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Underrated: Benedict XVI
December/January 2016/17

Hence he is not discouraged by the “dechristianisation of Europe”, Benedict tells Seewald. Then he offers an arresting analogy: “It seemed completely absurd in ancient times that a couple of Jews went out and sought to win the great, learned and knowledgeable Graeco-Roman world for Christianity.” It is typical of Benedict to emphasise that these two apostles, known to us as St Peter and St Paul, were Jewish. He  identifies with them, with the Jewish people and the biblical, Judaic roots of Christianity — with Jerusalem rather than Athens. He never talks of Jews and Christians except as brothers, allies in a hostile world. It pains him that his enemies deny this: “But certain people in Germany have always attempted to bring me down. They knew that this is easiest where Israel is concerned.”

Benedict has indeed always been a prophet without honour in his own land. It was in Regensburg, where he had once been a professor, that he gave a prophetic address in 2006 on faith and reason. He quoted Manuel II Paleologus: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find only things evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith that he preached.” Taken out of context and attributed, not to a 14th-century Byzantine emperor, but to the Pope, these words provoked dismay in the West and violence in the Middle East. Benedict, however, was only voicing what others thought but feared to say: the threat that radical interpretations of Islam pose for the whole world. The Judaeo-Christian tradition may have reconciled faith and reason, more or less. The Islamic world has yet even to try.

The most famous of all Ratzinger quotations comes from his homily as Dean of the College of Cardinals at the Mass before the 2005 conclave. “We are building a dictatorship of relativism,” he told the assembled cardinals, “that does not recognise anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.” In place of this dictatorship, Benedict has sought to build a truly catholic — i.e. universal — fellowship of compassion, whose goal is love.
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