April 8, 2007


Keeping the faith (Russell Shorto, April 7, 2007 , International Herald Tribune)

Throughout the Nazi experience, his father guided him to see it as an outgrowth of modern godlessness. The effect was to reinforce the idea of the church as a bulwark against darkness -- against secularism and rationality run amok.

Returning to the seminary immediately after the war, Ratzinger became deeply influenced by the philosophy of personalism, which saw the basis of reality not in bloodless science but in the individual human being and whose adherents would come to include Vaclav Havel and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He looked, too, to the German philosophers Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger as guides, for their inquiries into "pure being" allowed for a more human understanding of the world than the scientific materialism that was rapidly winning acceptance in Western culture. But all of this was mere supplement to Catholic theology. "Dogma" wasn't a dirty word -- it was the ground. "Dogma was conceived not as an external shackle but as the living source that made knowledge of the truth possible in the first place," he wrote in his memoirs. Ratzinger rose rapidly through the ranks of Bavaria's intensely rigorous Catholic institutions, holding the chairmanship in dogma at the University of Regensburg from 1969 to 1976, until he was appointed archbishop of Munich and Freising and his career focus shifted toward Rome.

So the occasion of the speech that Benedict made at the University of Regensburg last September -- the speech that caromed around the world and caused protests in the Middle East and attacks on Christians and churches in Iraq, Somalia and the West Bank for his seeming to say that Islam is a religion of violence -- marked a homecoming, albeit an incendiary one.

The speech was a setback for relations between Islam and the West (by most accounts the pope regained some ground on his subsequent trip to Turkey last November), yet it also laid bare the foundation of the pontificate Benedict would pursue and so in a sense marked the real beginning of the post-John Paul II era in the Catholic Church. Today, as he approaches the second anniversary of his papacy (April 19) and his 80th birthday (April 16), it seems clear that Joseph Ratzinger's lifelong agenda -- rooted in Bavarian Catholicism and his experience of Nazism -- has been updated, and he is now trying to bring it to bear on the post-9/11 world.

As it routinely does with journalists, the Vatican declined requests for a papal interview for this article, but Benedict has made his objectives clear in a variety of ways. Compared with his predecessor, who was elected pope at the age of 58, he knows he has a limited time and has been rather direct in advancing his theme. The poles of his papacy might be seen in the subjects of two books by him just being released in the United States. One is about Jesus. The other is titled "Europe Today and Tomorrow." Benedict is one of the most intellectual men ever to serve as pope -- and surely one of the most intellectual of current world leaders -- and he has pinpointed the problem of the age, as well as its solution, at the level of philosophy. His argument, elaborated in the years leading up to his election and continuing through his daily speeches and pronouncements, reduces to something like this: Secularism may be one of the great developments in history, but the secularism that holds sway in much of the West -- that is, in Western Europe -- is flawed; it has a bug in its programming. The mistaken conviction that reason and faith are two distinct realms has weakened Europe and has brought it to the verge of catastrophic collapse. As he said in a speech in 2004: "There exist pathologies in religion that are extremely dangerous and that make it necessary to see the divine light of reason as a 'controlling organ.' . . . However . . . there are also pathologies of reason . . . there is a hubris of reason that is no less dangerous." If you seek a way out of the vast post-9/11 quagmire (Baghdad bomb blasts, Iranian nukes, Danish cartoons, ever-more-bizarre airport security measures and the looming mayhem they are meant to stop), and for that matter if you believe in Europe and "the West" (the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, a bottle of Chateau Lafite Rothschild, the whole heritage of 2,500 years of history), then now, Benedict in effect argues, the Catholic Church must be heeded. Because its tradition was filtered through the Enlightenment, the thinking goes, the church can provide a bridge between godless rationality and religious fundamentalism. [...]

Talking about the speech, the Rev. Thomas Reese, former editor of the American Jesuit journal America, who, interestingly, was fired from that post by then-Cardinal Ratzinger for allowing too broad a range of ideas in its pages, told me: "The Regensburg address was not about Islam. The pope's primary target is Europe. He sees a great need for it to get back to its Christian roots. That is his main goal, and if he accomplishes it, it would trump John Paul II's achievement in helping bring down Communism."

Then again, what nobody knows -- as I learned in travels through traditionally Catholic parts of Europe over the fall and winter -- is whether it is too late. As one retired archbishop said to me, speaking on condition of anonymity, "There are European bishops who feel you can't talk about a Christian Europe anymore without insulting people's intelligence." [...]

It happened that on successive days in May 2004, Cardinal Ratzinger, then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Marcello Pera, then president of the Italian Senate, who was also once a philosopher at the University of Pisa, gave speeches on the topic of European identity on each other's turf in Rome, the churchman in the Italian Senate and the senator at the Pontifical Lateran University. Ratzinger's theme was "the spiritual roots of Europe," and he criticized a culture that gave value and protection to other religions -- notably Judaism and Islam -- but that denied the same to Christianity. With his trademark bite, he identified "a peculiar Western self-hatred that is nothing short of pathological."

Though Pera is a nonbeliever, both men were struck by the fact that the two speeches overlapped a good deal. "It got a lot of people thinking," Pera told me.

Pera and Ratzinger eventually published a book together called "Without Roots," which criticized the secular European mind-set and concluded that European secularism is disastrously misguided. "I began to realize that if we cannot recognize the fact that Christianity shaped our culture, then we lose our identity," Pera said. "And then how can we have a dialogue with other civilizations? That's exactly what has happened with Islam. Europe is losing its soul. Not only are we no longer Christian; we're anti-Christian. So we don't know who we are."

Ratzinger, meanwhile, scathingly compared contemporary Europe with resurgent Islam. Islam today, he wrote at the time in an essay that is part of the book on Europe that was just released, "is capable of offering a valid spiritual basis for the life of the peoples, a basis that seems to have slipped out of the hands of old Europe, which thus, notwithstanding its continued political and economic power, is increasingly viewed as a declining culture condemned to fade away." At the Mass following the death of John Paul II, it was Ratzinger who gave the homily to his fellow cardinals, which amounted to a restating of his theme: "We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one's own ego and one's own desires." The "dictatorship of relativism" trope sharpened -- not to say hardened -- the church's position vis-à-vis secular European culture and may have been what swept him into office.

Senator Pera exemplifies a species that virtually doesn't exist in the U.S.: a politician who publicly professes his lack of religious faith and who is a conservative to boot.

Indeed, in reading Without Roots, Senator Pera comes across as a tragic figure, in the mold of Albert Camus or George Orwell. He understands why faith is necessary, but because he can't derive it rationally he can't accept it. The problem with this false dilemma is obvious enough, that such men accept Reason on faith but not Faith on faith. Bad enough that this ultimately renders them incoherent; worse, it leaves them serving the very evil they've recognized. It is especially hard to hold out any hope for a Europe where even such decent men are so misguided.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 8, 2007 5:53 AM
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