Pope on a Mission to Surprise

Benedict XVI has confounded the critics who expected him to be a 'caretaker' pontiff

When Joseph Ratzinger stepped out on to the central loggia of St Peter’s Basilica and gave his first blessing as Pope Bene­dict XVI urbi et orbi (to the city and the world), more than a few observers expected that this elderly Bavarian theologian would be an interim pope: a bridge between more than a quarter of a century of Polish dynamism, embodied in John Paul II, and the true 21st-­century pope to follow. In a little over three years, however, the octogenarian Benedict has made it quite clear that he is anything but a placeholder. Indeed, a case can be made that he has emerged from the shadow of his great predecessor to become a major world figure in his own right and an acute analyst of the dynamics of world culture and politics.

Benedict XVI has also displayed a winsome public personality that has surprised even those who enthusiastically celebrated his election to the papacy. At his weekly general audiences, often held in St Peter’s Square to accommodate numbers that cannot be fitted into the Vatican audience hall, he frequently draws crowds larger than John Paul II did at the height of the Great Jubilee of 2000. Moreover, those crowds come to listen and to learn; one veteran Vatican official remarked recently: “I’ve never seen people taking notes at papal audiences before.”

Then there were Benedict’s two most recent forays into the Anglosphere. In Washington and New York in April, the enthusiasm with which he was received and the deftness of his public touch shocked the American press corps, much of which had convinced itself beforehand that Benedict XVI simply wasn’t a good story. In Sydney, he was the magnet that drew together the largest religious congregation – indeed, the largest human event – in Australian history as he cele­brated the triennial World Youth Day with hundreds of thousands of youthful pilgrims from all over the world.

So whatever happened to Joseph Ratzinger, “God’s Rottweiler”?

The truth is that the cartoon image of Joseph Ratzinger, the dour, cold enforcer of Catholic doctrine, continues to impede a serious wrestling with the ideas and proposals of the man who became Pope Benedict XVI. From the beginning of his ecclesiastical career, Ratzinger was a reformer. As a seminary student and in his graduate studies, Ratzinger resisted the petrified official theology of the mid 20th century and sought fresh theological approaches through the study of the Bible, the early Church Fathers and history. He was deeply marked, spiritually and intellectually, by the mid-­century liturgical movement, and in the beauty of Catholic worship found another fresh avenue to theological insight. Yes, he was offended, even appalled, by the radicalism of “1968” and its attempts to turn everything, including the truths of Christian faith, into political weaponry. But in that same explosive year Ratzinger offered a course at the University of Tübingen that turned into one of his best-­selling books, Introduction to Christianity, a sympathetic treatment of the modern crisis of religious faith and a thoroughly modern exposition of the core elements of Christian belief.

Indeed, Ratzinger’s entire career can be understood as a sustained effort to make Christianity interesting again. How, he asks, did this astonishing proposal about God’s passionate love for the world become boring? How can the Gospel become fresh and exciting again? Over half a century of what even his fiercest critics concede is theological work of the highest calibre, Ratzinger has tried to make it possible for his students and readers to experience the joy of faith afresh. The old/new atheism of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens may produce bestsellers; Benedict XVI knows that the real challenge to Catholicism today is not hard-edged atheism but indifference – the kind of indifference towards the mystery of life and being that the American philosopher Alan Bloom once dubbed “debonair nihilism”.

Thus Benedict’s pastoral strategy as Pope has been unabashedly evangelical: like John Paul II, he sees the papacy as a platform from which to make the Christian proposal come alive in a fresh and compelling way, as a challenge to the ­boredom-amid-­material-plenty that lies like a choking fog over too much of Western culture today. Bene­dict’s first two encyclicals – on love and on hope – were “back to basics” reminders of the things that truly endure, as St Paul once reminded those rowdy Corinthians. His Wednesday audience addresses have revisited the origins of the Christian Church in the teaching, witness and martyrdom of the apostles and in the ­foundation-­setting theological labours of the Fathers of the first Christian centuries. His revival of the older form of the Mass is an attempt to nudge the reform of the Church’s worship in a more sacral, more religiously nourishing ­direction.

Where others see religious indifference, Benedict XVI senses religious hunger. Moreover, as a close student of history who knows that Western civilisation rests on three legs marked “Jerusalem”, “Athens” and “Rome” – biblical religion, Greek rationality, Roman law – he is keenly aware that if the “Jerusalem” leg crumbles, the project will get very wobbly, as indeed the postmodernist assault on the “Athenian” leg and its scepticism towards any claims to “truth” demonstrates. Thus, in addition to revivifying the Church and making the Christian proposal more interesting, Pope Benedict XVI has set off on something of a rescue mission amid the postmodern confusions of Western culture.

And here we meet the Joseph Ratzinger who ought to be of interest to everyone, whatever their religious “location” or lack thereof.

In January 2004 the Catholic Academy of Bavaria hosted a dialogue between what the German press quickly called the two “antipodes” of European intellectual life: the philosopher Jürgen Habermas, perhaps the most influential European thinker of recent decades, and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (typically described as “the successor to the Inquisition”). The issue lurking in the background was the European Constitutional Treaty then being debated across the continent, and the ferocious argument over whether the treaty’s preamble should acknowledge Christianity as one of the sources of 21st-­century Europe’s commitments to civility, tolerance, human rights, the rule of law and democracy.

Habermas had been one of the vocal opponents of any such acknowledgment, taking the position (with Jacques Derrida) that the expanded European Union must be studiously “neutral between worldviews”. Ratzinger, on the other hand, shared John Paul II’s view that ignoring Christianity’s contributions to European political culture was a self-­degrading act of historical amnesia: did Christianity really have nothing to do with tilling the cultural soil from which grew European man’s convictions about his inalienable dignity? Moreover, Ratzinger intuited, there was future danger here. A Europe in which there was only “your truth” and “my truth”, but nothing we both recognise as “the truth”, would have a hard time maintaining a democratic form of government. The arts of political persuasion could work demo­crat­ic­ally only against a horizon of common moral reference points; in the absence of that horizon, someone would impose their power on someone else when “truths” came into conflict. Furthermore, Ratzinger believed, a Europe “neutral between worldviews” would be hard put to defend its commitments to the rule of law and the method of persuasion in politics if challengers with quite different and strongly held views of the just society – such as jihadist Islam – were to gain a purchase in European public life.

How, then, to avoid a cultural meltdown with profound (and profoundly bad) consequences for democracy? In his debate with Habermas, Ratzinger argued that, while the idea of a “natural moral law” had become “blunt”, the idea of human rights (which had itself grown from the claim that there are moral truths we can know by reason) provided a kind of grammar for ordering the public debate about public goods. Within that grammar, real dialogue was possible, and both believers and secular people could once again embark on the adventure of truth as it touched issues of public life.

To the surprise of many, Ratzinger won the argument. Several months later, Habermas took to the pages of the European press to concede that the idea of neutrality between worldviews was too thin a cultural foundation on which to rest the political future of Europe. Something thicker, stronger, more compelling was needed.

Elements of this dialogue with Habermas continue to shape the thinking of Benedict XVI, who must now, of course, speak to a global audience, not simply a European one. Accordingly, at the United Nations in April, Benedict returned once again to the idea of human rights as a grammar for turning the noise that too often characterises exchange within the “international community” into genuine conversation – and perhaps even genuine deliberation. Benedict went further from the green marble rostrum of the General Assembly, however. The protection of human rights, he argued, was the fundamental task of government and the source of government’s moral legitimacy. When this “duty to protect” was not met, he implied, the defaulting government in question risked losing its legitimacy – a bold proposal indeed in a UN in which the principle of sovereign immunity is typically cited to preclude action against the likes of Robert Mugabe, the perpetrators of genocide in Darfur and the Burmese junta.

Benedict XVI’s most controversial public moment – his Regensburg Lecture of September 12 2006 – deserves to be revisited in this context: the relationship of the moral truths we can know by reason to the tasks of governance.

In the world press, the Regensburg lecture, in which the Pope quoted a robust intellectual exchange between a medieval Byzantine emperor (very critical of Islam) and a learned Persian Muslim, remains a “gaffe”. In fact, however, the Regensburg lecture on faith and reason was the most consequential papal statement on an issue of global concern since John Paul II defended the universality of human rights at the UN in 1995. By arguing persuasively that our idea of God (or lack-of-an-idea of God) profoundly shapes the way we think about both what is good and what is wicked, and how we think about the appropriate methods for advancing the truth in a world in which there are profound disagreements about the truth of things, Benedict pointed out a hard fact of 21st-­century life that no president, prime minister or secretary-general was in a position to name: that the distorted idea of God-as-pure-­wilfulness that undergirds jihadist Islam was at the root of the jihadist challenge.

Benedict’s second point followed closely on his first: irrational violence aimed at innocent men, women and children is, as he put it at Regensburg, “incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the [human] soul”. This was no blanket indictment; Ratzinger knows that there are multiple theologies of God at work in the complex worlds-within-worlds of Islam, and that serious interreligious dialogue is absolutely essential to identify whatever common theological borders may exist between Islam and “the rest”. But it is also important to recognise, as Benedict did at Regensburg, that certain currents of thought in contemporary Islam insist (to take the most dramatic and odious example) that the suicide bombing of innocents is an act pleasing to God, an act of martyrdom meriting eternal bliss. Muting the latter point cannot be the admission ticket for engaging in the deeper dialogue about the nature of God and the moral obligations of man. Moreover, the Pope insisted, it is the responsibility of all who worship the one, true God to declare unambiguously that the murder of innocents in the name of advancing the divine cause in the world is an abomination based on gravely mistaken understandings: misunderstandings about God, about’s God’s will and God’s purposes, and about the nature of moral obligation.

Pope Benedict’s third point – which was an echo of his exchange with Habermas – was directed to the West. If the high culture of the West continues to fritter its time away in the intellectual sandbox of postmodern scepticism and relativism, the West will be unable to defend itself. Why? Because the West won’t be able to give reasons why its commitments to civility, tolerance, human rights and the rule of law are worth defending. A Western world stripped of convictions about the truths that make Western civilisation possible cannot make a useful contribution to a genuine dialogue of civilisations and cultures, Benedict argued; any such dialogue must be based on a shared understanding that human beings can, however imperfectly, come to know the truth of things.

Can Islam be self-­critical? Can its leaders condemn and marginalise its extremists, or are Muslims condemned to be held hostage to the passions of those who consider the murder of innocents to be pleasing to God? Can the West recover its commitment to reason and thus help support Islamic reformers? These were the large questions that Bene­dict XVI put on the world’s agenda at Regensburg.

Three months later, in an address to the Roman Curia, the Pope reiterated his analysis, expressed regret that some had evidently not got the point – and then laid out an agenda for serious interreligious dialogue. Were that agenda to be taken up in a fruitful way, the political consequences would be considerable. Here is what Bene­dict told the senior members of the central administration of the ­Catholic church: “In a dialogue to be intensified with Islam, we must bear in mind the fact that the Muslim world today is finding itself faced with an urgent task. This task is very similar to the one that was imposed upon Christians since the Enlightenment, and to which the Second Vatican Council, as the fruit of long and difficult research, found real solutions for the Catholic Church .?.?. It is a question of the attitude that the community of the faithful must adopt in the face of the convictions and demands that were strengthened in the Enlightenment.

“On the one hand, one must counter a dictatorship of positivist reason that excludes God from the life of the community and from public organizations .?.?. On the other hand, one must welcome the true conquests of the Enlightenment, human rights, and especially the freedom of faith and its practice, and recognise these also as being essential elements for the authenticity of religion. As in the Christian community, where there has been a long search to find the correct position of faith in relation to such beliefs – a search that will certainly never be concluded once and for all – so also the Islamic world with its own tradition faces the immense task of finding the appropriate solutions to these problems. The content of the dialogue between Christians and Muslims will be at this time especially one of meeting each other in this commitment to find the right solutions. We Christians feel ourselves in solidarity with all those who, precisely on the basis of their religious convictions as Muslims, work to oppose violence and for the synergy between faith and reason, between religion and freedom?.?.?.”

Translated from Vatican English into standard English, Benedict was suggesting the following. First, history itself has put before the Islamic world the “urgent task” of finding a way to accommodate the intellectual and institutional achievements of the Enlightenment: the Muslim world can no longer live as if the Enlightenment, in both its achievements and its flaws, had not happened. The intra-­Islamic civil war over these questions has spilled out of the House of Islam and now affects the entire world. That blunt fact of 21st-­century public life underscores the urgency of the task facing Islam’s religious leaders and legal ­scholars.

Second, this necessary Islamic encounter with Enlightenment thought and the institutions of governance that grew out of Enlightenment thought requires separating Enlightenment wheat from Enlightenment chaff. The scepticism and relativism that characterise one stream of Enlightenment thought need not be accepted. Yet one can (and must) make a distinction between the ideas that the Enlightenment got right – for example, religious freedom, understood as an inalienable human right to be acknowledged and protected by any just government – even as one rejects the ideas of which the Enlightenment made a hash (for example, the idea of God).

Third, this process of coming to grips with the complex heritage of the Enlightenment is an ongoing one. The experience of the Catholic church in recent decades has demonstrated, however, that an ancient religious tradition can appropriate certain aspects of Enlightenment thought, and can come to appreciate the institutions of freedom that emerged from the Enlightenment, without compromising its own core theological commitments.

Fourth, it is precisely on this ground – the ground where faith meets reason in a search for the truth about how just societies should be structured – that interreligious dialogue should be constructed.

Thus, in Benedict’s view, interreligious dialogue must begin with the hard questions: Islam’s capacity to accommodate the idea of religious freedom as an inalienable human right, and the idea of separating religious and political authority in a rightly ordered state. In other words, the interreligious dialogue of the future should focus on helping those Muslims willing to do so to explore the possibility of an Islamic case for religious tolerance, social pluralism and civil society – even as Islam’s interlocutors (among Christians, Jews and others, including non-­believers) open themselves to the possibility that the Islamic critique of certain aspects of modern culture is not without merit.

The initial responses to this bold proposal have not been entirely encouraging – but neither have they been entirely discouraging. Two “open letters” to Benedict from a mixed bag of Islamic religious leaders (including more than a few government functionaries) showed that the Pope had clearly got the Islamic world’s attention. Those letters proposed a different agenda of conversation than Benedict imagined; the Pope calmly and courteously replied that religious freedom and the separation of religious and political authority had to be on the table, openly. It remains to be seen what will happen when this new dialogue formally opens in Rome in November. Still, the questions that must be addressed have been clearly identified, which is a major step forward in an interreligious dialogue too often characterised in recent decades by mutual exchanges of admiration rather than serious intellectual encounter.

In the early 20th century, the 90-year-old Pope Leo XIII met with an American bishop who, towards the end of their conversation, became misty eyed and said: “Holy Father, I suppose this is the last time we shall see each other on this earth.” To this the Pontiff replied: “My dear man, you didn’t tell me you were feeling poorly.” At the age of 81, Benedict XVI lives a disciplined and austere life, focused on a discrete set of priorities to be pursued in what he seems to imagine will be a brief pontificate. Nonetheless, those who have known him for years find him in robust form; he may well become a new Leo. Whatever the future holds, however, Joseph Ratzinger has already left a significant intellectual mark on the Church and the world.

Whether his initiatives bear fruit depends in part on the competence of his associates and subordinates. And it remains to be seen whether the Pope’s bold proposals about the moral and cultural foundations of democratic polities and his challenge to a new interreligious dialogue with Islam will be “translated” into effective action at the local level by the Church’s bishops and in international affairs by the Holy See’s diplomats; knowledgeable observers are concerned on both scores.

Still, it’s worth considering that confounding expectations has been one of the hallmarks of Joseph Ratzinger’s life for decades. The man who, on the death of John Paul II, hoped to retire in order to pick up the threads of his scholarly work has found a new voice in a new role, even as he draws on a lifetime of learning to look insightfully into the future. The man who tried to persuade his brother cardinals not to elect him has discovered that he enjoys the papacy (as much as anyone can enjoy an impossible job). John Paul II lived to see the fruits of the revolution of conscience he unleashed in east central Europe, in the revolution of 1989 and the reconstitution of a Europe whole and free; Benedict XVI will not live to see the full effects of what he began at Regensburg, a process whose progress will be measured in centuries, not decades.

He has already achieved much, however, in three brief years. Paying closer attention to him in whatever years lie ahead is in the best interests of anyone genuinely concerned about the human future.

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