It was inevitable. In the lead-up to John Paul II’s beatification, a number of publications decided it was time to opine about the direction of Benedict XVI’s pontificate. The Economist, for example, portrayed a pontificate adrift, “accident-prone,” and with a “less than stellar record” compared to Benedict’s dynamic predecessor (who, incidentally, didn’t meet with the Economist‘s approval either).
It need hardly been said that, like most British publications, the Economist‘s own record when it comes to informed commentary on Catholicism and religion more generally is itself less than stellar. And the problems remain the same as they have always been: an unwillingness to do the hard work of trying to understand a religion on its own terms, and a stubborn insistence upon shoving theological positions into secular political categories.
Have mistakes occurred under Benedict’s watch? Yes. Some sub-optimal appointments? Of course. That would be true of any leader of such a massive organization.
But the real difficulty with so much commentary on this papacy is the sheer narrowness of the perspective brought to the subject. If observers were willing to broaden their horizons, they might notice just how big are the stakes being pursued by Benedict. This pope’s program, they may discover, goes beyond mere institutional politics. He’s pursuing a civilizational agenda.
And that program begins with the Catholic Church itself. Even its harshest critics find it difficult to deny Catholicism’s decisive influence on Western civilization’s development. It follows that a faltering in the Church’s confidence about its purpose has implications for the wider culture.
That’s one reason Benedict has been so proactive in rescuing Catholic liturgy from the banality into which it collapsed throughout much of the world (especially the English-speaking world) after Vatican II. Benedict’s objective here is not a reactionary “return to the past.” Rather, it’s about underscoring the need for liturgy to accurately reflect what the Church has always believed — lex orandi, lex credendi — rather than the predilections of an aging progressivist generation that reduced prayer to endless self-affirmation.
This attention to liturgy is, I suspect, one reason why another aspect of Benedict’s pontificate — his outreach to the Orthodox Christian churches — has been remarkably successful. As anyone who’s attended Orthodox services knows, the Orthodox truly understand liturgy. Certainly Benedict’s path here was paved by Vatican II, Paul VI, and John Paul II. Yet few doubt that Catholic-Orthodox relations have taken off since 2005.
That doesn’t mean the relationship is uncomplicated by unhappy historical memories, secular political influences, and important theological differences. Yet it’s striking how positively Orthodox churches have responded to the German pope’s overtures. They’ve also become increasingly vocal in echoing Benedict’s concerns about Western culture’s present trajectory.
But above all, Benedict has — from his pontificate’s very beginning — gone to the heart of the rot within the West, a disease which may be described as pathologies of faith and reason.
In this regard, Benedict’s famous 2006 Regensburg address may go down as one of the 21st century’s most important speeches, comparable to Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s 1978 Harvard Address in terms of its accuracy in identifying some of the West’s inner demons.
Most people think about the Regensburg lecture in terms of some Muslims’ reaction to Benedict’s citation of a 14th century Byzantine emperor. That, however, is to miss Regensburg’s essence. It was really about the West.
Christianity, Benedict argued at Regensburg, integrated Biblical faith, Greek philosophy, and Roman law, thereby creating the “foundation of what can rightly be called Europe.” This suggests that any weakening of this integration of faith and reason would mean the West would start losing its distinctive identity. In short, a West without a Christianity that integrates faith and reason is no longer the West.
Today, Benedict added, we see what happens when faith and reason are torn asunder. Reason is reduced to scientism and ideologies of progress, thereby rending reasoned discussion of anything beyond the empirical impossible. Faith dissolves into sentimental humanitarianism, an equally inadequate basis for rational reflection. Neither of these emaciated facsimiles of their originals can provide any coherent response to the great questions pondered by every human being: “Who am I?” “Where did I come from?” “Where am I going?”
So what’s the way back? To Benedict’s mind, it involves affirming that what he recently called creative reason lies at the origin of everything.
As Benedict explained one week before he beatified his predecessor: “We are faced with the ultimate alternative that is at stake in the dispute between faith and unbelief: are irrationality, lack of freedom and pure chance the origin of everything, or are reason, freedom and love at the origin of being? Does the primacy belong to unreason or to reason? This is what everything hinges upon in the final analysis.”
It’s almost impossible to count the positions Benedict is politely assailing here. On the one hand, he’s taking on philosophical materialists and emotivists (i.e., most contemporary scholars). But it’s also a critique of those who diminish God to either a Divine Watchmaker or a being of Pure Will.
Of course none of this fits into sound-bites. “Pope Attacks Pathologies of Faith and Reason!” is unlikely to be a newspaper headline anytime soon. That, however, doesn’t nullify the accuracy of Benedict’s analysis. It just makes communicating it difficult in a world of diminished attention-spans and inclined to believe it has nothing to learn from history.
So while the Economist and others might gossip about the competence of various Vatican officials, they are, to their own detriment, largely missing the main game. Quietly but firmly Benedict is making his own distinct contribution to the battle of ideas upon which the fate of civilizations hang. His critics’ inability to engage his thought doesn’t just illustrate their ignorance. It also betrays a profound lack of imagination.