Intellectuals and Public Responsibility   /   Spring 2007   /    Articles

The Democrat-Skeptic Reads Cardinal Ratzinger

Democracy between Relativism and the Absolute

Adam Michnik

Bishop Wiktor Skworc, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, and Cardinal Franciszek Macharski at the celebration of the 750th anniversary of the canonization of Saint Stanislaus in Szczepanów, Poland (2003). Photo by Marian Lambert. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Was Pilate, when he put Jesus to death, being a democrat? That is the question with which Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger—today’s Pope Benedict XVI—began his polemic against a certain theory of democracy, which he ascribed to Hans Kelsen, the Austrian theoretician of law.

Let us remember: Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?” The question—Ratzinger explained—represented for Kelsen the “expression of a politician’s essential skepticism.” It was directed not so much at Jesus as at the audience. Pilate made his decision conditional on the “voice of the people, and acted like a genuine democrat: not knowing what is just, he leaves the decision to the majority.”11xJoseph Ratzinger, Prawda, wartości, władza, Kiedy społeczeństwo można uznać za pluralistyczne, trans. Grzegorz Sowiński (Kraków: Znak, 1999).

According to Kelsen—Ratzinger noted—Pilate “appears to us as the symbol of a relativistic and skeptical democracy which is not based on values and truth but on procedures,” because for a relativist and a skeptic “there is no truth other than the truth of the majority.” “The fact,” adds Ratzinger, “that a just man, who had done no wrong, had been sentenced to death does not seem to worry Kelsen.”22xRatzinger, Prawda, wartości, władza.


It is not my intention to launch a critical interpretation here of the Austrian philosopher’s thought. And yet there is probably no person in the world today who could say that Jesus’s conviction does not worry them.

Each of us, skeptics and relativists, and those who do not believe in the personal concept of God, thinks with horror and pain about that sentence and that execution. What is more, many of us are avowed opponents of capital punishment.

It is not entirely clear what set of views and attitudes Ratzinger is referring to as relativism. Every democrat will agree that he does not want to live in a state where everything is possible and allowed. No democrat will claim that truth does not exist, though he will add that what was once regarded as indisputable truth often turned out to have been but the truth of its time—for example, the ideas that the Earth is flat, monarchy is the only possible system of government, and racial segregation (almost universally supported) is in keeping with natural laws. Finally, he will say there exist issues on whose truthfulness or falseness he does not want to comment because he knows the limits of his knowledge. Hence he is often skeptical towards the institutions and people who present their views as the absolute truth.

Nor do I think there are grounds to accuse the democrat-skeptic of being indifferent about Jesus’s crucifixion. After all, no democrat-skeptic accepts such a vision of the judiciary in which sentences are passed by a hateful mob rather than by the independent court on the basis of existing laws. Contrary to what Ratzinger believes, the trial of Jesus does not illustrate the system of relativistic democracy, where the “truth of the majority” decides.  Instead, it is the prototype court murder where the sentence is passed by the mob. It is not “relativistic democracy,” as Ratzinger describes it, that condemned Jesus to death but the fanaticism of the crowd and the opportunism of Pilate, who preferred to stand with the crowd rather than with the lone defendant.

Fanatic crowds and opportunistic judges have many times sent people to their deaths who committed no wrong. After all, it was not skeptics who sentenced Jan Hus or Giordano Bruno to the stake; it was not skeptics who ordered the wretched victims of the Inquisition to be tortured and burned.

No, Pilate is not a symbol of a democrat equipped with the virtue—or flaw—of skepticism.

To read the full article online, please login to your account or subscribe to our digital edition ($25 yearly). Prefer print? Order back issues or subscribe to our print edition ($30 yearly).