A FAILING CIVILIZATION CAN'T BE argued out of its failing. It can be led, perhaps, or inspired, or converted and reformed. But argument requires the application of universal truths to the particular facts of the moment, and when a culture is tumbling downward, all its truths and facts--indeed, the whole idea of truth and fact and argument--are exactly what its people increasingly disbelieve.

Does anyone doubt that Western Europe is tumbling downward? It cannot summon the will to reproduce itself. It has aborted and contracepted its birthrate down toward demographic disaster: perhaps 1.4 children per couple across the western end of the continent, when simple replacement requires a rate around 2.1. It can discover neither how to absorb nor how to halt the waves of Islamic immigrants swamping its cities, and it has proved supine in the face of those immigrants' anti-Semitism, anti-Christianism, and even anti-Europeanism.

Meanwhile, Western Europe's economies are soft, its unemployment rates are shocking, and its emerging continent-wide government is elitist and antidemocratic. Its people are hedonists and materialists, its soccer clubs are nativist militias in waiting, its churches are empty, and--well, that's the problem Joseph Ratzinger faces, isn't it? The newly elected Pope Benedict XVI has just inherited the world's greatest pulpit, but, on his home continent at least, there's hardly anyone in the pews to listen.

He can preach to the choir, of course: After nearly three centuries of enlightened disdain for religion, Europe is about as dechristianized as it's likely to get; everyone who's going to leave the Church already has, and still there are millions of believers scattered across the continent--to say nothing of the billion or so who don't happen to live a train ride away from Rome. In all likelihood, the European Union and the national governments will soon cave in and grant their Muslim immigrants the religious exemptions those governments have consistently refused to grant Catholics. And that will prove what the Vatican claimed all the way back in its struggles with the French Revolution: The European form of Enlightenment secularism and laïcité was never some purely philosophical stand on the necessary political separation of church and state; it always began and ended with anti-Catholicism.

It still does. As the refusal to mention Christianity in the historical preface to the new constitution of the European Union proves, Catholics in Western Europe are going to have to look out for themselves. They're only a remnant, but they're still a large one, and to them Benedict XVI can continue carrying the message of the Church--even though they live on a continent where the Italian conservative Rocco Buttiglione was not allowed to become a European commissioner because, it was argued, his Catholicism was incompatible with the office, and where influential French figures protested loudly when France's president dared to attend John Paul II's funeral.

And yet, the moral and intellectual force of the papacy derives from the fact that no one ever thought of Catholicism as merely preaching to the choir. People are fascinated by it, French secularists are anti-it, every newspaper in the world carried headline after headline these last three weeks about it--all precisely because, for good or for ill, the Catholic Church has never admitted that it is a sect. It always insists that it is a universal church--catholic, as Catholics like to say--and it claims to speak with a force that doesn't come just from the political power of its believers. It is a way of thinking and being: a reasoned moral argument about how human life might best be lived.

And so, to follow the great act of John Paul II, the Catholic Church elected a 78-year-old German who is, by training and temperament, an arguer--a highly intellectual theologian, a man of sweet reason, a lifelong believer in the power of thought to persuade by applying universal truths to particular circumstances.

His difficulty is this: How can you argue in favor of argument with a people who childishly begin by arguing against the possibility of any universal truth? Relativism has come to seem "the only attitude acceptable to today's standards," Ratzinger told his fellow cardinals at the beginning of the conclave that elected him. "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"--but "being an adult means having a faith which does not follow the waves of today's fashions or the latest novelties."

This is a theme Ratzinger has taken up before. In his 2003 collection of essays, Truth and Tolerance, for instance, he describes John Paul II's 1998 encyclical on Christian philosophy, Fides et Ratio, as concerned most of all with restoring the place of truth "in a world characterized by relativism." He insists that Jesus Christ--the Logos, the Word made flesh--"assures us of the rationality of the world, the rationality of our being, the divine character of reason, and the reasonable character of God, even though God's rationality surpasses ours immeasurably and appears to us as darkness." Thus "Europe must defend reason"--for "Rationality has been the postulate and the condition of Christianity and will remain a European legacy."

It's a stern task, when you have to convince people that there is such a thing as reason before you can argue with them about what reason says. Still, if the Western Europeans won't join the argument now, when will they? Watching all those historically Catholic places--Italy, France, Spain, Ratzinger's own Bavaria--slipping into intellectual and moral senescence, Ratzinger has tried to warn of the "leaden loneliness and inner boredom of a world emptied of God."

Given the increasing percentage of cardinals from Africa and the Americas, Benedict XVI is probably Europe's last pope for a good, long while. He may even be Europe's last chance.

AS HE BEGAN, so Benedict XVI apparently plans to continue. A day after the white smoke and the bells from St. Peter's declared his election, officials in the Roman curia announced that the new pope's first open press conference would take place on Saturday, April 23. Say those words slowly, for they mark a curious moment, when the heir of St. Peter--the pontifex maximus, the rock upon which the Church is built, the holder of the keys, the ex cathedra speaker of infallible truths, the more-than-royal ruler of Vatican City who can bind on earth and in heaven--invites journalists to come over and have a little argument with him.

We can forget how much John Paul II demystified the papacy. He joined John Paul I in refusing coronation with the triple crown, the assertion of absolute worldly power that had graced his predecessors. He joked with the Italian crowd in the first moments of his pontificate. He skied, and hiked, and laughed, and had thousands of people to dinner over the 27 years of his pontificate. Millions of others felt as though they knew him, just from being in the huge crowds he gathered wherever he went. Two or three days after his election, a journalist violated every rule of the Holy See's etiquette by shouting out at a papal audience, "Are you going to Poland?" Leo XIII would have had the Swiss Guard take the man down for a session in the Holy Office's penitential dungeons. Pius XII would have sat silent and stared--through those harsh, wire-rim glasses he wore--for as long as it took to make even a reporter blush. But John Paul gave instead his trademark, tilt-headed smile and said, "Wait and see, wait and see." It was said to be the first unscripted answer a pope had ever made to a journalist.

But even while he was demystifying the papacy, he was busy remystifying it, too, by the force of his own charisma. Within weeks of becoming pope, he had set out on the John Paul II grand tour, and he quickly became the most visible human being on earth. Life with John Paul II was always high drama--geopolitically, ecclesiastically, and personally. However much he swept aside papal decorum, to see him was to know that you were in the presence of the pope.

When Benedict XVI, addressing the Roman crowd in the first moments after his election on April 19, called himself "a humble laborer in the vineyard of the Lord," he was speaking in the tropes of self-deprecation and humility required by his Christian faith. But he was also speaking the truth: He is a humble man--shy, even, in a good-natured, monkish way, as you could see in his wide eyes as he stood in white on the papal balcony--and everyone who has ever met him speaks of his courtesy and patience. On his cardinal's coat of arms he set a bear with a pack on its back, a reference to the legend of St. Korbinian. While traveling from Germany to Italy, the saint had his pack horse killed by a bear--and so he ordered the bear to carry his luggage instead. "Isn't Korbinian's bear, compelled against his will to carry the saint's pack, a picture of my own life?" Ratzinger wrote at the time. And this is how Benedict XVI still sees himself: merely a pack animal, a German bear ordered by a saint named John Paul II to carry a burden to Rome.

Not that you'd know it from the names he's been called--"the panzer cardinal," "the pope's hitman," "the modern Torquemada"--since John Paul appointed him in 1981 to head the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the office in Rome that evaluates the orthodoxy of new Catholic writings and practices. "Hard-line" seems to have become the word of choice since his election as pope. A "hard-line doctrinal watchdog," the Los Angeles Times called him. "The church's leading hard-liner," the Associated Press added. On and on, commentator after commentator struggled for just the right word to make the point: "hard-line Catholics got their man," for instance, or "hard-liner Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger." And, of course, "a hard-line guardian," "a seasoned and hard-line German theologian," "hard-line positions," "hard-line stances"--and I gave up counting after I reached more than 400 news stories using the word to describe him in the weeks since John Paul II died.

"Joseph Ratzinger is afraid," the dissident theologian Hans Küng thundered back in 1985. "And just like Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor, he fears nothing more than freedom." When Cardinal Ratzinger came to New York in January 1988 to deliver a mild talk on biblical scholarship to a group of Protestant and Catholic theologians, his talk was interrupted while the police hauled away hecklers shouting "Stop the Inquisition!" and "No violence against gays!" That same year, Matthew Fox, a New Age theologian from San Francisco, responded to his censure from Ratzinger's office by calling the Vatican "a fascist state" and taking out a full-page ad in national newspapers to shout loudly, "I Have Been Silenced!" Meanwhile, the sexual liberationist Charles E. Curran sued Washington, D.C.'s Catholic University after a ruling from Ratzinger caused the school to rescind his license to teach official Catholic theology.

In point of fact, as a few Vaticanologists have noted, Ratzinger's tenure at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was one of the most lenient ever. Such figures as Küng, Fox, and Curran were not barred from teaching theology--merely told they couldn't call their ideas the doctrine of the Church. An Asian theologian who denied the divinity of Jesus and the virginity of Mary was the only theologian actually excommunicated for his theology--and he was reinstated after he recanted. For all the complaints from the left, the sole major excommunication for theological error while Ratzinger worked for John Paul II was of the followers of Bishop Marcel Lefebvre: extreme traditionalists who reject the reforms of Vatican II.

But there was something inevitable about the attacks on Ratzinger. His students all remain in awe of his theological and biblical learning, and it was as a theological adviser to the archbishop of Cologne, Cardinal Frings, at Vatican II that he first came to wide notice, helping draft Lumen Gentium (Latin for "light of the nations"), the document that modernized the structure of the Church. But he writes in his 1997 memoir that he was deeply saddened by the loss of his scholarly theological career when, in reward, Paul VI appointed him archbishop of Munich in 1977. And then his friend John Paul II--they had become close at the conclave that elected John Paul I--persuaded him to become, in essence, the orthodoxy cop: leading the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, as it has been known since Vatican II, or the Holy Office of the Inquisition, to give it its older, perhaps more familiar name.

It was a thankless job for anyone as personally mild as Cardinal Ratzinger, however intellectually stern he is. Ratzinger's particular reputation as a hard-liner, however, may have been predetermined merely by the popularity and high drama of John Paul II. The Polish pope certainly came in for his share of attacks, usually from disaffected Catholics. But most of the media and even many of the unhappy Catholics wanted somehow to think of John Paul II as their pope, to share in the glow of his charisma and see themselves as participating in the story he was acting out on the world stage. And so it was the gentle Ratzinger who had to become, in their eyes, "the panzer cardinal" and "the modern Torquemada."

HIS IMAGE WILL RECOVER. In his first message as pope, delivered in his perfect scholar's Latin to the cardinals in the Sistine Chapel the morning after his election, Ratzinger spoke of the Catholic liturgy: "I ask everyone to intensify in coming months love and devotion to the Eucharistic Jesus and to express in a courageous and clear way the real presence of the Lord, above all through the solemnity and the correctness of the celebrations."

But the sternness with which Benedict XVI demanded solemnity and correctness derives from the winsome joy in the Mass he speaks of in his memoirs: "Each new stage in my approach to the liturgy was a great event, each new edition of the missal a precious treasure," he wrote of his childhood. "Gradually penetrating the mysterious world of the liturgy which was celebrated at the altar in front of us was an exciting adventure. I realized with increasing clarity that I was encountering something which had been created neither by an individual, by a great mind, nor by Church officials. This mysterious tapestry of texts and actions had developed over centuries, out of the Church's faith." It is this quality that he is already revealing to the world, and it will soon make more difficult the dismissal of the man as some brutal German dictator.

Still, the papal throne John Paul II left him is a demystified one, and though charming and gentle--a man always willing to lay out one more theological argument--Benedict lacks John Paul's talent for making the papacy a personal and dramatic mystery. The scheduling of a press conference suggests the new pope will not reign so much as take every opportunity to continue the argument.

Perhaps the most curious thing about the attacks on Cardinal Ratzinger, as they now carry over to Pope Benedict XVI, is that he actually seems to stand somewhere to the left of his predecessor on the worldly issues that some might think would matter most to his non-Catholic critics in the media. John Paul II's 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus might be described as "Three Cheers for Democracy, Two Cheers for Capitalism." Ratzinger's rare comments on economics over the years suggest he'd give only, perhaps, one tepid cheer for modern capitalism. He's a Social Democrat, after all, from Germany, where they always thought they were going to find a way to split the difference between communism and capitalism.

It's unlikely that he will issue many papal statements on the topic; he has already signaled that the liturgy and internal Church matters will be the focus of his papacy. Still, in all the raging from liberal commentators since his election, his mild and sentimental socialism has somehow escaped notice.

In itself, that's a revealing sign that he might be right about the condition of the world in which he finds himself pope. The economic issues that once defined the division between left and right are now invisible, at least to the liberal European and American elite who have decided to despise the new pope. In the narrowing of liberal thought, there's nothing left to rail about but sex: abortion, contraception, divorce, homosexuality, and all the rest of the tired, old "Spirit of Vatican II" issues.

After the four years of pontifical discourses in which John Paul II laid out his theology of the body, it's hard to see how anyone can imagine change in the Church's teaching on sexual morality. But the fact that these are the only issues about which the new pope's opponents can bring themselves to care--surely that's a sign that Benedict may be right about a culture "which has as its highest goal one's own ego and one's own desires."

Several thoughtful Catholic writers have suggested that the new pope, by choosing the name Benedict, is telling the Church to prepare for trouble. The original Benedict--St. Benedict, one of the patron saints of Europe--founded Western monasticism, establishing the system of convents and monasteries that would preserve Greek and Roman learning through the barbarian invasions and the coming of the dark ages, thereby helping to create what we think of as European culture. Thus, the new Pope Benedict is calling for a revival of the Benedictine movement: a smaller and purer Church that can in its isolated communities save the remnants of the old European Catholicism.

Perhaps so. But it will have to be a virtual monasticism, spread loosely across the continent. And I'm not persuaded Benedict has given up on saving Europe as a whole. His promise to fulfill John Paul II's mission and go to the World Youth Day in Germany this August suggests not. "Dear Ones, this intimate recognition for a gift of divine mercy prevails in my heart in spite of everything," he told the cardinals in the Sistine Chapel. "I consider this a grace obtained for me by my venerated predecessor, John Paul II. It seems I can feel his strong hand squeezing mine; I seem to see his smiling eyes and listen to his words, addressed to me especially at this moment: 'Do not be afraid!'"

Besides, to abandon Europe may be merely to put off the problem of evangelizing democracies. When Latin American and African democracies become stable and more prosperous, perhaps they will undergo the same slide that Europe has experienced. The Catholic Church spent most of the Middle Ages learning how to rein in the characteristic abuses of monarchies, and when the European monarchies suddenly collapsed between the 1840s and the 1940s, Catholic thinkers were caught flat-footed. But in the years since, the Vatican has used much of its time trying to figure out how to rein in the characteristic abuses of the democracies--beginning with the drift down into a boring and deadening relativism.

Now the job has fallen to Benedict XVI, who must find a way to reason, with those who no longer believe much in reason, that intellectual seriousness and moral rationality--"the postulate and the condition of Christianity"--can still guide Europe away from the new Dark Ages.

Joseph Bottum is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD and editor of First Things.

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