Still soldiering on

Michael Cook
16 April 2012
Reproduced with Permission

Benedict XVI celebrates his 85th birthday today. This makes the sovereign of the Vatican City State the eighth oldest world leader. (Eighty-five sounds very senior indeed but he is a full five years behind the Governor-General of St Kitts and Nevis, Cuthbert Sebastian.)

Although insiders say that Benedict is slowing down, he lives at a pace which would kill younger men: a relentless succession of trips in Italy, trips overseas, daily speeches, a multitude of official visitors and the constant pressure of global attention.

And Joseph Ratzinger is still a one-man ideas factory. Since he was elected in 2005, he has written two books of his own as the theologian Joseph Ratzinger, has collaborated in a book-length interview, has written three encyclicals (more or less book-length theological position papers) and his collected addresses have been compiled into several books. Google, which is supposed to be the premier company for fostering creativity, ought to engage him as a consultant.

You don't have to be a Catholic, or even a Christian, to appreciate the subtlety and creativity of Ratzinger's contribution to modern thought. Although he is not a man with a flair for spin, it seems beyond doubt his brilliant syntheses of thorny issues have given renewed clarity to the countless disuputes.

It is surely his influence which accounts for a flurry of new books acknowledging the contribution of Christianity to key elements of Western thought -- from democracy to to science to human rights - written by admitted atheists! "We should call ourselves Christians if we want to maintain our liberties and preserve our civilisation," writes Marcello Pera, an unbeliever and a former president of the Italian senate, in his most recent publication, Why We Should Call Ourselves Christians.

There is no denying that Western humanism is tottering. It was born in the cradle of religious belief and is grounded on the twin cornerstones of respect for reason and awe at the dignity of mankind. But - to telescope 200 years of cultural history into a few sentences - it is quavering in a crisis of self-confidence. Religion is shut up in a closet. The ambit of reason is restricted to only those things which can be touched and measured. And human dignity is being suffocated by technology.

Furthermore, the Catholic Church has still not emerged from its own crisis of self-confidence, even though Benedict's predecessor, Karol Wojtyla, gave it a new dynamism. It is still mired in ghastly sex abuse scandals which have badly tarnished its prestige. What is remarkable about Benedict is that without shirking the burden of purifying the Church of this "filth", he has taken upon himself the task of exposing the cultural contradictions of rejecting Christianity.

Books have been and will be written about Benedict's achievement. But I'm not risking anything by highlighting out the following themes.

If the ideal society is thoroughly secular, why is depression one of the leading causes of disability? Even before he became Pope, Benedict has stressed that Christianity offers a coherent answer to our search for happiness.

Joy as the secret weapon of Christianity is a theme to which he returns again and again. "Faith gives joy. When God is not there, the world becomes desolate, and everything becomes boring, and everything is completely unsatisfactory," he said in a 1985 interview. "To that extent it can be said that the basic element of Christianity is joy. Joy not in the sense of cheap fun, which can conceal desperation in the background."

If atheism is a sign of progress, why have we trashed the environment? Few people have noticed, but ecology is a recurrent theme in Benedict's writing. This stems not from a vague pantheism or nostalgic conservatism, but from the Biblical conviction that man is the steward of creation. A desolate environment mirrors interior desolation. As he wrote in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate:

"The book of nature is one and indivisible: it takes in not only the environment but also life, sexuality, marriage, the family, social relations: in a word, integral human development. Our duties towards the environment are linked to our duties towards the human person, considered in himself and in relation to others. It would be wrong to uphold one set of duties while trampling on the other. Herein lies a grave contradiction in our mentality and practice today: one which demeans the person, disrupts the environment and damages society."

If science is so convincing, why is it so difficult to agree on fundamental issues? Militant atheists like Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens have depicted Benedict as a superstitious dolt. This is travesty of the truth. Opening up all of reality to reason instead keeping it locked in a cellar is a theme to which he seems to return almost every week. He told his countrymen in an address to the German Bundestag:

"Anything that is not verifiable or falsifiable, according to this understanding, does not belong to the realm of reason strictly understood. Hence ethics and religion must be assigned to the subjective field, and they remain extraneous to the realm of reason in the strict sense of the word. Where positivist reason dominates the field to the exclusion of all else - and that is broadly the case in our public mindset - then the classical sources of knowledge for ethics and law are excluded. This is a dramatic situation which affects everyone, and on which a public debate is necessary."

Questioning moral relativism is fundamental to his program. He keeps reminding his listeners that if reason cannot deal with intangible issues like what is good and what is just, they will be defined by whoever is most powerful.

Do we understand democracy properly if it is used as an excuse to crush human dignity? In Benedict's mind, democracy is a tool for defending human dignity, not for defining it. If it undermines human life, it loses its authority and becomes a tool for unscrupulous politicians. "For the fundamental issues of law, in which the dignity of man and of humanity is at stake, the majority principle is not enough: everyone in a position of responsibility must personally seek out the criteria to be followed when framing laws," he told the Bundestag.

If our society offers young people unprecedented opportunities for freedom, why are so many slaves to drugs, sex and consumerism? Benedict is an unlikely rock star, but he has been received rapturously by millions of young people at World Youth Days in Cologne, Sydney and Madrid. They are responding to his vision of a freedom based on truth and commitment. What Christianity offers is infinitely more attractive than gadgets and eroticism:

"a new generation of Christians is being called to help build a world in which God's gift of life is welcomed, respected and cherished - not rejected, feared as a threat and destroyed. A new age in which love is not greedy or self-seeking, but pure, faithful and genuinely free, open to others, respectful of their dignity, seeking their good, radiating joy and beauty. A new age in which hope liberates us from the shallowness, apathy and self-absorption which deaden our souls and poison our relationships."

Benedict's crystal-clear diagnoses of our cultural ailments are beginning to make more and more sense to people who are looking for answers. He will die without seeing a seismic shift in the culture. But he has laid the foundations for a critique of our feverish materialism which will be decisive in the decades to come. It's hard to imagine that his successor will do a better job. What is it they say in the Vatican? Ad multos annos! More power to your elbow!