Of Many Things

Until the appearance on Jan. 25 of Pope Benedict’s XVI’s first encyclical, Deus Est Caritas, observers had been searching with little success for hints of the new pope’s mind. Some conservatives have felt particularly stymied by the lack of red-meat decrees and denunciations. Wary progressives feared what might still come. In defiance of these expectations, Pope Benedict’s style has been calm, even serene, and sometimes comfortably pastoral. A book whose English translation is to be announced this week, written with the non-doctrinaire secularist president of the Italian senate, Professor Marcello Pera, will, I think, confirm the interpretation of Benedict’s pontificate as one of spiritual sensitivity, learning and openness. Doubtless, culture-warriors will try to spin the book as a blow against a corrupt European culture, but the text shows Benedict to be a subtle critic of post-Enlightenment Western society and a deft strategist of spiritual renewal in public life.

Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity and Islam (Basic Books) has been assembled from two lectures, one by each of the authors, and two formal letters between them, written in 2004, when the Vatican was embroiled in the debate over the inclusion of Europe’s Christian heritage in the European constitution. The then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s lecture traces the shifting boundaries of European civilization from Herodotus’s account of the Persian Wars to the recent debates over multiculturalism. His intellectual antagonists are clearly the doctrinaire secularists or laicists, who would exclude any religious influence in public affairs. (The uncorrected proofs—in line with a strange Italian usage—erroneously terms them “lay people.”) His fundamental conviction is that the coherence of Western civilization depends on an ethic of human dignity and human rights founded on belief in God.

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As pessimistic as Benedict may be about Europe, he seems optimistic about the United States. Here, as he sees it, a fruitful separation of church and state arose that allows the church to be church. In the United States, he writes, religion “emerges as a pre-political and supra-political force with the potential to have a decisive impact on political life.” He acknowledges the contribution the U.S. bishops made to the Second Vatican Council’s historic affirmation of religious liberty. “They brought to the issue,” he writes, “and to the Catholic tradition the experience of the non-state church (which had proven to be the condition for protecting the public value of fundamental Christian principles) as a Christian form that emerged from the nature of the Church.”

Another feature of Without Roots is Pope Benedict’s openness to religious developments both within and without the Catholic Church. Employing the metaphor of the tree sprung from the mustard seed (Matt 13:32), he observes, “Perhaps the church has forgotten that the tree of the Kingdom of God reaches beyond the branches of the visible church, but that is precisely why it must be a hospitable place in whose branches many guests find a place.” He concludes that both secularists “and Catholics, seekers and believers, in the dense thicket of branches filled with many birds, must reach each other with new openness.”

Another side of this receptivity is seen in Pope Benedict’s approach to public philosophy. While he adheres to belief in unique Christian insight into the moral order, he affirms the possibility of a common ethics. “The rationality of the arguments,” he writes, “should close the gap between secular ethics and religious ethics and found an ethics of reason that goes beyond such distinction.” Given the lack of consensus, particularly on life issues, however, he concedes that “[p]olitics is the art of compromise.” Christians should, at the very least, he argues, have the right of conscientious objection. “[T]he Church does not wish to impose on others,” he writes, “that which they do not understand, but it expects that others will at least respect those who allow their reason to be guided by their Christian faith.”

Without Roots is a set of occasional, unofficial documents, much of the text written in very broad strokes. Some things are stated with greater clarity than others. I was puzzled by its failure to mention the influence of Renaissance Scholasticism on European constitutionalism and theories of human rights, and I wondered about its silence over the church’s alliance with the ancien régime as a contributing factor in the rise of aggressive secularism. All in all, though, these brief essays give evidence of the open mind possessed by a spiritual reformer in search of ways by which reason and spirit can come together in the service of humanity.

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