As endless headlines postulate about the Las Vegas shooter’s possible “motive,” many people are asking deeper questions about the largest public massacre in American history: What is wrong with our culture and what are we called to do about it? I think Elizabeth Scalia was correct in a Facebook comment last week: “Ultimately, this goes to something within the human heart itself.”
I just happened to begin reading a book by Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) last week that nails with eerie prophetic accuracy a core problem we are facing today: a sense of despair that St. Thomas Aquinas referred to as the “sorrow of the world”—the same worldly grief that St. Paul concludes produces death (2 Cor. 7:10).
In The Yes of Jesus Christ: Spiritual Exercises in Faith, Hope and Love, Ratzinger’s words, given as a retreat in 1989, blaze with insight about the sorrow of the world. This sorrow, he explains, is rooted in modern man’s losing sight of his “own real greatness” and in his “incapability” of believing in the divine call on his life, which is to love and be loved by God.
According to Ratzinger, we are suffering today from an acute deprivation of belief in and experience of the love of God, which calls us to human greatness. Whereas authentic Christian hope sees the world through the lens of “certainty that I shall receive that great love that is indestructible and that I am already loved with this love here and now” (Ratzinger, 69,70), despair grows out of ceasing to know and believe that we are loved by a God of unbounded goodness who calls each of us to the exalted vocation of divine intimacy and eternal life.
Such despair, which is all too pervasive in today’s world, leads to “a persistent morbid search for the new as a substitute for the loss of the inexhaustible surprise of divine love.” (Ratzinger 78) In the context of the Las Vegas killing spree, Stephen Paddock’s act of outrageous violence was a pitiful and perverted counterfeit of that which all human beings truly seek: the thrill of finding “the inexhaustible surprise of divine love.”
In Ratzinger’s words:
The deepest root of this sorrow is the lack of any great hope and the unattainability of any great love …in this way the truth becomes ever more tangible that the sorrow of the world leads to death … the ghastly business of playing with power and violence, that is still exciting enough to create an appearance of satisfaction. (Ratzinger, 73)
A life without belief in transcendent love leads to despair and ultimately death, which man will take into his own hands to lord over as a god. When despair begins to reign over the human heart, man will increasingly settle for what Ratzinger aptly calls “monstrous surrogates” for love: power and violence that give him a taste of temporary gratification, even as they fail miserably to satisfy his hunger for the infinite. In the end, man will either allow love to transform him or he will transfer his despair onto others through increasingly violent measures that falsely empower him. Paddock is case in point.
While Ratzinger’s diagnosis of our culture is scarily accurate and stark, he does offer what he calls “the way to healing.” He states that only the courage to rediscover and accept the divine dimension of our being can give our souls and our society a new inner stability once again. (Ratzinger, 78)
How will this rediscovery take place? It will happen through “men and women who have listened to God and come into direct contact with God; through men and women for whom God has become an actual experience and who as it were know him first hand.” (Ratzinger, 26)
In other words, it will happen through the convincing witness of those who have encountered God personally and then become living proof that there is a God; living proof that the God we have experienced is indeed a God of limitless love who continually exclaims to every one us: it is good that you exist!
In short, “the rediscovery of the divine dimension of our being” will happen through God’s grace working through you and me. The New Evangelization of the Church and the world begins with our unadulterated “yes” to love in union with the “stronger and greater Yes” of Jesus Christ—the Yes that has the power to transform all of the evil of the world into an offering of love.