Joseph Ratzinger and Jim Morrison on the Origins of Degeneracy

It would be hard to name two people with interests and histories more different than those of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, and the late Jim Morrison, lead singer of the Doors.

Morrison spent far more time writing absurd lyrics and odd poetry than talking to the press, which seems a shame considering some interesting comments that he made in a rare interview with Tony Thomas of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1970. In the discussion, Morrison provided the following opinion on the origin of the hippie movement, which at the time represented the most prominent example of social decay in the Western world:

The hippie lifestyle is really a middle-class phenomenon, and it could not exist in any other society, except where there is an incredible surfeit of goods, products, and leisure time. I think that's the reason for it, because the generations immediately preceding ours had world wars and the Depression to contend with, and for the last 15 years in this country there's [been] time enough and money enough to live a kind of flagrant and outrageous lifestyle which was impossible before.

It would be hard to argue with Morrison's contention that decadence can only flourish where resources are plentiful, and the unstated implication that traditional morality fosters efficient living that is necessary to enable groups and individuals to deal with scarcity. Material abundance and sharply reduced incidence of premature death thanks to modern sanitation, agriculture, and medicine give people leisure time and mental space to reveal where their concupiscence is always ready to lead them if ever given the chance.

As today's society embraces one formerly taboo practice after another, and even invents new examples of depravity that were undreamt of before, it is natural to wonder where the negative momentum will lead.

Celebrities have fame, wealth, and influence that provide opportunities beyond the reach of most of us, and almost without exception celebrities use their unsurpassed freedom of action to destroy their marriages and other relationships, and quite often even their own bodies. Technological advances are delivering similar options to more people over time, so we can view celebrities as the vanguard for society as a whole. In terms of personal behavior, we are headed where they are, unless modern society is destroyed first by the very decadence it has spawned, or there is some other dramatic turn of events.

In 1984, Ratzinger was the Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office responsible for the protection and promotion of Catholic teaching worldwide. He was also entering the most productive portion of a career that would see him rattle liberal theologians, Frankfurt School Marxists, Muslims, and many others. The Cardinal participated in an extended interview with Italian journalist Vittorio Messori, which was subsequently published as a book called The Ratzinger Report and caused an uproar among the liberal Catholic establishment at the time. In the interview, Ratzinger provided an explanation for society's decay that complements Morrison's statements from more than a decade earlier, by highlighting the dangers that accompany total freedom of choice:

In a world like the West, where money and wealth are the measure of all things, and where the model of the free market imposes its implacable laws on every aspect of life, authentic Catholic ethics now appears to many like an alien body from times long past,... Economic liberalism creates its exact counterpart, permissivism, on the moral plane....The issue is the rupture between sexuality and marriage. Separated from motherhood, sex has remained without a locus and has lost its point of reference: it is a kind of drifting mine, a problem and at the same time an omnipresent power.

Ratzinger then explained the chain of reasoning that proceeds from the false premises he identified as infecting society at the time of the interview:

....It logically follows from this [today's false premises] that every form of sexuality is equivalent and therefore of equal worth. It is certainly not a matter of establishing or recommending a retrograde moralism, but of lucidly drawing the consequences from the premises: it is, in fact, logical that pleasure, the libido of the individual, become the only possible point of reference of sex. No longer having an objective reason to justify it, sex seeks the subjective reason in the gratification of the desire, in the most 'satisfying' answer for the individual, to the instincts no longer subject to rational restraints....Hence it naturally follows that all forms of sexual gratification are transformed into the 'rights' of the individual. Thus, to cite an especially current example, homosexuality becomes an inalienable right.

After considering Ratzinger’s observations, it becomes easier to pity those who are deceived and ensnared by the horrors that surround them. Deprived of a faith that presents a complete vision of human nature and destiny, many people are left mentally isolated and defenseless as they encounter peer pressure and media manipulation that propagate decadence--their own limited powers of observation and reason are usually not sufficient to deal with the challenge. If they are to escape their predicament, the victims of this mentality must before anything else be given the knowledge that their lives have a sublime purpose, one that is immeasurably more important than material acquisition and physical gratification.