myth of the liberated world of the future in which everything is different and everything will be good is false

We can only ever construct relative social orders which can only ever be relatively right and just.  Yet this very same closest possible approach to true right and justice is what we must strive to attain. Everything else, every eschatological  promise within history fails to liberate us, rather it disappoints and therefore enslaves us.   

Joseph Ratzinger: Truth and Tolerance  

“The right state of human affairs, the moral well-being of the world can never be guaranteed simply through structure alone, however good they may be.  What this means that every generation has the task of engaging anew in the arduous search for the right to order human affairs; this task is never simply completed.”

Spe Salvi

Politics has a place but as Christians we must remember that Politics is not the answer to our problems.

4.    Freedom

  •  Truth and Tolerance: Freedom is the dominant theme of modernity.

  • o   “Everybody wants to talk about freedom, but no one wants to talk about truth”

  • o   If we can question truth – we should be able to question freedom

  • Dominant idea: Nominalist concept of freedom severed from reason and truth.   “Diabolical Freedom”

  • “An irrational will is not a free will”

  • Freedom must be re-united to reason and oriented to truth

Response: Freedom is for Love

The purpose and end of freedom is love – to seek the good of the other in self-donation

Logos and Love

  • Christian Hope leads us to Love in the person of Christ—Logos and Agape

  • The purpose of Politics is peace and justice—and allowing the space for individuals and families to live out their freedom and responsibilities. 

  • Man is not redeemed by science or progress. Man is redeemed by love. 

Two themes have always accompanied me in my life…the theme of Christ and the living, present God, the God who loves us and heals us through suffering, and on the other hand, the theme of love…the key to Christianity. 

Light of the World

 “Love—caritas—will always prove necessary, even in the most just society. There is no ordering of the State so just that it can eliminate the need for a service of love. Whoever wants to eliminate love is preparing to eliminate man as such. There will always be suffering which cries out for consolation and help. There will always be loneliness. There will always be situations of material need where help in the form of concrete love of neighbour is indispensable”

Deus Caritas Est

5.    Beauty

 When Beauty is reduced merely to the subjective—merely in the eye of the beholder this undermines objective beauty.  This has profound effect on morality, politics, and liturgy.  It also takes the sublime insight that each person is unique and un-repeatable and has unique insight into a piece of art or a beautiful landscape and takes this sublime truth and turns it into the banal that everybody has his own opinion.

  • Beauty is separated from reason and truth and reduced to subjective opinion and expression

  • The crisis of beauty has led to the proliferation of ugliness, crassness, obscenity, pornography, violence, and disregard for children, women, and life itself. 

  • In response Benedict offers a Catholic understanding of beauty instantiated in the liturgy and sacraments.

“The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely, the saints the Church has produced and the art which as grown in her womb. Better witness is born to the Lord by the splendor of holiness and art…than by clever excuses which apologetics has come up with to justify the dark sides which, sadly, are so frequent in the Church’s human history.  If the Church is to continue to transform and humanize the world, how can she dispense with the beauty in her liturgies, that beauty which is so closely linked with the radiance of the resurrection?  No. Christians must not be too satisfied.  They must make their Church into a place where beauty—and hence truth—is at home.  Without this the world will become the first circle of Hell.”  Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger  

Truth         -         Jesus Christ

Reason             -          Faith

Progress           -          Hope

Freedom           -         Love

Beauty              - Worship and Liturgy 

Values in a Time of Upheaval

By Benedict XVI, Pope Emeritus

Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration

By Pope Benedict XVI

In the Beginning…': A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall (Ressourcement: Retrieval and Renewal in Catholic Thought (RRRCT))

By Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal, Ramsey, Boniface

Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millennium- An Interview With Peter Seewald

By Peter Seewald

Spe Salvi

By Benedict XVI

Caritas in Veritate (Love in Truth)

By Ratzinger, Joseph, Benedict XVI, Pope

A Sign of Contradiction

By Wojtyła, Karol

The Nuptial Mystery (Ressourcement: Retrieval & Renewal in Catholic Thought)

By Angelo Cardinal Scola

The Beauty of Holiness and The Holiness of Beauty

By Saward, John

Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions

By Ratzinger, Cardinal Joseph

Last Testament: In His Own Words

By XVI, Pope Benedict, Seewald, Peter

Light of the World: The Pope, The Church and the Signs Of The Times

By Benedict XVI, Pope Emeritus, Seewald, Peter

Introduction To Christianity (2nd Edition)

By Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI

The Spirit of the Liturgy: Commemorative Edition

By Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Romano Guardini

The Abolition of Man

By Lewis, C. S.

That Hideous Strength (Space Trilogy, Book 3)

By Lewis, C.S.

Deus Caritas Est

By Pope Benedict XVI

The Soul of The Apostolate

The Moral Imagination -  Michael Matheson Miller
The Moral Imagination
Welcome to the Moral Imagination Podcast.
The overarching theme of my podcast is what it means to be a human person and what makes for a meaningful and good life.
We will discuss philosophy of the human person, culture, religion, social philosophy, and many other related topics, like education, learning, economics, food, technology, artificial intelligence, and intellectual history. My goal is to interact with ideas and people whose work I find challenging, and intellectually and socially important.