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Read Pope Benedict XVI’s Musings on Frankfurt School Theory

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If you thought Critical Theory — the neo-Marxist philosophy of social criticism developed by the Frankfurt School in the 1930’s — is only for aging lefto-pinko radicals, verbose art gallery press releases, and confused liberal arts students, think again. In the sister categories of “who knew” and “wtf,” it turns out that Pope Benedict XVI is an avid fanboy of “the great thinkers of the Frankfurt School, Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno.” In article 22 of the Pope’s 2007 encyclical letter, the man in the pointy hat himself gives a pontifical shout out to dialectical materialist thinkers’ anti-positivist theory of modernity.

In the nineteenth century, faith in progress was already subject to critique. In the twentieth century, Theodor W. Adorno formulated the problem of faith in progress quite drastically: he said that progress, seen accurately, is progress from the sling to the atom bomb. Now this is certainly an aspect of progress that must not be concealed. To put it another way: the ambiguity of progress becomes evident.

Here, His Holiness is paraphrasing Adorno’s famous passage from “Negative Dialectics”: “No universal history leads from savagery to humanitarianism, but there is one leading from the slingshot to the megaton bomb.”

As it happens, the Pope can sympathize with Adorno’s critique of technological modernity. Like Adorno, he links technological positivism to the horrors of world war and fascism, but goes the extra nine yards by linking positivism to the rise of secularism in the 19th and 20th centuries. “If in the face of this world’s suffering, protest against God is understandable,” Benedict writes, “the claim that humanity can and must do what no God actually does or is able to do is both presumptuous and intrinsically false. It is no accident that this idea has led to the greatest forms of cruelty and violations of justice; rather, it is grounded in the intrinsic falsity of the claim.”

The Pope, Horkheimer, and Adorno agree that there can never be a “worldly substitute for God.” “This is why,” the Pope writes, “the great thinkers of the Frankfurt School, Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, were equally critical of atheism and theism.”

But wait, there’s more! Wrapping Adorno’s “Negative Dialectics” into a Christian eschatological worldview, Benedict quotes Adorno’s argument that justice would require a world “where not only present suffering would be wiped out, but also that which is irrevocably past would be undone.” Here, the Pope suggests, Adorno’s meta-critique of materialism begins to unravel: “To express it with positive and hence, for [Adorno], inadequate symbols — that there can be no justice without a resurrection of the dead. Yet this would have to involve the resurrection of the flesh, something that is totally foreign to idealism and the realm of Absolute spirit.” In layman’s terms: “Oh, snap !”

— Chloe Wyma

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