The combination of clarity and charity is rare enough in this world; add courage and a wonderful weapon is formed, on behalf of the right and the good. This was my impression of Robert Spaemann, the German radical Catholic philosopher, of whose death this week I just learnt. Be not mistaken about my use of that word “radical.” All true philosophers are so. They return again and again upon first principles — upon known and unalterable truths — and never let them out of view. This is the very thing that makes them tedious to undisciplined minds: their ability to hold focus.

“Ruthless charity” is a concept I have toyed with. The contradiction is superficial. It can be understood when we consider the quality of a great surgeon. His blade is attacking not the patient but the disease; the cancer, not what it has attached to; not the sinner but the sin, as it were. The intention is actually to save the patient, though it be at the unavoidable cost of pain. Spaemann’s investigations into the history of philosophy may first seem a series of assaults, yet what one acquires from each operation is greater respect for its subject. Even a thinker such as I abhor — let me give the example of David Hume — is provided with a context in which he has valuable things to say, and to qualify; perhaps even some beauty in the pattern of his thought.

This is not to be confused with “open-mindedness,” or the fake virtue of “tolerance.” There is no smarmy “live and let live.” Rather, the mission is to discover what may be of value to us, but lies concealed in our enemy’s possession. From its beginnings, Catholic philosophy has always raided the pagan in this way; and accorded to their best the honour they deserve.

In his recoveries and restatements of Catholic thought — always conscious of contemporary needs — Spaemann’s capacity for focus made him an exhilarating thinker in himself. In his accounts of Happiness and Benevolence (translated 2000), and on what constitutes Persons (translated 2006), he is among the permanent contributors to “anthropology” in the old sense (that could never be detached from morals).

With Spaemann’s close friend, Joseph Ratzinger, too, one touches what is so genuinely impressive and worthy in the German mind and tradition: an aspiration to precision and depth which does not lose sight of the humane. Both men, as explicators and interpreters of the Catholic faith, exemplify this fine German “attentiveness” (as I call it), even to an almost naïve kindliness towards all fellow teachers and scholars.

There was no vituperation towards the man Bergoglio, in any of Spaemann’s criticisms of Amoris Laetitia, and of the pope’s other schismatic writings, now roiling throughout the Church to the detriment of souls. For any Catholic, to criticize the pope — should he depart from Catholic teaching in a way that one can understand and articulate — is not so much a “right” as a duty. And Spaemann has been consistently dutiful, on matters which in the long view are more consequential than sex scandals, horrific as many of those have been. Sin is in passing, and can finally be absolved; Error is for keeps.

From the beginning, it was not the function of the Church to accommodate the world. Rather it is the world’s task, to accommodate the Church, and thus the Christ Who Is — its saviour. Spaemann was never confused on this, nor avoided any issue in cowardice. He was and will remain that sort of Churchman, who has things the right way around.