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Saturday, July 6, 2024

The mysterium iniquitatis and Pope Benedict XVI’s Resignation: Giorgio Agamben’s Interpretation

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The mysterium iniquitatis and Pope Benedict XVI’s Resignation: Giorgio Agamben’s Interpretation

The Mystery of Evil: Benedict XVI and the End of Days contains a message carries implications rarely seen in a book written by an academic scholar. In fact, as we will see shortly, the Italian author proposes a substantial interpretation regarding the unprecedented crisis that led to the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI.

eblast promptPublished in Italy in 2013, Giorgio Agamben’s small volume, Il mistero del male: Benedetto XVI e la fine dei tempi, was translated by Adam Kotsko and rendered into English four years later, in 2017. Known as an important political theorist and speculative thinker within the academic circles of Italian universities, it is no surprise that his work was published by Stanford University Press. However, its very title, The Mystery of Evil: Benedict XVI and the End of Days, contains a message that, despite the erudition displayed by Agamben, carries implications rarely seen in a book written by an academic scholar. In fact, as we will see shortly, the Italian author proposes a substantial interpretation regarding the unprecedented crisis that led to the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI.

Much has been written and extensively discussed about this resignation. There is practically no author or group of Conservative or Traditional orientation that does not have its own interpretation of this almost unprecedented event. But why should we be interested in the opinions of a sophisticated intellectual, whose favorite authors – Simone Weil, Martin Heidegger, Walter Benjamin, Michel Foucault (to name just a few) – suggest him to be more of a postmodern thinker? First of all, the volume I will discuss here reveals him not only as an intellectual who sincerely admired Pope Benedict XVI, but also as a thinker interested – at least in his full maturity – in the great themes of Christian theology.

Additionally, I will point out another detail that recommends him: this academic risked his reputation and career to denounce the course of events during the COVID-19 pandemic. Giorgio Agamben is one of those who articulated the most substantial analyses and criticisms of both politicians and the reactions of a public willing to sacrifice everything in the name of a life deprived of the most basic freedoms. Specifically, he denounced the ease with which most people accepted an impoverished life “solely in the name of a risk that it was not possible to specify.” Agamben’s texts resonated so strongly that he was invited to give a speech before the Italian Senate. In short, through the discernment he demonstrated, he proved to be one of the few thinkers whose interpretations cannot leave us indifferent. An excellent article by Christopher A. Ferrara was published last year in The Remnant, where Agamben’s position (regarding pandemic) was laid out in detail.[i]

If only God the Father knows the hour of the end of history, no man can identify the Antichrist – because this would also imply determining, even approximately, the hour of the second coming of God the Son, Jesus Christ.

Let us now return to Agamben’s book about the resignation of Benedict XVI. Specifically, it is actually a small volume containing two lectures given by the author, one of which, titled “Mysterium Iniquitatis. History as Mystery,” is his speech delivered on November 13, 2012, at the University of Freiburg (Switzerland) on the occasion of receiving an honorary doctorate in theology. Alongside his texts, Agamben has included in an APPENDIX section four other texts: the abdication statement of Pope Celestine V, that of Pope Benedict XVI, two fragments from Ticonius’s Rule of Interpretation of the Book of Revelation, and finally, a fragment – book XX, chapter 19 – from Saint Augustine’s De civitate Dei contra paganos. All these provide readers with the opportunity to reflect on the most debated passage in the epistles of Saint Paul the Apostle, namely in the second Epistle to the Thessalonians where he uses the expression mysterium iniquitatis (2:7).

Overall, as I have already mentioned, all the lectures and texts gathered in this book aim to establish the framework for a coherent interpretation of the terrible act of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation. This framework, suggested to Agamben by the formation of the young Ratzinger himself, is that of the Augustinian philosophy of history, developed around the extraordinary text and rules for interpreting the Book of Revelation proposed by Ticonius. But what is so special about this text?

Resulting from systematic reflections on the Apocalypse of Saint John, the interpretation proposed by Ticonius sees the mysterium iniquitatis as representing the growth of a mass of impostor Christians within the Church itself. In other words, it refers to those who, although professing Christian teachings with their lips, deny it through their actions/deeds and lives. Before the final judgment associated with the second coming of Christ the Savior, this mass of impostors, having reached a critical point, will be revealed along with the manifestation of the Antichrist – who, in Ticonius’s view, will emerge from within the Christian Church.

An extremely significant detail, as Agamben shows us, is represented by the word that Pope Benedict XVI dedicated to Ticonius – whom he called a “great theologian” – during the general audience on April 22, 2009.[ii] Thus, just two months before laying down his pallium on the tomb of Celestine V, Pope Benedict XVI drew attention to Ticonius’s interpretation, which indicated that within the Church there is a part of Christ the Savior, consisting of those truly faithful to His teachings, and a part of the devil, made up of all those false Christians who will follow the Antichrist when he begins to proclaim his heresies. In other words, we are dealing with pure wheat mixed with tares within the same “agricultural field,” the Church. Near the end of history, in that period characterized by the manifestation of the Antichrist, the great separation will occur between the remnant faithful to the Gospel and its traitors – the false Christians.

Specifically, he claims that the reason for Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation is related to the objective impossibility to manifest his pontifical authority through the enforcement of the law. In other words, lawlessness (the equivalent of the Greek word ánomos, which is the main adjective characterizing both the Antichrist and those who follow him) has become dominant.

Agamben generally refrains from drawing firm conclusions. Evidently, he is overwhelmed by the consequences of Pope Benedict XVI’s act and its possible meanings. These hesitations and precautions—attention!—are due to the Augustinian framework of interpreting history. And this framework excludes the possibility of definitively identifying the Antichrist. Why? The main reason, according to Saint Augustine, stems from the following verse from the Gospel of Mark:

But of that day or hour no man knoweth, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father” (Mark 13:32).

Therefore, if only God the Father knows the hour of the end of history, no man can identify the Antichrist – because this would also imply determining, even approximately, the hour of the second coming of God the Son, Jesus Christ. For this reason, Saint Augustine refrained from making “strong” interpretations regarding the end of history. Agamben follows him in this. However, there is a single passage in which the Italian author makes clear statements – about the unveiling of the so called mysterium iniquitatis – that seem to suggest a truly apocalyptic situation for the world. Here is that passage in its entirety:

“The unveiling of this mystery coincides with the manifestation of the inoperativity of the law and with the essential illegitimacy of every power in messianic time. (And by all appearances, this is what is happening today under our noses, when the powers of state act openly as outside the law. In this sense, the ánomos does not represent anything but the unveiling of the lawlessness that today defines every constituted power, within which State and terrorism form a single system.)”[iii]

This passage is extraordinary, isn’t it? But what is Agamben asserting here? Specifically, he claims that the reason for Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation is related to the objective impossibility to manifest his pontifical authority through the enforcement of the law. In other words, lawlessness (the equivalent of the Greek word ánomos, which is the main adjective characterizing both the Antichrist and those who follow him) has become dominant. This has reached such proportions that criminals – for example, hierarchs (cardinals and bishops) guilty of certain moral/sexual offenses – cannot be punished. We are dealing with a state of chaos in which laws based on the Ten Commandments and the Gospel are no longer applied. Thus, what Pope Benedict XVI did through his resignation was an extreme act intended to draw the attention of “those who have eyes to see” to this unprecedented situation.

We must firmly reject the multitude of current false prophecies, signs, and interpretations (Medjugorje included). At the same time, however, we cannot deny that the present situation is one of the most chaotic ever seen in history.

Frightened by the consequences of his interpretation on the one hand, and on the other hand, aware of the risks of such statements, Giorgio Agamben has strived to mitigate the impact of the above assertion:

“I realize that I myself am making conjectures, similar to those whose arrogance Augustine stigmatizes. Therefore it will be, if not more prudent, then certainly more useful to concentrate on the structure of eschatological time that is in question in the epistle.”

Even from this assertion of the Italian thinker, we can learn something. Namely, that verdicts in matters of prophecies and eschatology must be given with great, very great caution. As I have stated in other articles, apart from private revelations of certain supernatural origin, the full knowledge and understanding of such mysteries is unattainable. This is why we must firmly reject the multitude of current false prophecies, signs, and interpretations (Medjugorje included). At the same time, however, we cannot deny that the present situation is one of the most chaotic ever seen in history. Therefore, with caution and patience, we must reread the prophetic books of the Old and New Testaments, examining – as Giorgio Agamben does – the interpretations of the Saints and Doctors of the Church. I am absolutely sure that all crucial events and characters are engraved in the very fabric of our history and also entirely reflected in the prophetic books of the Holy Scriptures.

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[i] Titled  “The COVID regimes, ‘vaccine mandates’ and the ‘hidden paradigm’ of democracy,” Ferrara’s article is available here: https://remnantnewspaper.com/web/index.php/articles/item/6551-the-covid-regimes-vaccine-mandates-and-the-hidden-paradigm-of-democracy [Accessed: 05 July 2024].

[ii] The text of the audience can be read on the Vatican official website: https://www.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/audiences/2009/documents/hf_ben-xvi_aud_20090422.html [Accessed: 05 July 2024].

[iii] Giorgio Agamben, The Mystery of Evil. Benedict XVI and the End of Days, Translated by Adam Kostko, Stanford University Press, 2017, p. 34.

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Last modified on Saturday, July 6, 2024
Robert Lazu Kmita | Remnant Columnist, Romania

A Catholic father of seven and a grandfather of two, Robert Lazu Kmita is a writer with a PhD in Philosophy. His first novel, The Island without Seasons, was published by Os Justi Press in 2023.