As the world discusses Pope Benedict XVI's abdication, you might enjoy two pieces on the pontiff from the archives of THE WEEKLY STANDARD: Lee Harris's "Socrates or Mohammad?" and Joseph Bottum's "Benedict Meets Bartholomew."
Here's an excerpt from Harris's October 2006 story:
On September 12, Pope Benedict XVI delivered an astonishing speech at the Uni versity of Regensburg. Entitled "Faith, Reason, and the University," it has been widely discussed, but far less widely understood. The New York Times, for example, headlined its article on the Regensburg address, "The Pope Assails Secularism, with a Note on Jihad." The word "secularism" does not appear in the speech, nor does the pope assail or attack modernity or the Enlightenment. He states quite clearly that he is attempting "a critique of modern reason from within," and he notes that this project "has nothing to do with putting the clock back to the time before the Enlightenment and rejecting the insights of the modern age. The positive aspects of modernity are to be acknowledged unreservedly."
Benedict, in short, is not issuing a contemporary Syllabus of Errors. Instead, he is asking those in the West who "share the responsi bility for the right use of reason" to return to the kind of self-critical examination of their own beliefs that was the hallmark of ancient Greek thought at its best. The spirit that animates Benedict's address is not the spirit of Pius IX; it is the spirit of Socrates. Benedict is inviting all of us to ask ourselves, Do we really know what we are talking about when we talk about faith, reason, God, and community?
From Bottum's December 2006 story:
In fact, the pope seems genuinely to think that some "spiritual bonds" might unite Christians and Muslims. John Paul II was, by training, a philosopher, while Benedict is, at root, a theologian. And for Christian theologians, the question of Islam is a knotty one: Is it a Christian heresy, as the last Church Father, John of Damascus, thought? Is it an entirely separate religion, like Hinduism? Or a related one, like Judaism? Still, despite their very different understandings of human dignity and the role of free will and rationality in God's plan, pious and serious Muslims manifestly seek the divine. For Benedict XVI, Islam itself is not the problem.
Even the terrorism and political tyranny of radical Islam may not be the problem, in the pope's view. After the riots and protests and endless editorials denouncing Benedict, we can forget that the reference to the violent history of Islam constituted only a small portion of what he said at Regensburg. Through most of the lecture, he spoke instead of European history and his worries about the decline of belief in reason throughout Western culture.
This is a well-worn theme for Benedict: In his first papal address, he warned against the relativism and nihilism that has seized much of the modern world. Not the existence of violent Islamic political movements, perhaps, but certainly the success of those movements is an effect of something deeper happening outside the Muslim world. The pope's analysis seems to come down to this: Radical Islam ascendant is a symptom. Western hollowness is the disease.
And here's a Daily Standard story on Benedict XVI's 2008 speech to the U.S. Catholic bishops, which was delivered during the one and only visit to the United States of Benedict's pontificate:
TAKING A STEP BACK from the pomp and circumstance surrounding his visit to the U.S., Pope Benedict XVI descended last night into the tiny Crypt Church at the Basilica of the National Shrine in Washington, D.C. There he addressed over 300 U.S. Catholic bishops. As he sat in front of an altar dedicated to Our Lady of the Catacombs, a bespectacled Benedict XVI spoke of the challenges posed by secularism....
"Here in America, unlike many places in Europe, the secular mentality has not been intrinsically opposed to religion," he said. "Perhaps America's brand of secularism poses a particular problem: It allows for professing belief in God and respects the public role of religion and the churches, but at the same time it can subtly reduce religious belief to a lowest common denominator. Faith can become a passive acceptance that certain things 'out there' are true, but without practical relevance for everyday life...To the extent that religion becomes a purely private affair, it loses its very soul."
The pope cited this subtle secularization as a primary cause of Catholics leaving the Church. "It is becoming more and more difficult in our Western societies to speak in a meaningful way of salvation. Yet salvation--deliverance from the reality of evil, and the gift of new life and freedom in Christ--is at the heart of the Gospel," he said. This problem is compounded by "the almost complete eclipse of an eschatological sense in many of our traditionally Christian societies." He also said that due to materialism and excessive individualism, "it is easy to make the mistake of thinking we can obtain by our own efforts the fulfillment of our deepest needs."