We are five months into 2015, and life is still unjust. People are still ignorant and hurting each other. All the things we hope and pray for – peace, love, faith, understanding – still seem unattainable.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger) has spent his life thinking, theologically, about these things. In today’s Crisis Magazine, author James Day examines Ratzinger’s writings and teachings regarding “the source of mankind’s pervading unhappiness and alienation from each other and God.”
Ratzinger has seen in his lifetime a world transformed from celebrating widespread Catholic feast days in the “years of Our Lord,” Annis Domini—A.D.—to the artificial designation of the relativistic Common Era, and with it, an abandonment of things divine and a lowering of standards so much so we dare not contemplate forgiveness, reconciliation, and a new way. This transformation has been a disaster for both the possibility of real change and recognizing the impact of Benedict’s place in culture’s wake. James V. Schall’s reflection written the week of the pope’s abdication continues to hold true today: “Anyone who is not aware of the intellectual caliber of Benedict simply reveals his own incompetence or incomprehension.”
In September, 2006, then-Pope Benedict XVI took the stage at Regensburg, it what has become an infamous speech. His words were true, but the media and others completely misunderstood them.
The near-4,000 word address, which contains over a dozen endnotes, focused more on the necessity of using reason when it comes to the question of God than what sparked the controversy, which was a passage from the fourteenth-century Byzantine emperor Manuel II Benedict quoted and very quickly taken out of context: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” Lars Brownworth noted the paradox of the unfortunate violence that ensued in Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization: “Benedict XVI [argued] that violence had no place in faith. Ironically, the speech unleashed a firestorm of controversy in the Middle East, resulting in the destruction of some churches and several deaths.”
Now, we live in a world of Charlie Hedbo, where a cartoon of Muhammad unleashes a terrorist attack. How should we view Ratzinger’s thoughts in light of this? Acton’s Director of Research, Samuel Gregg:
Many professional interfaith dialoguers didn’t like the Regensburg address because it highlighted just how much of their discussion was utterly peripheral to the main game and consisted in many instances of happy talk that avoided any serious conversation about the real differences that exist between many religions,” Gregg noted in an interview shortly after the January 2015 jihadist attack. “It also annoyed those who believe that all religions are ultimately the same and of equal worth.”
Day attempts to sum up Ratzinger’s theological career:
Throughout Joseph Ratzinger’s career, we have seen the recurring theme that to create a truly humane existence, tolerance and dialogue are only stepping stones to a better world, one made up of authentic love and respect. The tendency to lump anything religious into a lot to be ignored and dismissed as irrelevant leaves a secular culture ill equipped to respond effectively to challenges such as the Hebdo attack, ISIS or any number of acts of violence that have occurred this year. Samuel Gregg, George Weigel and other observers cite Regensburg as one of the most important speeches to be delivered in the twenty-first century, leading, one hopes, to an eventual widespread recognition of the value of Benedict’s insights.
Benedict was a very different thinker from his predecessor, St. John Paul II. St. John Paul II was a philosopher, for one, and Benedict a theologian. The lens through which they saw the world each had a different focus. They have one thing in common, however: it will be many years before the Church and the world fully understands the import of their work.