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.
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.
Like several other notable German intellectuals of his generation (Ratzinger was born in 1927 and was reluctantly conscripted into the Wehrmacht during the Second World War), Benedict XVI's thinking about the West and democracy unfolds under the long shadow of the Weimar Republic: a meticulously constructed democratic edifice that rested on insecure moral and cultural foundations. The architects of Weimar, including the great social scientist Max Weber, imagined that they were building a rational structure of governance. Weimar's political institutions and their relationship to one another would be the products of reason, not tradition — and certainly not revelation. Yet as Joseph Ratzinger put it to the Italian senate in 2004, “reason is inherently fragile”, and political systems that imagine themselves to have solved the problem of democratic legitimacy by relying on reason alone “become easy targets for dictatorships”. That, in his view, is what happened in the Germany of his youth: “the collapse of Prussian State Christianity” in the aftermath of the First World War, “left a vacuum” that Weber and his fellow-architects of Weimar imagined could be filled by rationality, but which in fact “would later provide fertile soil for a dictatorship.”
After that dictatorship was defeated at an immense cost in human suffering (and with half of Europe consigned to the suzerainty of another dictatorship), efforts were made to reconstruct Europe on the basis of what the founding fathers of today's European Union — Robert Schuman, Alcide de Gasperi, Konrad Adenauer — believed to be a moral consensus derived from biblical religion. Their efforts, Ratzinger readily acknowledges, produced three generations of a Europe at peace and enjoying unprecedented prosperity. Yet, as he told the Italian Senate, the new Europe still suffers from an idea-deficit, the implications of which were becoming ever more troubling as the 20th century gave way to the 21st. For, as he put it in 2004: “The complex problems left behind by Marxism continue to exist today. The loss of man's primordial certainties about God, about himself, and about the universe — the loss of an awareness of intangible moral values — is still our problem…and it can lead to the self-destruction of European consciousness.”
The key to grasping Ratzinger's analysis is to see that he thinks of Europe's contemporary crisis of cultural morale as a matter of self-destruction. Or, as he put it in an earlier version of his address to the Italian Senate, it is impossible not to “notice a self-hatred in the Western world that is strange and can even be considered pathological”. For as “the West is making a praiseworthy attempt to be completely open to foreign values…it no longer loves itself. [Indeed], it sees in its own history only what is blameworthy and destructive [and] is no longer capable of perceiving what is great and pure.”
This, it seems to Benedict XVI, is little short of suicidal: for “in order to survive, Europe needs a new — and certainly a critical and humble — acceptance of itself: that is, if it wants to survive”. But that will-to-survive (which is not for Ratzinger a will-to-dominate, but a commitment to share with others the truths the West has discovered about the dignity of the human person), will not attain critical mass in contemporary Europe for so long as Europe is “on a collision course with its own history”.
And that, in turn, is why Ratzinger constantly asks the contemporary West to reconsider its hyper-secularist reading of the past, in which black legends of Christian perversity dominate the historical landscape and the dignity of man is asserted only with effective cultural and political force in the Enlightenment.
Thus, in his lecture to the Italian Senate, Ratzinger, echoing the opening sequence in Kenneth Clark's TV series, Civilisation, reminded his audience that Christian monasticism saved European culture when it was in grave danger of losing hold of its classical and biblical heritage. In remote places such as Iona and Lindisfarne, the monks of St Benedict, he recalled, were the agents of a rebirth of culture, and did so precisely as “a force prior to and superior to political authority” (which, in the Dark Ages, had largely disappeared from the
scene). Moreover, Ratzinger proposed, it was Christianity itself that initially suggested and defended that “separation” of religious and political authority (or, in the vulgate, the “separation of Church and state”) so prized by modern secularists: in the first instance, when the late-fifth-century Pope Gelasius I drew a crisp distinction between priestly and political authority. Later, in the 11th century, when Pope Gregory VII defended the liberty of the Church against the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV's attempts to turn the Church into a department of the state by controlling the appointment of bishops. Remove Gelasius I and Gregory VII, Ratzinger suggested, the rich social pluralism of European life in the first centuries of the second millennium would have been much less likely to develop — and, to bring the point home in terms of Britain, there would have been no Magna Carta and all that flowed from there. It was the Church, in other words, that made the first arguments for the “separation of Church and state”, not the philosophes of the continental Enlightenment.
Which, as Ratzinger surveys contemporary European high culture, brings us to yet another irony: the inability of the rationalism proclaimed by the Enlightenment to sustain Europe's confidence in reason. As the late John Paul II saw it, and as Benedict XVI sees it, “Europe” is a civilisational enterprise and not simply a zone of mutual economic advantage. That civilisational project rests on three legs, which might be labelled “Jerusalem”, “Athens”, and “Rome”: biblical religion, which taught Europe that the human person, as child of a benevolent Creator, is endowed with inalienable dignity and value; Greek rationality, which taught Europe that there are truths embedded in the world and in us, truths we can grasp by reason; and Roman jurisprudence, which taught Europe that the rule of law is superior to the rule of brute force. If Jerusalem goes — as it has in much of post-Enlightenment European high culture — Athens gets wobbly: as is plain in the sandbox of post-modernism, where there may be your truth and my truth, but nothing properly describable as the truth. And if both Jerusalem and Athens go, then Rome — the rule-of-law — is in grave trouble: as is plain when coercive state power is used throughout Europe and within European states to enforce regimes of moral relativism and to punish the politically incorrect.
The collapse of faith in reason, the embrace of crank theories of racial superiority and the emotive power of atavistic nationalism brought down the Weimar Republic and led to the brutal dictatorship of German National Socialism. The collapse of faith in reason today — the insouciance about truth displayed in post-modernism — will also have its consequences, in Ratzinger's view. Some are already evident, as in the soul-withering nihilism that is the cultural root of Europe's demographic suicide. Others lurk menacingly on the near-term political horizon, in the threat of what Ratzinger famously called, the day before his election as Pope, the prospect of a “dictatorship of relativism”. For, as he put it to Italy's senators: “In recent years, I find myself noting how the more relativism becomes the generally accepted way of thinking, the more it tends towards intolerance, thereby becoming a new dogmatism.” Thus relativism becomes a kind of new “denomination” that seeks to “subordinate” every other form of conviction “to the super-dogma of relativism”.
These are not popular claims to make, on either side of the English Channel (or either side of the Atlantic, for that matter). But that they are claims deserving close attention and not clownish dismissal (pace the New Atheists), only the truly rigid dogmatists of the secularist super-denomination will deny.
Those who wish to explore how Pope Benedict's analysis of the current civilisational crisis of the West is engaged by a serious mind can do so by reading the lectures given by Ratzinger and the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas at a joint appearance in Munich three months before Ratzinger's address to the Italian Senate. Many expected an intellectual donnybrook at the Catholic Academy of Bavaria on January 19, 2004: in one corner, the pre-eminent European secularist philosopher of “democratically enlightened common sense”, himself deeply influenced by the neo-Marxism of the Frankfurt School; in the other, the Prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, inevitably described by most reporters as “the successor to the Inquisition”. The question Habermas and Ratzinger were to examine was also contentious, especially in the context of a Europe then furiously debating whether Christianity ought to be mentioned when the draft European constitutional treaty described the sources of 21st century Europe's commitments to civility, tolerance, human rights, democracy and the rule of law. The issue put to Habermas and Ratzinger in the language of political theory — the question of the “pre-political moral foundations of a free state” — was in fact the very same question being argued passionately throughout Europe: do 21st-century democracies, in which political and spiritual authority is separate and the public sphere is “secular”, depend for their legitimacy on moral presuppositions the secular state itself can't provide or guarantee?
Habermas, who had previously co-authored an op-ed article with the French post-modernist Jacques Derrida, arguing that the new Europe must be “neutral between worldviews”, was expected by many to uphold the standard of the European naked public square: a space constitutionally shorn, not only of religious conviction, but of religious informed moral argument. Ratzinger, the guardian of Catholic orthodoxy, would, it was assumed, denounce the false claims of secularism and warn sternly that an apostate Europe would be an offence against God and man. Both men gravely disappointed the conventional expectations.
For his part, Habermas lamented “the transformation of the citizens of prosperous and peaceful liberal societies into isolated monads acting on the basis of their own self-interest, persons who use their subjective rights only as weapons against each other”. He also expressed concern over what he termed (in language demonstrating that German philosophers continue to speak an idiom uniquely their own) “the ethical abstinence of postmetaphysical thinking, to which every universally obligatory concept of a good and exemplary life is foreign”. The European future he imagined was one in which “secularised citizens” do not, “in their role as citizens of the state”, deny “in principle that religious images of the world have the potential to express truth” — including the truths about the human person that are the moral-cultural foundations of democratic self-governance. Religious fellowships, Habermas conceded, had “preserved intact something which has elsewhere been lost”. Might that “something” be the will to live in solidarity with others, coupled with the capacity to give a reasoned account of one's democratic commitments?
For his part, Ratzinger acknowledged “pathologies in religion that are extremely dangerous and that make it necessary to see the divine light of reason as a 'controlling organ'” in public life. As the first millennium Fathers of the Church had taught, “religion must continually allow itself to be purified and structured by reason”. At the same time, there were “pathologies of reason” that had led to a loss of faith in reason. Thus, the prime cultural imperative of the moment was to recognise the “necessary relatedness between reason and faith and between reason and religion, which are called to purify and help one another”, and which must “acknowledge this mutual need”.
In brief, the Munich debate was a serious exploration of the cracks in the foundations of the Western democratic project, conducted by two men determined to avoid what Edward Skidelsky once labelled the “Punch and Judy show” character of s
o many debates between “science and religion”. It seems that Richard Dawkins was not paying much attention to what transpired in Munich in January 2004. But perhaps others, less dogmatic in their anti-dogmatism, will pay attention when Pope Benedict XVI explores some of these same themes in his Westminster Hall address.
If his 2004 debate with Habermas and his lecture to the Italian Senate three months later give us, in capsule form, Ratzinger's analysis of Europe's cultural condition today, what role does he envisage for the Catholic Church in helping repair the damage that nihilism, scepticism and relativism have done to what he called, in the Italian Senate, “that which holds the world together”?
Pope Benedict has sometimes been accused of being a nostalgic for the intact (Catholic) culture of his Bavarian youth, which was first destroyed by the Third Reich and then supplanted by a new Germany that eventually turned its back on both its Catholic and Lutheran roots. There is something to this, but Ratzinger is far too intelligent a man and far too sophisticated an analyst of the tides of history to imagine that any kind of rollback to a pre-modern (or pre-postmodern) past is possible. Rather, his first obligation, as he understands it, is to make Europe look closely at itself, in the unsparing but non-scolding way he did in the Italian Senate in early 2004:
“At the hour of its greatest success, Europe seems hollow, as if it were internally paralysed by a failure of its circulatory system that is endangering its life, subjecting it to transplants that erase its identity. At the same time as its sustaining spiritual forces have collapsed, a growing decline in its ethnicity is also taking place.
“Europe is infected by a strange lack of desire for the future. Children, our future, are perceived as a threat to the present, as if they were taking something away from our lives. Children are seen as a liability rather than as a source of hope. There is a clear comparison between today's situation and the decline of the Roman Empire. In its final days, Rome still functioned as a great historical framework, but in practice it was already subsisting on models that were destined to fail. Its vital energy had been depleted.”
Having held the mirror of reality up to faces that might have been reluctant to gaze into it, for fear of what they could find there, the man who became Benedict XVI then urged his audience of Italian political leaders to reject Spenglerian gloom and to refuse to concede that the West was “rushing heedlessly toward its demise”. Rather, he proposed that men and women of conscience adopt a vision of possibility drawn from Arnold Toynbee, in which “the energy of creative minorities and exceptional individuals” can lead to a revitalisation of culture that will allow “the inner identity of Europe to survive throughout its metamorphoses in history”.
The Catholic Church, Benedict XVI believes, can be one of those “creative minorities” in 21st-century Europe and indeed throughout the West. To be that, the Church must regain a clear sense of its own identity, primarily through a resacralisation of its worship. It must recover a firm grasp on the truths it proposes, putting behind it the “liberalism” in religion that John Henry Newman deplored. It must raise up a generation of bishops and priests who are persuasive evangelists and witnesses, according to the model established by John Paul II. It must demonstrate, not so much by argument as by sanctity and beauty, that it offers the men and women of today a path on which they can encounter “that which holds the world together.”
And to do all of that, the Church must purge itself of its corruptions, a point on which Pope Benedict has been insistent for years, most recently in regard to the appalling defaults of Irish Catholicism. This will take some time, given the density of clerical culture and the fact that popes are not, pace media distortions, absolute monarchs who can effect massive institutional change at the click of a finger. It will probably take more time than Anglophone cultures will like, given the still-languid, Italianate ways of the Vatican. No one should doubt, however, that Benedict XVI understands that, for the Church to become the “creative minority” of his imagination, it must be a credible minority that lives the truths it proclaims and deals decisively with those in its midst who betray the trust given them.
Benedict's vision of the Church in Europe's future has nothing to do with the rebuilding of a mythical ancien régime. He has shown himself sympathetic to the desire of some Catholics to worship according to the old ways, but he has no truck with the restorationist political fantasies that are at the root of the Lefebvrist movement. As he sees the Catholic future, in Britain and elsewhere, the public task of the Church is to form alliances with those who understand that the democratic project requires a far more secure moral cultural foundation than that offered by pragmatism or utilitarianism. And in the Pope's mind, those alliances should be built in a genuinely intercultural and pluralistic way, formed around the truths we can know to be true as a result of putting various religious and philosophical traditions into vigorous conversation.
That is the proposal of the man who will beatify Newman and challenge Britons to lift themselves out of the slough of secularist despond. If that proposal gets drowned out by a cacophony of media scandal-mongering (itself amplified by the usual Vatican communications incompetence), and by the antics of the New Atheists (to which British and American editors seem curiously addicted), Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, will not be the loser.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.
This article was originally published on Standpoint.