“Benedict XVI was clearly the cause of the reorientation of my career,” philosopher Denis Moreau told I.MEDIA during a recent visit to Rome. The French philosopher, known for his works on the relationship between faith and reason, published a book in French, Resurrections, on March 18, 2022, in which he discusses the Resurrection of Christ in the light of the crises, mourning, and rebounds that each of us may experience in our lives.
When did you first feel a bond with Benedict XVI?
Moreau: I was invited to a congress of European academics organized at the Vatican in 2007, on the theme of humanism in Europe. There were about 15 of us French participants, among a total of 300 or 400 people. I was “wide-eyed” at the wonders of Rome, and at the very high-level personalities who were participating in this congress, such as Leszek Kolakowski (1927-2009, Polish philosopher specializing in the critique of Marxism, Ed.).
I, lost in my provincial university, thought that I would have nothing to talk about, and I was very surprised to have been invited! I ended up finding out that the Vatican had consulted an elderly monk from Fontgombault to identify the “important” personalities in Christian thought in France. It turned out that he had read a translation of St. Thomas Aquinas that I had published a few years earlier, and so he had mentioned my name as if I were “important,” which was not true at all!
But when he received us, Benedict XVI made it clear that he was counting on us, the academics, to defend Christianity, and that we had to dare to step forward. On the plane back home, I told myself I had received a wink from divine Providence, and I started to write a first page on Salvation. Benedict XVI was clearly responsible for the reorientation of my career. I was writing (…) on the thought of Descartes, for example, and then I launched myself into Christian apologetics, with books like How can you be Catholic? which reached a wider public.
Do you define yourself today as a “Ratzingerian” intellectual?
Moreau: I could define myself as a “left-wing Ratzingerian,” if that category makes sense! I was nourished by the texts of Benedict XVI, his homilies, his Regensburg speech, his Bernardins speech, and Deus Caritas est, which is an extraordinary encyclical.
What I liked a lot during Benedict XVI’s pontificate was his clarity as a German intellectual, but also his way of always looking for what was good in the theses with which he did not agree. In the face of opposing thoughts, he always sought to identify an interesting point that could form a basis for discussion. This is a very beautiful and rare attitude, a model of intellectual charity.
What I liked a lot during Benedict XVI’s pontificate was his clarity as a German intellectual, but also his way of always looking for what was good in the theses with which he did not agree. In the face of opposing thoughts, he always sought to identify an interesting point that could form a basis for discussion.
Contrary to the image attributed to him, he had a form of open-mindedness, by his way of taking up residence on the opponent’s ground, rather than denigrating him. I was able to advise a student to quote Spe Salvi for a thesis on Theodor Adorno (1903-1969, a German philosopher, Ed.), because Benedict XVI, in his encyclical, referred to this thinker.
The encyclical Faith and Reason of John Paul II also bears the mark of Joseph Ratzinger. When I closed that encyclical, I said to myself that I was lucky to be “Catholic,” and to be encouraged, as a philosopher, by the Vatican. It’s a pleasure to read expressions like “philosophy is one of the most important activities of humanity!”
Currently, under the pontificate of Pope Francis, the role of sensitivity and image seems to be more often emphasized than intellectual debates. Are you nostalgic for the previous pontificate?
Moreau: No, I am not nostalgic because I have a very strong conviction: “there are many dwellings in the Father’s house.” The pontificate of Benedict XVI was a feast for the spirit, but perhaps it was also a pontificate for academics … So when Benedict XVI stepped down, I was very sad, but at the same time, when Francis was elected, I said to myself that this change in style was necessary.
Pope Francis may not have the same philosophical density, but he should not be underestimated. For example, he often uses expressions such as “time is superior to space.” At first sight, this may seem superficial, but if you think about it, it’s very profound. It means that all thought must be part of a process, not given immediately.
His style is very flowery, metaphorical, with repetitive aspects but also highlights. Amoris Laetitia, for example, is a very beautiful text. For me as a married man, this reflection on the joy of love speaks to me.
I notice that in my group of friends from my youth, almost all are divorced. The divorce that goes well and during which everyone laughs only exists in Netflix series. In reality, there are many situations of psychological and material misery, especially for women who are alone after a separation. The social cost of divorce is enormous and underestimated. Pope Francis is very aware of this, and in a context of great pessimism, even distress, especially for many young people, he is right to put joy back at the center.
And I don’t like conflict, I try to take things in good humor. So I was happy to read that in Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis speaks of a sense of humor as a distinctive trait of holiness! Joy and a sense of humor are essential notions in philosophy.
In the academic world, does being a well-known Christian philosopher get you into trouble?
Moreau: Sometimes my colleagues don’t pay any attention to me in the cafeteria! But in reality, I’ve never felt that it has hindered my career. Anti-Christianity is much more pronounced in other disciplines—for example, biology or literature—but in the discipline I teach, philosophy, we talk about God.
There is a complicity that has been established between Christianity and philosophy: the intellectual specificity of Christianity is the marriage of a Semitic source, the Bible, and a Greek source, philosophy. It was not a foregone conclusion, but it worked. My atheist colleagues spent their time studying Christian philosophers, who they know were not fools: St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, but also Kant, Descartes, Pascal …
My books are the fruit of my research work, and therefore I’m paid by the Republic to translate St. Thomas Aquinas. In the program of the preparation to teach philosophy, one can find St. Augustine, Blaise Pascal … In France, many Catholics feel a little persecuted, but it’s not my case.
Does your latest book, Resurrections, aim to put the theme of redemption back at the center of contemporary thought?
Moreau: Rather than the category of “redemption,” I prefer to focus on the question of “salvation.” It’s a doorway into Christianity, whereas the word “redemption” translates a theology of redemptive suffering (…) which I find repulsive. It is also found in Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ.
But you can’t escape the cross, and it’s not just a Catholic slogan. To know someone intimately is to get to know their crosses. One does not go through life without suffering. It is not to be sought for its own sake, but the question is to know how to get through it, how to survive. Christianity is in this sense a powerful metaphysical construction, to obtain happiness, through the idea of Paradise.
But the Pascalian wager of betting everything on the other life is not attractive. We must dare to present Christianity as a Christian answer to the question of the “good life,” for today, as the Greek philosophers asked it. And I think that a Christian must first of all be benevolent. Christians are not necessarily better than others in their relationship with others, but they must be benevolent.
Is the Christian message first to show that suffering does not have the last word, that there is something else beyond it, a perspective of renewed life?
Moreau: Indeed, life is a series of Easters and resurrections. A believer suffering depression can also cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!” For a Christian, being struck by misfortune is a mystery, but the horizon of the Resurrection gives us the conviction that the forces of death and destruction will not have the last word.
This does not solve all problems, but it helps us to survive, to get back up from breakups with friends and lovers, from health problems, from the various bereavements that strike us. It’s not a question of seeking suffering but of knowing how to face it, for example by making a “good use of illnesses,” as Blaise Pascal wrote.
Christianity must not be reduced to a simple morality, but the Christian message, with its key point which is the Resurrection, with the idea that death does not have the last word, is a strong idea that can help us through catastrophes.