I don’t know if Ratzinger and Reagan ever met, though there’s a chance they did during one of Reagan’s visits to the Vatican to meet with Pope John Paul II, especially his first and most prominent visit, in June 1982.
Beginning then, Reagan got to know John Paul II well and admired him greatly. The two forged a friendship, a partnership, and even found a notable degree of spiritual harmony, despite their theological differences as a Protestant and Catholic.
In truth, those differences were not vast. Ronald Reagan was not only remarkably pro-Catholic, but also strikingly Catholic in much of his thinking. I recently published a book called the 11 Principles of a Reagan Conservative. It’s eye-opening to see how Catholic those Reagan principles are.
Indeed, I wasn’t terribly surprised when, one day, I was examining the small bookshelf at Reagan’s beloved ranch in the Santa Ynez Mountains and found a 1982 book titled The Family in the Modern World—edited by Carl Anderson and William Gribbin—a symposium on John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio.
The compilation included essays by well-known Catholic academics/intellectuals such as James Hitchcock of St. Louis University and Jesuit Father James Schall of Georgetown, as well as Polish and Italian scholars such as Andrzej Poltawski and Cardinal Carlo Caffarra, among others.
Cardinal Caffarra was (at the time) the director of the John Paul II Institute on the Family at the Lateran University in Rome. The essays carried titles such as “Catholic Thought and Family Policy: John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio,” “Person and Family in the Thought of Karol Wojtyla” and “Marriage and Family in the Thought of Karol Wojtyla.”
That book was among the limited collection at that small ranch house, where Ronald Reagan spent many hours of his presidency and where Reagan spent his nights reading and writing.
Reagan spent some 360 days of his presidency at the ranch, near that book. It seems safe to say that Reagan was at least familiar with the thoughts on the family expressed in those pages.
That brings me to my focus here: an interesting Reagan-Ratzinger connection that I only recently came upon.
The 1982 book on Familiaris Consortio was not the only Reagan connection to a pope through the pages of a book. Also in 1982, about two weeks after his Vatican meeting with John Paul II, Reagan composed a statement from the White House that became the foreword to an intriguing-but-forgotten book titled The Intellectuals Speak Out About God: A Handbook for the Christian Student in a Secular Society, a collection of 25 chapters/essays by leading philosophers, theologians and scientists making the case for faith and against atheism.
The volume featured an impressive array of Protestants and Catholics, from evangelicals like William Craig, Norman Geisler and Josh McDowell to Catholics such as Peter Kreeft, Ralph McInerny and Paul Vitz, not to mention Thomas Howard, the then-renowned C.S. Lewis scholar who was on his way from evangelicalism to Catholicism (he converted during the Easter vigil in 1985).
That a sitting president would pause to compose a foreword for such a book is notable enough, but consider what followed Reagan’s foreword: Immediately thereafter was a “Message From the Vatican,” written by the prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine for the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI and John Paul II’s ultimate successor.
That book was ultimately published in 1984, 30 years ago, by Regnery Gateway, which was then based in Chicago. I don’t know how well the book did in its day, but it isn’t remembered today, so much so that even the very best Reagan and Ratzinger scholars are probably unaware that the two men ever joined forces to kick off a book together. The contributions by both men are worth contemplating today.
Cardinal Ratzinger’s words were timeless. After commending the “great scientists” that had contributed essays to the volume (Robert Jastrow, Henry Margenau, Sir John Eccles and others), the future pope wrote:
“I think … that the existence of God is not only a matter of faith; it is really reasonable too, because an objective reason exists in the world which is visible to the natural sciences, which signifies the presence of a creative idea and which is also a permanent demonstration of creative reason.”
In classic Ratzinger prose, he added: “I think that the natural sciences are possible only because in all things reason is present and a reason which is much greater than ours. I would say that explanations purely in terms of evolution are unreasonable.”
Cardinal Ratzinger closed his short statement with an ecumenical call upon all Christians of all traditions to defend their common Christian heritage.
Reagan’s statement was likewise brief, but it was even more relevant to what is happening in America today. Reagan noted that America was going through a difficult time economically, just as it had been when he was a college student during the Great Depression. “But,” stated Reagan, “I believe that our nation is in the grip of another crisis that is ultimately far more serious—an era of moral decline.”
The 40th president listed some examples of that decline. “Through every public medium available,” he wrote, “our young people are bombarded daily with assaults on the fundamental values which shaped and sustained this nation.”
From television to books and newspapers to movies, there were sustained attacks on “the ethics and moral values we have been taught to cherish,” he wrote.
What would Reagan think about America today, 30 years later, where those attacks are even worse? How would he advise us as Christians, today, in dealing with those attacks? He might have advised us in 2014 just as he advised us in 1984:
“Great courage is needed to live a Christian life in today’s society,” said Reagan. “We know that only God can give us the courage and the guidance we so badly need. Challenges to faith today are legion, and you may find yourself faced with choices that another generation could not have imagined—and the right choice will not always be the popular choice.”
Those words are painfully prophetic. I was starting college in 1984. There were indeed challenges to the Christian faith then, but, today, there are challenges that I and other Christians in 1984 truly could not have imagined—and the right choice in response to those challenges is not the popular choice. Imagine a Christian college student today who dares to stand up for biblical-natural marriage or against government-mandated contraception.
It’s difficult to have hope today. But Ronald Reagan had that as well.
“I am convinced, however, that hope is the essence of belief,” wrote Reagan in his foreword. “The struggle to maintain the faith is arduous, but life’s storms are over at the last, and faith finds the strong ship at anchor in a calm sea. We must always remember that we are created in God’s image, that we will never be abandoned if we seek our solace and optimism in trust and in prayer.”
Amen to that. Cardinal Ratzinger, later as Pope Benedict, wrote eloquently on hope as well. He wrote an encyclical on the very subject of being “Saved in Hope.”
“Redemption,” he wrote in Spe Salvi, “is offered to us in the sense that we have been given hope, trustworthy hope, by virtue of which we can face our present.”
And hope, as G.K. Chesterton said, is about having hope when things seem hopeless.
That’s where we are today, in 2014. We need hope, even when hope seems so hopeless. To that end, 30 years ago, Cardinal Ratzinger and Ronald Reagan teamed up with some words of wisdom worth remembering right now.