The Mystery of Evil

Benedict XVI and the End of Days

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Giorgio Agamben
Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics
  • Stanford, CA: 
    Stanford University Press
    , May
     96 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


I readily admit that I am an ecclesiologist by training, and though I have a keen interest in global politics, in no way do I claim to be an expert in political philosophy or cultural analysis, which lie at the heart of much of Giorgio Agamben’s intellectual project and extended corpus, albeit here through an intentionally theological lens. Thus, I was exceedingly appreciative of the fact that his slim volume The Mystery of Evil: Benedict XVI and the End of Days ran only to sixty-nine pages, twenty-nine of which are appendices and bibliographies. This was not because I hoped to hurry through to the end more expeditiously, and less because it lacked any profound insights, but rather because it afforded me the opportunity to read it twice in a relatively short period of time. 

Even after the second scrutiny, I was left with more questions than answers. But perhaps that is the sign of a stimulating text: that it simply whets one’s appetite for what is to come, as a bracing and sometimes dizzying aperitivo does before the lavish banquet of contemplation that naturally follows.

Agamben’s book covers a staggeringly wide breadth of Western thought in a compact amount of space. His central thesis argues that Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to resign from the See of St. Peter “shows that the problem of last things continues to act subterraneously in the Church’s history” (13). This eschatological quality to Christian—and human—life focuses our attention on the reality that for believers historical events participate not necessarily in the end of time, but rather in the time of the end

As many readers may be aware, Joseph Ratzinger was elected to the papacy in 2005, assuming the name Benedict XVI.  Eight years later, he became the first pope to abdicate this office due to what he claimed was a deterioration “of strength of mind and body” in a world ravaged by “rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of the faith.” The author offers a philosophical analysis of this momentous “great refusal,” which mirrors earlier Pope Celestine V’s in many ways, but is understood as reflecting not the cowardice with which Dante is thought to have condemned his predecessor, but instead an ultimate and even apocalyptic courage. Crucial to Agamben’s philosophical and theological consideration of its import is 2 Thessalonians 2: 1-11, in which we are told the mysterium iniquitatis “is already at work” as historical drama whereby the salvation and fall of the human race is being contested in every instant, including the earth-shattering one of 10 February 2013.

The biblical analysis leads naturally to an ecclesiological one, where a particular vision of the church is proffered as being presaged in Ratzinger’s earlier writings and gestures. The African theologian Tyconius, often cited as influential in Augustinian sources but thoroughly distinct from them in a myriad of ways, is referenced repeatedly. His vision of a bipartite ecclesia, constitutively both fusca (darkened) and decora (beautiful), offers a more profound permixta of good and evil than the City of God. The evils of Babylon are not in this vision opposed to and separable from the justice of Jerusalem; the former are rather contained within and subsumed by the latter. Thus the church in history before the “great discessio” is the Body of Christand of the Antichrist (cf. the exclusionary role of the church in Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor’s admonition to Christ: “Go and do not come again!”). All of this is read by the author through the wider bipartite structure of “coordinated but radically heterogeneous principles— legitimacy and legality, spiritual power and temporal power, auctoritas and potestas, justice and law—that constitute the most precious patrimony of European culture” (18). His conclusion is that “one cannot in fact understand what is happening in the Church today, if one does not see that in every sphere it follows the currents of the profane universe that its oikonomia has generated” (38).

If one is seeking an “inside baseball” study of the specific and practical reasons behind Benedict’s historically significant decision, its relationship to the papacy of his non-European successor, or a somewhat decadent submersion in cardinalatial conspiracy theories about the events leading up to it, as I admit I was expecting to find, I think even Agamben himself would suggest you look elsewhere. But if you are hoping to be challenged with a sophisticated and articulate reflection on the relationship between the mystery of evil, its deeper eschatological context, and its consequences on both life in the public human polis and the intimate chambers of the human heart, this slender text will be a splendid addition to your bookshelves, without causing them to sag too considerably. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael M. Canaris is Assistant Professor of Ecclesiology and Systematic Theology at Loyola University Chicago's Institute of Pastoral Studies.

Date of Review: 
August 28, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Giorgio Agamben is a contemporary Italian philosopher and political theorist whose works have been translated into numerous languages. His most recent title with Stanford University Press is The Fire and the Tale (2017).


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