Forty-eight hours into his visit to the United States, Pope Benedict XVI had done something remarkable: he had successfully buried the cartoon Joseph Ratzinger, a nasty caricature created decades earlier by his theological enemies and subsequently marketed to the world press. From his first moments at Andrews Air Force Base, however, it was clear that this was no hard-edged theological enforcer, no Rottweiler. Instead of the cartoon Ratzinger, America was introduced to a modest, friendly man, a grandfatherly Bavarian with exquisite manners and a shock of unruly white hair, full of affection and admiration for the United States.
Nor was Ratzinger’s cartoon image the only thing crumbling on the brilliant spring morning of April 16, when President George W. Bush formally welcomed the pope to America. Forty-five years before, a White House fearful of the political backlash from anti-Catholic prejudice insisted that a brief meeting in Rome between President Kennedy and Pope Paul VI be described as informal and unofficial. Now an evangelical Texas Methodist pulled out all the ceremonial stops to welcome the Bishop of Rome on the south lawn of the White House–and the Bishop of Rome, a former American POW, could be seen singing the refrain of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” along with the U.S. Army choir. It all seemed a very long way indeed from the days when the Know Nothings bludgeoned the marble sent by Pope Pius IX for the Washington Monument and threw the fragments into the Potomac. What historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr., used to call the deepest prejudice in American history–anti-Catholicism–was largely a thing of the past, save in the fever swamps where ancient bigotries and hatreds fester.
The transformation of the papal image was complete when Benedict XVI surprised everyone (including many senior churchmen) by meeting privately for conversation and prayer with five Boston-area victims of clergy sexual abuse. On the flight to America the pope had forthrightly seized control of this issue, speaking of his own “shame” over the behavior of priests who had abused the young; he later acknowledged the parallel and related disgrace of bishops who had failed in their duty to protect the flock. Still, it took that meeting with those who had suffered at the hands of something both they and he loved–the Catholic Church–to drive home the point that Benedict XVI was not just a friendly scholar. By meeting, praying and even crying with those who had been deeply hurt, Benedict made unmistakably plain what those who had known him already knew: that he is a man with a pastor’s heart and a true priest’s compassion.
That pastoral touch continued to be displayed throughout the six days of Benedict’s visit to New York. His masterful sermon in St. Patrick’s Cathedral–in which he used the building’s stained glass, its symmetry, and the countervailing tensions in its stonework as metaphors for the life of the Church–was a brilliant, evocative exercise in the preacher’s art and a useful reminder to pastors of all denominations that “preaching up,” rather than “preaching down,” is the way to inspire and nourish. The pope’s reception by 25,000 young people at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers made clear that, while his is a different form of magic, he shares with the pyrotechnic John Paul II the capacity to call the younger generation to lives of spiritual and moral grandeur. Then there was Ground Zero, and the pope’s prayer for the conversion of the hearts of the violent and wicked. Nothing maudlin, nothing artificial, a candle lit in memory, and words of compassion to those who bear the burden of survival.
This magnificent Catholic theater shouldn’t have been a distraction from the substance of Benedict XVI’s message, but it was, almost inevitably. A world of sound bites and rapidly shifting images does not take easily to Professor Ratzinger, the pope who answers questions in complete and coherent paragraphs and whose demeanor is not electric. And that, perhaps, explains some of the inattention to this very substantive man of ideas in the three years since his election. Yet there are ideas Benedict proposed that are very much worth pondering in the afterglow of his American media debut, ideas about the way the world works, ideas about interreligious dialogue and ideas about Christian ecumenism. The common thread among them was the Benedictine project of turning noise into conversation through the recovery of moral reason.
Human Rights: The World’s Moral Vocabulary
The primary purpose of Benedict’s transatlantic pilgrimage was to address the General Assembly of the United Nations. He did not blast the Bush administration for Iraq, as some uninformed sources had declared he would during the previsit spin games. Nor did he conduct the international tour d’horizon that the diplomats of the Vatican might have preferred. Rather, Benedict XVI put on Professor Ratzinger and gave the General Assembly a thoughtful lecture on how to turn noise into conversation.
Benedict XVI is profoundly aware of the world’s dissonance, which to his mind is not simply a reflection of the world’s plurality. In addition to the radically different political, religious, philosophical, and ideological claims being pressed in the global public square, there is the problem of a West that has lost its faith in reason–a West that has a very shaky hold on the conviction (fundamental to Western civilization from Socrates through the scientific revolution) that human beings can know the truth of things, including the moral truth of things. And that seems to Benedict not just a grave problem in itself, but a grave political problem. For how can the conversation, debate and argument that are the lifeblood of any humane politics happen when everyone is speaking a different language, no one can agree on a translator, and the very need for “translation” is regarded by the postmodern avant-garde as impossibly old hat? In these circumstances, conversation is impossible and noise dominates.
So Benedict came to the U.N. to suggest that noise could be transformed into a genuine engagement of differences through the moral reason that all human beings share in common, and through one of the lessons that moral reason teaches rational people about how they should treat with each other. We call that lesson, today, “human rights.” Thus the notion of human rights as a global vocabulary that can turn noise into conversation (which was a leitmotif of John Paul II’s remarks to the General Assembly in 1995) was the centerpiece of Benedict’s U.N. address. Noting the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Benedict reminded his listeners that here, in fact, was noise turned into conversation. For “this document was the outcome of a convergence of different religious and cultural traditions, all of them motivated by the common desire to place the human person at the heart of institutions, laws and the workings of society, and to consider the human person essential for the world of culture, science and religion.” Then he drove the point home: “Human rights are increasingly being presented as the common language and the ethical substratum of international relations.”
How can we know that these “rights” exist, the pope asked. We can know them because “they are based on the natural law inscribed on human hearts and present in different cultures and civilizations.” Human rights, properly understood, are a universal moral patrimony; they are not benefices to be awarded by states for good behavior, nor are basic human rights a cultural imposition from the West on the rest. Human rights are built into us–Benedict would say by “God’s creative design for the world and for history,” which reaches its “high point” in the human person. Still, the pope’s argument that universal human rights are the reflection of universal moral truths “built into” the human person is a claim that can be engaged by
nonbelievers, as well as by believers of all religious traditions that cherish reason.
Voltaire must be spinning in his grave at the thought of the See of Peter as the defender of reason in the modern world. Yet Benedict, like John Paul II, has set his face, and his church, against the sundry irrationalities (including religious irrationalities) that now stalk the world, wreaking havoc with human affairs. Moreover, by suggesting that the United Nations’ moral legitimacy derives not from the black letters on paper that are the U.N. Charter but from the United Nations’ commitment to protecting and promoting basic human rights and its effectiveness in doing so, the pope has helped advance, however slightly, the cause of U.N. reform.
The pope also had some important and challenging things to say about turning noise into conversation among religions, and within the fractured Christian household.
In a meeting with representatives of world religions in Washington, the pope previewed his U.N. address by summoning people of faith to put their moral convictions at the service of the defense of human rights, especially religious freedom. He then made clear that, in his mind, tolerance does not mean avoiding differences in an exchange of pleasantries and banalities; rather, he gently suggested, true dialogue means taking differences seriously and exploring them, within a bond of civility created by mutual respect in the quest for truth: “… Religious freedom, interreligious dialogue and faith-based education aim at something more than a consensus regarding ways to implement practical strategies for advancing peace. The broader purpose of dialogue is to discover the truth. What is the origin and destiny of mankind? What are good and evil? What awaits us at the end of our earthly existence. Only by addressing these questions can we build a solid basis for the peace and security of the human family.”
In other words, genuine interreligious dialogue, capable of turning noise into conversation, does not avoid the hard questions; it begins with the hard questions. It is not difficult to imagine that Benedict had in mind here the dialogue he has been slowly nurturing with Islam, a dialogue focused on religious freedom and the separation of spiritual and political authority in the state. Unlike those veterans of the Catholic-Islamic dialogue who have long preferred to avoid those questions, Benedict insists, quietly but firmly, on beginning with them. Whether his approach helps support those Islamic reformers working to build an Islam that can live with pluralism and political modernity is one of the great questions on which a lot of 21st-century history will turn.
Benedict was equally challenging in discussing the grand strategy of the intra-Christian ecumenical dialogue. At “just … the time when the world is losing its bearings and needs a persuasive common witness to the saving power of the Gospel,” Christians are deeply divided, the pope noted–a standard ecumenical lament. But then Benedict sharply raised the ecumenical ante by asking his fellow Christian leaders to consider whether those divisions did not reflect a “relativistic approach” to Christian doctrine and moral teaching strangely parallel to secularist critiques of Christianity: a “relativism” about the truth of Christian faith that is shaped by the assumption that “science alone is ‘objective’,” an assumption that relegates all religious conviction “to the subjective sphere of individual feeling.” Benedict’s personal answer to that question is, undoubtedly, yes. Which suggests that this man who once took a professor’s post at Tubingen precisely to deepen his own theological dialogue with Lutheran colleagues now realizes that the real future of serious ecumenical conversation lies with the Catholic Church’s encounter with those Christian communities (largely, but not exclusively, evangelical) that still believe that the Gospel and the creeds stand in judgment on our theological speculation, rather than vice versa. The Gospel and the creeds, the pope suggested, are the boundaries within which real conversation can grow from ecumenical noise.
The Intellectual as Pastor
For three years Benedict XVI has thought that his will be a relatively short pontificate. He was, after all, 78 when elected. Yet he also seemed quite energized during most of his U.S. visit, and that energy calls to mind a story about Pope Leo XIII, the inventor of the modern papacy as an office of moral persuasion, who died in 1903 at the age of 93. A few years before his death Leo received an American bishop in private audience. Toward the end of their meeting, the story goes, the bishop got a little emotional and, wiping away a tear, said, “Holy Father, I suppose this is the last time we shall see each other in this world.” At which the nonagenarian pontiff reached over, took his visitor’s hand, and replied, “My dear man, you didn’t tell me you were feeling poorly.”
No one, including Benedict XVI, knows whether he has another decade in the chair of St. Peter or whether he will ever visit the United States (a country he manifestly loves) again. Even if he never returns, however, he has given Americans of all faiths and no faith important things to think about. The American majority was reaffirmed in its conviction that religiously informed moral argument has a place in public life. The nonbelieving minority experienced a religious leader who took care to speak in a language nonbelievers could understand. In a season of increasingly adolescent political cantankerousness, it was refreshing to be in the presence of an adult–an adult who treated his hosts as adults by paying them the compliment of making serious, sustained arguments. Moreover, by showing his pastor’s heart, one of the world’s most learned men embodied a truth of which both he and John Paul II were firmly convinced: faith and reason go together. If Benedict XVI was received warmly in the United States, that may have had something to do with his ability to gently remind all Americans of one of the truths on which our democracy rests, and indeed has long rested.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.
This article was originally published on Newsweek