On May 13, 2004, a septuagenarian German intellectual gave a lecture in the Capital Room of the Italian Senate. Ironies — or at least paradoxes — abounded.
The lecturer was a Catholic priest and bishop; the modern Italian state had been born in a decades-long spasm of anti-clericalism. The lecturer, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was known throughout the world as the living embodiment of Catholic orthodoxy. The man who had invited him to speak, Senate president Marcello Pera, was a non-believer and a philosopher of science in the school of Karl Popper. Cardinal Ratzinger chose as his topic, "The Spiritual Roots of Europe: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow". As he spoke, Europe was nearing the end of a fierce, year-long debate over whether biblical religion had had anything to do with what was noble in Europe's past, or might have something important to say about Europe's present or future.
As Joseph Ratzinger, the man who became Pope Benedict XVI, comes to Great Britain on a state visit on September 16 that will include the beatification of John Henry Newman, his lecture in the Italian Senate some six years ago is well worth revisiting. It serves as a reminder that seemingly endless stories of clerical sexual abuse and the mismanagement of these sins and crimes by Catholic bishops are not the only story to be told about the Church at the end of the first decade of the 21st century. Important as the airing of the abuse story has been in compelling the Church to address grave problems that had long been buried beneath the carapace of a self-protective clerical culture, the press's obsession with clerical sexual malfeasance has also been a distraction — doubtless welcome in some quarters — from grappling with important arguments the present Pope and his predecessor have made about the ideas shaping democratic societies today, arguments that invite serious men and women to think seriously about the democratic future. And if the sanguinary 20th century ought to have taught the West anything, it was the truth of Keynes's famous observation that "ideas...both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else."
The man who comes to Britain as the 264th successor of St Peter is many things. Britons who rely on media imagery to form their impressions of public personalities will find some of those things surprising. Those who expect to meet "God's Rottweiler" (as his theological enemies caricatured Cardinal Ratzinger decades ago) will find instead a shy, soft-spoken man of exquisite manners. Those determined to portray Pope Benedict as the central figure in a global criminal conspiracy of child-rapers and their abettors will, it may be hoped, discover the man who did more than anyone else in the Roman Curia to compel the Church to face what he once called the "filth" marring the priesthood. Those looking for a hidebound clerical enforcer will meet instead a man of deep faith, a gentle pastor who has met, wept with, and apologised to the abused victims of his brother priests and bishops.
Voices of reason: Benedict XVI —then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — and his predecessor as Pope, John Paul II
Joseph Ratzinger is also a man of ideas: a world-class European intellectual with an intriguing analysis of contemporary Europe's present circumstances and bold proposals to make about Europe's future. During the Pope's visit to Britain, those who ignore those proposals because of their fixation on scandal are depriving themselves of an opportunity to think seriously about the moral and cultural condition of the West — and indulging that intellectual anorexia at a moment when the West's future seems anything but secure demographically, economically, fiscally, strategically or morally.
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