Festivity and Freedom: Josef Pieper and Joseph Ratzinger

Prepared for the 32nd Annual Meeting of the Eric Voegelin Society at the American Political Science Association Conference in Philadelphia from September 1-4, 2016, here is my paper, “Festivity and Freedom in the Philosophical Anthropology of Josef Pieper and Joseph Ratzinger.” I express my gratitude to the Acton Institute for a Calihan Travel Grant in support of my participation.

Over the summer, after terrorists murdered Father Jacques, the Archbishop who celebrated the requiem Mass said in his homily: “The death of Jacques Hamel summons me to a frank ‘yes,’— no, not a tepid yes — a ‘yes’ to life, as the ‘yes’ of Jacques to his ordination. Is it possible?”[1]

Josef Pieper thought that festivity lives on affirmation and that “even celebrations for the dead […] can never be truly celebrated except on the basis of faith that all is well with the world and life as a whole.”[2] To consider how a ‘frank yes’ may not only be intelligible, but constitute a right response to reality, we can look to the anthropology of festivity in the biography and philosophy of two twentieth-century German Catholics. Theologian Joseph Ratzinger and philosopher Josef Pieper both wrote memoirs about their early life and both wrote books that attest to living festively as a form of personal resistance to ideology. They consider celebration to be tantamount to saying ‘yes’ to reality and to affirming the goodness of God and man, world and society.

Festivity matters to us because it is a practical example of living in openness to transcendence. In celebrating a feast, a person affirms a divine order beyond national, historical, or political context. Because of their rootedness in true reasons for festivity, Ratzinger and Pieper were able to distinguish between real and sham festivals. They sought to recover the fundamental reason for festivity, particularly since feasting is a uniquely human activity.

First, the reason why festivity matters to Pieper and Ratzinger is because they love the liturgy, which as Pieper says, is for the Christian the “only one, true and final form of celebrating divine worship.”[3] And since he points out “there is no such thing as a feast that does not ultimately derive its life from divine worship”[4], Pieper says it is a simple statement of fact that there is no such thing as a feast without gods. There can be no openness to transcendence, which is a sort of feast of soul, if there is no transcendent being.

Pieper was motivated to ask: ‘What is a celebration?’ because of a dreary staff Christmas party he attended in 1941. The ‘party’ was a contrast to his upbringing that had been filled with Sunday clothes, living rosary groups of family members, celebrating name days, the town fair always ending before the evening Angelus, being responsible for ringing the church bells three times, pilgrimages, processions, and retreats. So he had a keen sense of festivity as a human reality wherein the events celebrated are “felt as the receiving of something beloved.”[5] And yet while affirming that all festivals are in a sense human institutions, he insisted that an entirely human institution cannot be a real festival; we cannot make the festive occasion and the cause for celebrating because no one can confer a gift on himself.[6]

Ratzinger stresses this objective character of the feast. He reminisces that the missals he received as a child were his favourite possession saying, “I could not dream of anything more beautiful” and his “most precious memories remain the great liturgical celebrations in the cathedral.”[7] What he specifically reveled in was “encountering a reality that no one had simply thought up, a reality that no official authority or great individual had created.”[8]

In The Feast of Faith, he discusses why liturgy cannot be ‘made’:

As ‘feast’, liturgy goes beyond the realm of what can be made and manipulated; it introduces us to the realm of the given […] Neither the apostles nor their successors ‘made’ a Christian liturgy; it grew organically as a result of the Christian reading of the Jewish inheritance, fashioning its own form as it did so. […] In this sense, liturgy always imposed an obligatory form on the individual congregation and the individual celebrant. It is a guarantee, testifying to the fact that something greater is taking place here than can be brought about by any individual or group of people. […]

Moreover, the obligatory character of the essential parts of the liturgy also guarantees the true freedom of the faithful: it makes sure that they are not victims of something fabricated by an individual or a group.[9]

The paradox that there is no feast without God and no feast without human celebration reveals its subjective and objective dimensions, its obligatory and free character, and the relation between givenness and receptivity.

From Plato to the Psalms, says Pieper, we can see how the festival is a day that God has made.[10] Discussing Greek festivals, E. M. Berens notes the most important belief handed down was the doctrine of the immortality of the soul: “’The souls of those who participated in [the festivals] were filled with the sweetest hopes both as to this and the future world;’ and it was a common saying among the Athenians: ‘In the Mysteries no one is sad.’”[11] Ratzinger agrees, “Nothing can make man laugh unless there is an answer to the question of death. And conversely, if there is an answer to death, it will make genuine joy possible—and joy is the basis for every feast.”[12] He says, “The novel Christian reality is this: Christ’s resurrection enables man to genuinely rejoice”[13] because true joy is only possible if we can face up to death.[14] Only liberation of the world and ourselves from death can make us free for our “victorious Yes to life.”[15] Of this joyful affirmation, Pieper adds: “And because that assent to life, if it is there at all, is there all the time, it becomes the wellspring for a thousand legitimate occasions for festivity. The immediate event may be equally the coming of spring or of a baby’s first tooth.”[16] For this reason, he thinks there are worldly festivals but no purely profane ones.[17] According to Pieper and Ratzinger, our ability to celebrate anything with rejoicing and thanksgiving ultimately depends on our faith in the goodness of God’s creation and our ability to look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.

Pieper speaks of an existential richness that comes from a particular “relation to reality, an existential concord of man with the world and with himself.”[18] This involves coming into contemplative contact with the realities on which the whole of existence rests.[19] For example, Pieper, reflecting on his participation in thirty days of Spiritual Exercises at a monastery said, “What awaited me, as one of a group of fifteen to twenty companions, was precisely that kind of ‘initiation’ into adulthood that, at the age of twenty-one, I needed: reflection, in complete silence on the fundamentals of my own existence.”[20]

And Ratzinger delights in his own experience of existential richness the day he and his brother were ordained. When they were invited to bring the first blessing into people’s homes he remembers, “Everywhere we were received even by total strangers with a warmth and affection I had not thought possible until that day. […] The point was not my or my brother’s own person. What could we two young men represent all by ourselves to the many people we were now meeting? In us they saw persons who had been touched by Christ’s mission.” [21]

“Whenever anyone succeeds in bringing before his mind’s eye the hidden ground of everything that is, he succeeds to the same degree in performing an act that is meaningful in itself, and has a ‘good time,’” explains Pieper.[22] This hidden ground is the reason for the feast and the reason is completely indispensable to celebrating it. None of the accidental features, the arrangements—like free time, good food and drink, money, playfulness, levity, humour, cakes, flowers—can make a feast. As Pieper puts it, “The longing for joy is nothing but the desire to have a reason and a pretext for joy and is different from it. The reason comes first; the joy comes second.”[23] When we rejoice, we return to this “reason and pretext”. We remember it and it fills us with joy again. As C.S. Lewis says, “A pleasure is full grown only when it is remembered.”[24] Pieper reasons it only makes sense to celebrate the past festively if that “historical reality is still operative in the present.”[25] To rejoice is to return to the reason for our hope, renewing our affirmation of its effectiveness in our lives.

Ratzinger sums this up: “There needs to be a reason for the feast, an objective reason prior to the individual’s will. In other words, I can only celebrate freedom if I am free; otherwise it is a tragic self-delusion. I can only celebrate joy if the world and human existence really give me a reason to rejoice. Am I free? Is there a cause for joy? Where these questions are excluded from the ‘party’—the post-religious world’s attempt to feast—is soon revealed as a tragic masquerade.”[26]

About such masquerades Pieper says, “It is true that ever since the French Revolution attempts have repeatedly been made to manufacture feast-days and holidays that have no connection with divine worship, or are sometimes even opposed to it.”[27] The attempts to fabricate festivals without any element of divine worship prove to be such obvious counterfeits by their pathetic mimicry of Christian feasts. Pieper thinks we need only consider the rootless, artificial, contrived pseudo-celebrations of the Cult of the Supreme Being, the Cult of Reason, and festivals of Humanity, Paternity, and Domesticity[28] in juxtaposition to traditional Catholic feast days for the differences to appear obvious.

In his memoirs, Ratzinger tells a story about a so-called ‘cult of the spade’ ritual. He says:

An intricate military drill taught us how to lay down the spade solemnly, how to pick it up and swing it over the shoulder. The cleaning of the spade, which was not to show a single speck of dust was among the essential elements of this pseudo-liturgy. [Changes in the war meant this ‘ritual’ came to an end overnight…] the spades, which previously could not have had a single speck of dust, now hung from the wall full of big clogs of clay; but no one cared. Precisely this fall of the spade from cultic object to banal tool for everyday use allowed us to see the deeper collapse taking place there.[29]

Anti-religious festival constructors do, in fact, want humans to honour their ersatz feasts, but this generally requires intimidation and coercion. Pieper cites a newspaper edict during the French Revolution that instructed: “When the bells ring, all will leave their houses, which will be entrusted to the protection of the law and the Republican virtues. The populace will fill the streets and public squares, aflame with joy and fraternity…”[30] Non-compliance threatens consequences, showing that when it comes to sham feasts, celebration is a masquerade for servile compliance with the regime.

In Leisure: The Basis of Culture, Pieper discusses the refusal to accept anything as a gift. This is a problem because we can only truly rejoice and give thanks because of receiving something that we cannot make or achieve for ourselves. In his memoirs he recalls, “At mealtimes one had to listen to the ‘graces’ of the Hitler Youth, blatantly and rowdily recited, ‘Now we’ve eaten and had our fill; and if there were more we’d have that as well. Let’s go!’”[31]

Of course there is no existential richness when suffering what Pieper calls “the infinite boredom of unreality”[32]. He says, “The fundamental vapidness of these artificial festivals is clearly exposed when we try to find our what they are actually celebrating. What is the object, the reason, the occasion?”[33] Sham festivals collapse under the scrutiny of this simple question.

Eric Voegelin noticed, “A [revolutionary] movement lives in that it moves.”[34] Likewise a godless ‘festival’ lives on the sheer spectacle of people themselves.[35] But it is stupid to celebrate ourselves like this, since we know that we did not create ourselves and the goodness of being that summons us to celebration is not our own accomplishment.

The extent to which festivity is now corrupted varies and Pieper alerts us that the inability to celebrate true festivals festively is an existential poverty.[36] This is the situation whenever ‘the feast’ is detached from divine worship, lacking free human participation, without gratitude for gifts, and devoid of existential peace because there is no actual reason for the celebration.

For current examples of festivity poverty, we need not look to totalitarian regimes like North Korea, which does not seem to have a single real holiday; we can look to secular Europe and, in particular, to the European Festivals Association. How did it come about? The mission statement explains: “The EFFE Platforms answers a project call launched by the European Commission and the European Parliament.”[37] The mission statement also declares:

We at EFFE – Europe for Festivals, Festivals for Europe – know that festivals need visibility and exchanges. One way to guarantee this is to make sure everyone knows which festivals are doing the most exciting and innovative work. We also need to create a coalition between festivals that share similar ambitions to get their audiences thinking about the world they live in. Europe is a vibrant cultural space, and we want everyone to know it! The European Festivals Association (EFA), an ever-expanding umbrella group for festivals in Europe and beyond, thought it was time to focus more single-mindedly on Europe’s diversity and creativity.[38]

Called by the European Commission and Parliament, with the aim of “making sure everyone knows which festivals are the most exciting”, based not on thanksgiving but explicitly on the “effective and efficient power of the festival concept”[39] and with the only reason being “a single-minded focus on diversity and creativity.”

Our panel is devoted to Education and Human Nature. Since, for Christians Sunday is “the fundamental feast day”[40] and John Paul II described it as “a true school, an enduring programme of Christian pedagogy”[41], it is worth considering Ratzinger’s reflections on the meaning of Sunday. What is celebrated on the Day of the Lord, he explains, is God’s definitive “’yes’ to the whole of reality and that he can do this.”[42] God’s definitive position, “It is good,” was prefigured by the Sabbath with its foundation in creation as the Sunday has its foundation in the Resurrection.[43] Ratzinger draws our attention to the “internal duty” of Sunday for early Christians:

‘Without the day of the Lord, we cannot live,’ [they said]. This is not a labored obedience to an ecclesiastical prescription considered as some external precept, but is instead the expression of an interior duty and, at the same time, of a personal decision. It refers to that which has become the supporting nucleus of one’s existence, of one’s entire being, and it documents what has become so important as to need to be fulfilled even in the case of danger of death, imparting as it does a real assurance and internal freedom.[44]

No one would ever say: “Without ‘the most trend-setting European festival’[45] (from 760 festivals from 31 countries), I cannot live.” Not even the top graduate from the Association’s Festival Production Management Training can “produce” the supporting nucleus of anyone else’s existence. The juxtapositions prove helpful. We see: There is no feast without God and free human celebration. Festivity is rooted in receiving a gift that is the source of our affirmation, thanksgiving, and rejoicing. And, the true feast is a celebration of the existential peace that comes from the reason for the feast being a real cause for celebration.

The basis and justification for festivity matter for our question of whether it is possible to always say ‘yes’ to life. An anthropology of festivity teaches us how death which, at first glance, seems only devastating can still have an element of consolation. It also teaches us that death can involve a sort of taunt[46] to the ideological regimes that try to suppress the human freedom that cannot be annihilated as long as there is the act of freedom of celebration, the substance of which is affirmation—affirmation that relentlessly affirms God, the world, existence, and man, that it is, that it is good—even unto death, even in spite of it all.

We speak about the divine ground of being and experiences of transcendence. It is worthwhile to consider our ordinary participation in these realities, as well as what it means to us personally and politically. In Ratzinger and Pieper’s anthropology of festivity, our ability to rejoice depends on the goodness of God’s creation and its restoration to wholeness by Christ’s act of redemption. Being in God’s image, we are called to celebrate and rejoice, to echo, “It is good”. For this reason, the spirit of prayer, liturgy, and Christian life in general is affirmation. As St. Paul said to the Corinthians, the Son of God whom he preached was “not Yes and No; but in him it is always Yes. For all the promises of God find their Yes in him.”[47] He is the reason for the feast and makes possible our every yes in freedom and truth to life and love.

[1] Archbishop Dominique Lebrun, “Va-t’en, Satan ! Va-t’en, Satan!”, Aleteiahttp://fr.aleteia.org/2016/08/02/va-ten-satan-va-ten-satan.
[2] Josef Pieper, In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity, (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 1999), 28.
[3] Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1952), 52.
[4] Ibid., 45.
[5] Josef Pieper, In Tune with the World, 25.
[6] Ibid., 61-62.
[7] Joseph Ratzinger, Milestones: Memoirs 1927-1977, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998), 45.
[8] Ibid., 20.
[9] Joseph Ratzinger, The Feast of Faith, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006), 66-67.
[10] Josef Pieper, In Tune with the World, 40.
[11] E.M. Berens, Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece and Rome, (E-book: Project Gutenberg, 2007).
[12] Joseph Ratzinger, The Feast of Faith, 130.
[13] Ibid., 65.
[14] Ibid., 64.
[15] Ibid., 66.
[16] Josef Pieper, In Tune with the World, 31.
[17] Ibid., 34.
[18] Ibid., 21.
[19] Ibid., 17.
[20] Josef Pieper, No One Could Have Known, 65.
[21] Ibid., 100.
[22] Josef Pieper, In Tune with the World, 17.
[23] Ibid., 22.
[24] C.S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet, (New York: Macmillan, 1943), 76.
[25] Josef Pieper, In Tune with the World, 24.
[26] Joseph Ratzinger, The Feast of Faith, 63.
[27] Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, 45.
[28] Josef Pieper, In Tune with the World, 24. French Revolution cults, festivals from Comte’s calendar.
[29] Joseph Ratzinger, Milestones, 33-34.
[30] Josef Pieper, In Tune with the World, 64-65.
[31] Josef Pieper, No One Could Have Known, 122.
[32] Josef Pieper, In Tune with the World, 65.
[33] Ibid., 70.
[34] Eric Voegelin, “Liberalism and Its History”, The Review of Politics, Vol. 36, No. 4 (Oct., 1974), 509.
[35] Josef Pieper, In Tune with the World, 70.
[36] Ibid., 59.
[37] Europe for Festivals, Festivals for Europe, “Mission statement”, http://www.effe.eu/mission-statement.
[38] Ibid.
[39] Europe for Festivals, Festivals for Europe, “Speech delivered by Vincent Baudriller on the occasion of the EFFE Award Ceremony at the Théâtre de la Ville in Paris”, Delivered on September 27, 2015.
[40] Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium, 106.
[41] Pope John Paul II, “Dies Domini”, 83.
[42] Joseph Ratzinger, “The Meaning of Sunday”, Joseph Ratzinger in Communio: Anthropology and Culture, Volume 2, (Grand Rapids: Wm B.Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2013), 124.
[43] Ibid., Ratzinger is here citing Apostolic Constitutions, VII: 33, I; in Rordorf, Sabbat und Sonntag.
[44] Joseph Ratzinger, “The Meaning of Sunday”, 120.
[45] http://www.effe.eu/effe-award.
[46] “But [ISIS] should know that the cross taunts them.” Bishop Robert Barron, “A Message in Blood: ISIS and the Meaning of the Cross”, Word on Fire, http://www.wordonfire.org/resources/article/a-message-in-blood-isis-and-the-meaning-of-the-cross/4677.
[47] 2 Corinthians 1:19-20, NRSV.


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