NOVEMBER 13, 2006
Left and right found plenty to disagree about in Pope Benedict XVI's September address at the University of Regensburg in Germany, but,on one point, there was virtual unanimity: that the Pope was out to defend the West against the Muslim world. Indeed, in his remarks,Benedict seemed to go out of his way to draw a stark contrast between Islam's "unreasonable" concept of God and Western Europe's much more admirable "synthesis between the Greek spirit and the Christian spirit." It was thus perfectly understandable for so many to conclude that the Pope's speech was meant primarily as a challenge to Islam.
Understandable, but wrong. Read in light of Joseph Ratzinger's ecclesiastical career, the Regensburg address looks less like an attack on Islam and more like an attack on secular Europe. Pope John Paul II often spoke of the new millennium as a "springtime of evangelization"--an age during which the Vatican would seek to win over skeptics around the world and especially in the secular West.In Regensburg, Benedict showed that he intends to continue John Paul's effort to turn back the advance of secularism. Unlike his predecessor, however, the new Pope rarely speaks of rebirth.Instead, he warns darkly about civilizational decline brought on by the waning of Christianity in Europe. In his view, the continent faces a stark choice: It will either reaffirm its Catholic-Christian roots or suffer cultural and demographic collapse. For Pope Benedict, the true battle is not between Islam and the West, but rather within the West. And the Church's most potent enemy is not Muslim extremism. It is liberalism.
AS WITH SO many of America's conservative intellectuals, Ratzinger began his career on the opposite side of the political-theological spectrum. Ordained a priest in 1951, Ratzinger was widely known by the time of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) as a supporter of liberal strains in the Church, siding with such reformist theologians as Hans Kung and Edward Schillebeeckx in their clashes with theological conservatives, endorsing the nouvelle theologie movment , and serving as an adviser to Cologne's progressive Cardinal Joseph Frings at the Council.
Yet, by the late '60s, the young theologian was moving rightward.Shocked by the student riots that shook German universities in1968, Ratzinger resigned his chair at the decidedly left-wing University of Tubingen to take up a position at the more conservative University of Regensburg. He would later trace his break with the left to disgust with the anti-authoritarianism of the German student movement, as well as to its embrace of the gay-rights movement, which he considered to be fundamentally incompatible with Catholicism. In Ratzinger's words, "More and more, there was the impression that nothing stood fast in the church, that everything was up for revision." This was unacceptable to the young priest, who also worried that the "naive optimism" of the theological left would soon lapse into "its opposite--radical pessimism and despairing nihilism."
By the time Pope John Paul II named him prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in November 1981, Ratzinger was well-known as a defender of Catholic orthodoxy against various liberalizing trends in the Church. Over the coming years, he repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to use Vatican institutions to discipline theological dissidents, including his former ally Kung.
Ratzinger's clearest statement in defense of his agenda came in the extended interview that was published in 1985 as The Ratzinger Report. Responding to the charge that he was enforcing an authoritarian vision of the faith, Ratzinger insisted that upholding orthodoxy appears to be authoritarian only to those who begin by making unorthodox assumptions. Once one accepts what the Church has always asserted about itself--that it was established by Christ for the sake of spreading his gift of salvation throughout the world, and that it is prevented from lapsing into fundamental error in matters of faith and morals by the ministrations of the holy spirit--then dissent begins to look like active rebellion against the will of God. Ratzinger went on to claim that, whether the challenge to ecclesiastical authority came from quasi-Marxist liberation theology in Latin America or from liberal theologians in Europe and the United States, the Vatican had no choice but to reprimand apostates and call them back to the way, the truth, and the life proclaimed by Christ and embodied in his Church.Ratzinger's message was clear: Catholicism was incompatible with theological pluralism.
IN SUBSEQUENT YEARS, as the influence of leftist theologians in the Church began to wane, Ratzinger devoted increasing attention to the world outside the Vatican. Instead of focusing entirely on policing Catholicism, he sought to engage the larger culture, which, in the West at least, had grown increasingly secular.
For Ratzinger--as for his many theoconservative admirers in the United States--modern European history amounts to one assault after another on the truth proclaimed by the Church. From the Jacobins and utopian socialists in the aftermath of the French Revolution to twentieth-century Nazis and Communists, the Vatican has been confronted by one bloodthirsty secular assailant after another for the last 200 years. According to Ratzinger, today's liberalism is just the latest in this long line of anti-Catholic ideologies. Where liberalism differs from its predecessors is in its approach to denying the authority of Catholicism. While earlier ideologies professed their own final truths to rival the one articulated by the Church, liberalism spreads by inculcating indifference to the truth--an indifference that Ratzinger believes amounts to relativism, or a denial of any truth at all.
Ratzinger focused on the threat of relativism at the Votive Mass for the Election of a New Pope on April 18, 2005, the day before he was chosen to succeed John Paul II; many Vatican observers have speculated that it was this homily that ensured his election by the College of Cardinals. Expounding on the passage of Saint Paul's letter to the Ephesians in which faith is described as being"tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine,"Ratzinger complained that those Christians who have "a clear faith,based on the Creed of the Church" are today labeled as fundamentalists, while relativism "seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times." The West is fast moving, he asserted,toward a "dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one's own ego and desires." Seven weeks later, now as Pope Benedict XVI, Ratzinger expanded on his remarks, arguing that relativism is a central problem for the Church in our time.
And not only for the Church. In an address to the Italian Senate on May 13, 2004, then-Cardinal Ratzinger described a spiritual,cultural, and political "crisis" facing the Western world. This lecture has now been expanded and published in English as Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam, and it lays out what the new Pope sees as a central task of his pontificate.Benedict believes that, although Europe retains "enduring political and economic power," it is "on the road to decline and fall."Drawing a "clear comparison between today's situation and the decline of the Roman Empire," the Pope likens contemporary Europe to Rome's final days, when it "still functioned" despite undergoing a slow-motion collapse. He even approvingly invokes philosopher Oswald Spengler's biological imagery, once favored by the European far-right, to describe a continent "internally paralyzed by a failure of its circulatory system that is endangering its life" and leading to the depletion of its "vital energy."
Given the gravity of the diagnosis, one might expect an exhaustive litany of symptoms; but Benedict lists remarkably few, all of them related in one way or another to sex, the perennial preoccupation of the Catholic Church. There is, first and foremost, the collapse of marriage and the family, brought about by "easier forms of divorce" and "cohabitation between a man and a woman without the legal form of marriage." Even worse, homosexuals have begun to demand that their unions be legally recognized, which falls"outside the moral history of humanity." By far the most troubling consequence of these developments is the staggering decline infertility rates across the continent. In Benedict's view,contemporary Europe's disregard of Christian norms on sex and the family is a sign of "Western self-hatred" that is leading the continent to the brink of self-destruction. Secularism, the Pope intends us to conclude, leads inexorably to demographic suicide.
Convinced that Europe has reached its current state because God has become a "private question" with little relevance to European public life, Benedict proposes that the continent return to"absolute values" grounded in the doctrines of the Catholic Church.He holds out hope for the reintroduction of strict Catholicism into Europe as a cure for the "illness" that plagues it. To administer the cure, the Church needs to recruit spiritual soldiers devoted to the cause of evangelization--"convinced minorities in the Church,for the Church, and above all beyond the Church and for society."According to the Pope, these emissaries will be instrumental in proposing a "civil Christian religion" for Europe as a whole--a public religion that will bridge the continent's profound"separation between secularists and Catholics."
AS ANYONE WHO has traveled to Europe in recent years will recognize,Benedict is on to something. Parts of the continent (especially France) do seem plagued by something like a spiritual malaise. The falling out with the United States and Great Britain over Iraq; the rejection of the EU constitution by voters in France and the Netherlands; persistently high unemployment; anxiety about unassimilated, impoverished, increasingly violent Muslim immigrants-- there are many sources and expressions of contemporary European self-doubt and uncertainty.
Benedict would have us believe that all of these maladies flow from secularism. This conviction is perfectly understandable. It would be foolish to expect the leader of the world's billion Catholics to take a different or more complicated position, and not simply because defending the interests of the Vatican is part of the Pope's job description. Building on the anguished outlook of the most plaintive Old Testament psalms, Christians have long insisted that moments of despair, far from distorting our vision or judgment, actually reveal the profoundest human truth--man's inextinguishable longing for God. Arguably the most beautiful expression of this position can be found in Augustine's Confessions: "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you." It is neither surprising nor alarming that the bishop of Rome would conclude that the despondency of overwhelmingly secular Europeans is, at bottom, a pining for God. What is troubling is that, instead of responding to European despair by advocating and funding a missionary program to reevangelize secularists in the private sphere, Benedict has decided that what Europe needs above all is a less secular--and more explicitly Christian--public sphere.
There is, of course, next to no chance of Europeans following the Pope's lead on this matter, and for very good reasons. Consider the long view of European history: By almost any measure, Europe is much better off now than it has been for most of its past. Wracked for centuries by vicious warfare, the continent has today settled down into a lasting peace fortified by significant steps toward economic and political integration. While several core members of the European Union have structural economic problems that need to be confronted, Europe remains extraordinarily prosperous, leading the world in its standard of living and health care access, as well as in many other measures of overall quality of life.
When it comes to democratic politics, Europe has finally moved beyond the seemingly endless wars of attrition between factions of the anti-liberal right and left that polarized political life on the continent for much of the past 200 years. In place of sectarian conflict between defenders of orthodox piety and privilege on the one hand and a succession of anti-clerical secular religions on the other, Europe today has a hard-won appreciation for liberal pluralism. Europeans, on the whole, tend to understand better than many Americans that liberal government works best when it refuses to offer comprehensive answers to ultimate human questions--when it seeks to be (in the words of the late John Rawls) political, not metaphysical.
Viewed in light of Europe's rocky history of religious strife, it's hard to know what to make of Benedict's claim that "there is nothing sectarian" about his proposal for an increased Catholic role in the public affairs of the continent. The Pope himself admits, after all, that the passionate Catholics who should work to forge a new Christian civil religion for Europe will be, at most, a"convinced minority." If proposing that a minority of staunch Catholics provide a comprehensive religious ideology for the whole of Europe doesn't count as an act of sectarianism, it's hard to know what would.
Benedict presumably believes that the effort to inject Catholicism into European public life will avoid sectarianism because those leading the effort will merely propose their faith to their fellow citizens, not impose it on them. This way of describing the interactions between believers and non-believers-- popularized by Pope John Paul II--sounds eminently reasonable, at least until we recall that politics always involves the exercise of power and the expression of collective identity. What Benedict is suggesting, in effect, is that a well-organized but culturally peripheral part of European society should get to define the whole of European society--that its members should seek to exercise political rule in the name of their faith. This is a bad idea in any liberal political system, as the United States is currently learning with the sectarian demands of its own religious right, but it is an especially pernicious suggestion in Europe, with its long and bloody history of factional and ideological conflict.
Benedict's political judgment is little better when it comes to what he sees as the greatest threat currently facing the continent: its rapidly declining birthrates. The Pope would have us believe that the decision of millions of Europeans to have fewer children is a sign that the continent is "infected by a strange lack of desire for the future"--and that this existential resignation is proof that a secular society produces nothing less than a "dissolution of the image of humankind." Yet a glance at the demographic data reveals a more complex reality. If Catholic piety alone led people to have larger families, we would expect to find Europe's highest fertility rate in Poland, where conservative Catholicism remains a powerful cultural force. In fact, however, Poland's fertility rate is among Europe's--and the world's--lowest (1.25 children born per woman, according to current estimates). Similarly low rates are found in Catholic Spain and Italy (1.28 in both). Meanwhile,fertility rates in historically Protestant--and, today, thoroughly secular--Scandinavia are much higher (1.78 in Norway, 1.74 in Denmark, 1.73 in Finland, and 1.66 in Sweden). All of which suggests that variables other than Catholicism play a much stronger role in determining how many children a society produces.
BENEDICT MAY BE wrong about the causes of declining fertility. But he is correct to observe that, over time, low fertility among native Europeans combined with Muslim immigration could lead to the Islamization of the continent. This is a legitimate cause for concern. Europe as a whole may no longer think of itself as Christian, but its moral assumptions and sensibilities are undeniably post-Christian, drawing freely on ideals of human equality and dignity--not to mention the notion of separating God from Caesar-- that ultimately derive directly from Christian sources. A Europe in which a large minority--let alone a plurality or a majority--of citizens took their moral bearings from Islam would have a very different moral and political character.
Still, however justified Benedict's concerns about this possibility,we have ample reason to reject his proposals for how to respond to the Muslim challenge. The Pope has insisted, for instance, that genuine interfaith dialogue will be possible only if the West first embraces its "own heritage of the sacred." The failure to do so,Benedict warns, will automatically antagonize non-Christians who believe that "there is something deeply alien about the absolute secularism that is developing in the West" and that "a world without God has no future." Since some other faiths view the"exclusion of the divine from the universality of reason as an attack on their most profound convictions," Benedict argued at Regensburg, the West must stop relegating "religion into the realm of subcultures" and openly acknowledge that, rightly understood,religion undergirds all cultures and civilizations in all times and places. If the West does not follow this path, he warned, a genuine"dialogue of cultures" will be impossible.
Even leaving aside the unlikelihood of the modern West placing Christianity at the core of its identity, the Pope's proposal is a singularly unhelpful one. Consider the main theme of Benedict's Regenburg lecture. There he made it quite clear that the West's reaffirmation of its Catholic-Christian identity entails that it move beyond postmodern skepticism to appreciate and uphold the value of reason. This sounds sensible enough--except that Benedict also indicated that he considers reason to be far more than a neutral, analytical faculty for drawing distinctions and weighing evidence. For the Pope, reason is synonymous with "the biblical concept of God." Whatever else this might mean, it surely implies that the Christian construal of divinity is more reasonable than any other, including Islam's. As David Nirenberg has argued in these pages, it is exceedingly odd to propose dialogue with interlocutors whose reasonableness is automatically denied at the outset ("What Benedict Really Said," October 9).
But perhaps the Pope's biggest mistake is to misunderstand the nature of the conflict between Islam and the West as primarily a clash of competing religious convictions--when, in fact, it is mainly a clash of competing political philosophies. The popular appeal of Islamism throughout the Muslim world derives in large part from its furious insistence that the whole of life--not only individually but also collectively--must be oriented toward theological ends. As long as large numbers of Muslims remain receptive to this message, they will continue to be tempted by totalitarian schemes to unify their collective lives. The West's greatest, and perhaps only, hope of contributing to the moderation of contemporary Islam is to persuade Muslims to accept that pluralism is the default condition of modernity--and that personal piety can flourish in conditions of political freedom. It is our duty, in other words, to make the best possible case for the compatibility of devout faith and secular politics--a compatibility that, to judge from his recent political interventions, the Pope appears to deny.
The troubling truth is that on the most pressing issue currently facing the democratic governments of the West--how they should respond to the formidable challenge posed by militant Islam at home and abroad--Pope Benedict gets things exactly backward. Abandoning liberalism in favor of the strictly orthodox Catholicism favored by the Pope is the last thing Europe needs today. Such a development would almost certainly lead the continent back to a world of religiously inspired social and political strife--a world from which it only recently managed to extricate itself--while diminishing the chances that pluralism could ever make significant inroads in the Muslim world. That Europe's remarkable political and economic achievements over the past 60 years have been made possible in large part by its belated embrace of liberal ideals-- including the ideal of public secularism--is something that Benedict seems not to appreciate or even comprehend. Luckily, his fellow Europeans appear to know better--to recognize that, far from being the source of our most intractable problems, liberalism remains our best hope for absolution.