In the past decades, we have seen plenty of evidence on the streets and squares of our cities of how pacifism can be perverted into a destructive anarchism or, indeed, into terrorism. The political moralism of the 1970s, the roots of which are far from dead, was a moralism that succeeded in fascinating even young people who were full of ideals.
But it was a moralism that took the wrong direction, since it lacked the serenity born of rationality; in the last analysis, it attached a higher value to the political utopia than to the dignity of the individual, and it showed itself capable of despising man in the name of great objectives.
Joseph Ratzinger, Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures
Reflection – I can’t exactly write my usual Saturday post on ‘this week in Madonna House’ for the simple reason that I was away all week and have no idea what happened around here. So I thought I would do a little throwback to the original blog format, dedicated to exploring the writings of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI. I still firmly believe him to be one of the greatest if not the greatest theologians of the 20th century, and his writings deserve a wide audience.
Ratzinger lived through the waves of extremist politics and violence that gripped Europe in the late 60s and 70s—the generation of the soixante-huitards were his university students, and he had ample opportunity to study the phenomenon at close quarters.
This is a great question of our time, the perversion of idealism into terrorism, and it is one we all have to grapple with. There have been numerous examples in the media in recent months of ‘good, normal boys’ who have been radicalized and become servants of the violent apocalyptic agenda of ISIS. There is a real need to account for how this group, which to most people seems frankly insane, can attract at least some young men, not even Muslim to begin with, to itself.
There are those who would say, “Who cares? If they’re with the terrorists, let’s kill them!” Others would say, “You see! It proves that religion is inherently dangerous! End religion and the problem goes away.” Others are… well, just perplexed by it all.
I would argue, as Ratzinger does here, that the problem is not religion or high ideals, but religion and ideals not moderated by reason and solid first principles. And this is precisely what we have failed to give our children, dating back to at least my own childhood, but certainly more so in the subsequent decades.
The human person is inherently idealistic, and I would argue that there is no demographic more in need of, and hungry for, real idealism than the young human male. Young men need a vision of life to which they can commit their youthful energy and drive, lest it be directed to destructive and wasteful channels.
We have not given young men this vision of life; we have given them video games and internet filth. And we are then baffled when at least some of the young men who are not satisfied with this diet of distraction and debauchery are easy prey for the violent ideologues of the Middle East.
The solution is not to stamp out the idealism of the human person, but to provide an idealism that both extends to the heights of heaven (and so meets the need for transcendence that is embedded in our souls) and yet is intensely humanistic, intensely committed to the irreducible value of the human person. We need to present a vision of life that is inherently heroic, but that calls forth a heroism that is essentially non-violent, directed at all times towards the care of the individual.
My own firm conviction is that Catholic Christianity does provide ample heroic scope for life, setting forth the essential call to love as Christ loves us, to be servants of the kingdom of love in this world and to lay down one’s life for the sake of that kingdom. At the same time, Catholicism has a rich intellectual tradition that undergirds and supports its heroic visionary core, and a mystical heart—the sacramental life of the Church—that is accessible to all and makes this heroic scope of life possible for everyone, not just for the privileged elite few.
We cannot fight bad religion with no religion, bad ideals with no ideals, radicalism with nihilism. The remedy for the new wave of political and religious terrorism in our times is not to stuff everyone with lots of goodies and diversions, but to present an alternative that is compelling and beautiful.
Come to think of it, that is exactly what happened ‘this week at Madonna House’, and every week at MH for that matter. That’s exactly what our whole mandate and mission is here—to shine forth the radiant vision of life and love that the Gospel of Jesus Christ has given us, and that the Person of Jesus Christ has sustained in us by his grace. That’s what we do here; that’s why MH exists.
So… come one, come all, especially come all you young people seeking to find and deepen and live a vision of life that is worthy of your greatness. There is such a vision, and it flows from the heart of Jesus Christ eternally to the world and to every human being alive in it.