Remember a Time in September
September means the children return to school, the university campuses come alive again, and I will miss Pope Benedict XVI. Not just in general, but in September. The pope emeritus left us an impressive array of papal teaching, to say nothing of his indispensable contributions to the pontificate of soon-to-be Saint John Paul the Great, his remarkable career as a superlative theologian and his Biblical preaching, which many commentators put on par with that of Saint Gregory the Great.
Yet in September he was most fully who he is, the great professor called to be the universal pastor. On four occasions in his almost eight-year pontificate, on apostolic visits in Europe, he would, as it were, retrieve his academic robes and put them atop his papal cassock to deliver a great magisterial lecture, continuing the medieval tradition of a great scholar addressing an important topic of general interest. There were four great lectures—the September Speeches, as I call them: University of Regensburg (2006), Coll ège des Bernardins in Paris (2007), Westminster Parliament (2010), and the Bundestag in Berlin (2011). All were given on September trips of the Holy Father, perhaps prepared with care over the preceding summer months; when others retreated to the lakes or mountains, Joseph Ratzinger retreated to his books.
In the September Speeches, Benedict laid out the Christian tradition on faith and reason, and the role of truth in public life. At Regensburg, he explained that faith cannot demand what is contrary to reason, especially in regard to violence. At the Coll ège des Bernardins, he examined the question from the opposite end, pointing out that reason without faith becomes turned in on itself and unable to answer man's fundamental questions. At Westminster, in the place where Saint Thomas More was condemned to death, he spoke of the importance of conscience in political life. In his own national parliament in Berlin, he spoke, echoing Saint Augustine, of how politics without truth renders the State a "band of robbers." In the magisterial lectures, which were exercises of Benedict's professorial mind more than of his Petrine office, the Holy Father laid the foundations for a humane approach to the most pressing public questions of the 21st century.
Had he remained in the See of Peter, perhaps this September would have brought another magisterial lecture, as one would have been due two years after the Bundestag. Yet lacking another one ought not lead us to neglect what we already have, and what I hope will be an enduring part of Benedict's corpus of teaching.
Regensburg: Faith Must Be Reasonable
Regensburg remains the most famous of the lectures because of the lethal riots that followed in the Islamic world afterward. Some regard it as an early gaffe in Benedict's pontificate, before he learned that being pope was different than being a provocative professor. Hardly. Sometimes a pastor has to provoke, especially when lethal threats are lurking about. That said, jihadi violence was not the main focus of the Regensburg address.
On September 12, 2006, the day after the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Benedict returned to the university where he had taught as a young professor to speak about faith and reason, religion and violence. Faith and reason need each other as paths to truth was Benedict's submission, and this was an essential part of Christian belief because the God who reveals Himself (faith) is also the author of the natural order and the human capacity to understand it (reason). The Holy Father highlighted that the prologue of John's Gospel begins, "In the beginning was the word (logos)," and logos is the Greek word for reason. God is reasonable, and so to act contrary to reason is to act contrary to God.
Benedict then asked if Islam conceives of God in the same way. Does Islam have an equivalent to the divine logos? Does the Islamic conception of God as utterly transcendent, beyond all human categories, mean that God is beyond reason itself? The suggestion is not that Allah is insane or irrational, but rather that He is not bound by a reason accessible to human beings.
Benedict argued that faith without reason gives rise to fundamentalism. Reason without faith produces a secularism that cannot address the most fundamental of human questions about origin, destiny and meaning. Much of Benedict's address was directed against the latter phenomenon, criticizing a modern secularism that has nothing to say to people of faith, and nothing to say about the foundations of human culture. In criticizing the neglect of reason in favour of faith alone, Benedict criticized a major figure in the history of Catholic philosophy, Duns Scotus, who made this mistake.
So why, if that was Benedict's main point, get into Islam at all? Why the incendiary late-14th century quotation from Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus—the one that ostensibly set off riots on the inflammable Muslim street? "Show me just what Mohammed 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."
One of the potential consequences of a faith-only fundamentalism is violence. Violent force—which by its nature does not seek to persuade—can grow out of a zeal to convert without recourse to reason. It is simply a fact that Islamic violence is a growing problem around the world. Muslims themselves are the first victims of it, but Christians in Islamic countries regularly face harassment and persecution. Benedict wanted to clarify that the roots of this violence lie in a perversion of Islam, not its authentic theology. That's a task only Muslims can accomplish, but the Holy Father has a pulpit—and a scholar's gifts—sufficient to draw attention to the issue.
Benedict likely chose the dialogue between Manuel II and his Persian interlocutor because it deals directly with this question in a historically suggestive setting. Manuel II was one of the last Byzantine emperors; some 50 years after this dialogue, Constantinople would fall to the Ottomans and the great Hagia Sophia would become a mosque. Manuel II is an emperor under siege from Muslim armies—not only Muslim armies; he was threatened at times by Christians, too—but nevertheless with a concrete experience of the sword of Islam.
"The emperor goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable," said Benedict, in the key passage that immediately followed the words that got all the attention. "Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul."
He then quotes Manuel II on the key point: "God is not pleased by blood, and not acting reasonably is contrary to God's nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats.... To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death...."
One need only recourse to reason—and, a Christian would insist, divine Grace. Neither reason nor Grace operates by coercive violence.
The enduring aftermath of Regensburg was more hopeful than the immediate bloodiness. More than a hundred prestigious Muslim scholars from around the world signed an open letter, respectfully taking up the issues Benedict raised at Regensburg. More remarkable, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia went to visit Benedict just a year later, in November 2007. The House of Saud facilitates Islamist extremism in order to secure its hold on power, and fears it as a threat to its hold on power. The King heard hopeful things at Regensburg, and after his visit to Rome, followed up in July 2008 with an astonishing gesture, holding an interfaith conference to which he invited Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and others to combat religious extremism. The need for it was demonstrated by the fact that such a conference could not be held in Saudi Arabia itself, as non-Muslims cannot openly practise their faith there. So the conference was hosted in a royal palace near Madrid, with the King of Spain hosting King Abdullah and his guests.
"Differences do not lead to conflict and confrontation; we have to state that tragedies which have occurred in history were not caused by religion but by extremism adopted by some of the followers of each one of the religions," Abdullah said.
Not remarkable in itself, but remarkable that the Saudi King would say so to Christians, to Jews and to Muslims. Regensburg was not a gaffe, but a gem.
Coll ège Des Bernardins: Culture Needs Faith
On the second anniversary of his address at Regensburg, Benedict delivered another magisterial lecture, this one in Paris on his apostolic visit to France. At a special meeting with representatives from the world of culture at the Coll ège des Bernardins, Benedict returned to his favoured theme of the relationship of faith and reason: Regensburg revisited but from the other direction, namely that the work of faith allows reason to advance and produces the fruits of culture. Reason needs faith; culture arises from the intellectual work of the faith. Speaking in a setting "built by the spiritual sons of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux," Benedict looked at how the world of faith—the desire to seek God—requires the world of intellectual work, of research and the application of reason. In this way, the world of faith uses the tools of reason, which in turn develops the world of culture.
"I would like to speak with you this evening of the origins of western theology and the roots of European culture," Benedict said. "I begin by recalling that the place in which we are gathered is in a certain way emblematic. It is in fact a place tied to monastic culture, insofar as young monks came to live here in order to learn to understand their vocation more deeply and to be more faithful to their mission. We are in a place that is associated with the culture of monasticism. Does this still have something to say to us today, or are we merely encountering the world of the past? From the perspective of monasticism's historical influence, we could say that, amid the great cultural upheaval resulting from migrations of peoples and the emerging new political configurations, the monasteries were the places where the treasures of ancient culture survived, and where at the same time a new culture slowly took shape out of the old. But how did it happen?"
The monks did not have a worldly goal in mind. They did not set out to preserve a cultural heritage or to create islands of education in a barbaric age. Their goal was a supernatural one, to search for God—quaerere Deum. But in doing so, they served the world of education and culture.
"Because they were Christians, quaerere Deum was not an expedition into a trackless wilderness, a search leading them into total darkness," said Benedict. "God himself had provided signposts, indeed he had marked out a path which was theirs to find and to follow. This path was His word, which had been disclosed to men in the books of the sacred Scriptures. Thus, by inner necessity, the search for God demands a culture of the word or—as Jean Leclercq put it: eschatology and grammar are intimately connected with one another in Western monasticism. The longing for God, the désir de Dieu, includes amour des lettres, love of the word, exploration of all its dimensions."
Benedict argued in Paris that in order to understand better who God is, the monks turned to the Scriptures, but the Scriptures themselves need to be interpreted. This is what is meant by the connection between "eschatology" and "grammar." Eschatology refers to the study of the last things or the ultimate things: death, judgment, Heaven and Hell. The monks were searching for the ultimate realities, and their concern was to understand better the world to which they were directed—the world of Heavenly things. Yet to understand those ultimate things, they needed to study the words in which God had revealed Himself. Hence the need for grammar—the study of language—and the other disciplines required to better comprehend the Scriptures such as history, geography and literature.
"Because in the Biblical word God comes towards us and we towards him, we must learn to penetrate the secret of language, to understand it in its construction and in the manner of its expression," Benedict explained. "Thus it is through the search for God that the secular sciences take on their importance, sciences which show us the path towards language. Because the search for God required the culture of the word, it was appropriate that the monastery should have a library, pointing out pathways to the word. It was also appropriate to have a school, in which these pathways could be opened up.… The monastery serves [erudition], the formation and education of man—a formation whose ultimate aim is that man should learn how to serve God. But it also includes the formation of reason—education—through which man learns to perceive, in the midst of words, the Word itself."
Hence the world of reason becomes essential for the Christian believer. The monastery might devote its primary attention to the chapel for the worship of God, but it was also essential to have a library and a classroom, to study and know better the God who was worshipped. The world of faith thus provides the deepest motivation for learning. As a result, monasteries became places of broad learning in all the natural sciences. Combined with the monks' devotion to sacred art and music, the conditions were established for cultural flourishing. That cultural flourishing is needed today, as our contemporary culture is painful to encounter in so many respects, precisely because many of the things of God have disappeared from our common life.
"Our cities are no longer filled with altars and with images of multiple deities," Benedict concluded. "God has truly become for many the great unknown. But just as in the past, when behind the many images of God the question concerning the unknown God was hidden and present, so too the present absence of God is silently besieged by the question concerning Him. Quaerere Deum—to seek God and to let oneself be found by Him, that is today no less necessary than in former times. A purely positivistic culture which tried to drive the question concerning God into the subjective realm, as being unscientific, would be the capitulation of reason, the renunciation of its highest possibilities, and hence a disaster for humanity, with very grave consequences. What gave Europe's culture its foundation—the search for God and the readiness to listen to Him—remains today the basis of any genuine culture."
Any refined person today finds in our culture so much that is banal and boring, to say nothing of that which is embarrassing and degrading. We seek out the cultural achievements of times past to lift our spirits and remind us that man is capable of noble things. In Paris, Benedict argued that on its own, distant from the quaerere Deum, our culture is much as we experience it today. If we desire something better, we need God, or at least the monks who search for Him.
Westminster Hall: An Ethical Foundation For Politics
Sometimes words are inadequate to the moment, and the Westminster moment in September 2010, carrying with it nearly 500 years of history, was beyond words. It was an immense privilege to be present. And I heard in Parliament, home of some of the greatest debates in the English language, the great silence; an abiding and expectant silence as Britain's political establishment waited for Benedict at the site where Saint Thomas More and other martyrs were condemned to death for their Catholic faith. Led by all the former living British prime ministers, the political class of Britain knew that a truly singular moment was at hand. The peers and powerful of British politics, accustomed to the usual parade of princes and prime ministers, knew that receiving the pope was something on an altogether different plane.
Westminster Hall is the most ancient part of the Palace of Westminster, the place where sovereigns lie in state, and where a grateful nation paid its respects to Winston Churchill. It was here that the institutions of Crownin-Parliament developed, providing the foundation for democratic government the world over. For a pope to speak here was a moment of world-historical importance.
"Allow me also to express my esteem for the Parliament which has existed on this site for centuries and which has had such a profound influence on the development of participative government among the nations, especially in the Commonwealth and the English-speaking world at large," said Benedict, in words that were characterized as "extraordinarily generous" by his host, the Speaker of the House of Lords.
Calling the British common law tradition "an inspiration to many around the world," Benedict then turned to the dominant theme, namely that law without an ethical foundation could easily descend into tyranny. It happened at Westminster on July 1, 1535, when Thomas More, former Lord Chancellor and former Speaker of the House of Commons, was condemned to death for his refusal to recognize King Henry VIII as head of the Church. It remains one of the saddest moments in British history, lamented now by both Anglicans and Catholics alike.
Benedict asked Britain's ruling class if there was room today for men of conscience like Thomas More or whether religious believers had to leave their faith behind in order to contribute to public life. The words were not new, but to pronounce them in Westminster Hall, at the birthplace of parliamentary democracy, gave them unusual gravity.
"The central question at issue, then, is this: where is the ethical foundation for political choices to be found?" Benedict asked. He argued that faith and reason must work together to provide that foundation, lest there be no ultimate limit on what power might do—whether it be tyranny in the16th century or the totalitarianisms of the 20th.
"Religion, in other words, is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation," Benedict said before addressing the problem of aggressive secularism in Britain. "In this light, I cannot but voice my concern at the increasing marginalization of religion, particularly of Christianity, that is taking place in some quarters, even in nations which place a great emphasis on tolerance. There are those who would advocate that the voice of religion be silenced, or at least relegated to the purely private sphere. There are those who argue that the public celebration of festivals such as Christmas should be discouraged, in the questionable belief that it might somehow offend those of other religions or none.... These are worrying signs of a failure to appreciate not only the rights of believers to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, but also the legitimate role of religion in the public square."
Those worrying signs, identified at the mother of all parliaments, apply equally to Canada and those other countries whose parliaments are the daughters of Westminster. British Prime Minister David Cameron told Benedict as he departed England, "[Y]ou have really challenged the whole country to sit up and think"—and for those who might consider thinking burdensome or dangerous, added quickly "and that can only be a good thing." A necessary thing, too.
Bundestag: Preventing The Return Of The "Gang Of Robbers"
A year after Westminster, in his own federal parliament, Benedict delivered a truly remarkable address to his German countrymen in Berlin. Amplifying, in his native language, the argument he made in English, he outlined the Christian contribution to the ethical foundations of the law:
"Europe's cultural heritage ought to come to our assistance. The conviction that there is a Creator God is what gave rise to the idea of human rights, the idea of the equality of all people before the law, the recognition of the inviolability of human dignity in every single person and the awareness of people's responsibility for their actions. Our cultural memory is shaped by these rational insights. To ignore it or dismiss it as a thing of the past would be to dismember our culture totally and to rob it of its completeness. The culture of Europe arose from the encounter between Jerusalem, Athens and Rome—from the encounter between Israel's monotheism, the philosophical reason of the Greeks and Roman law. This three-way encounter has shaped the inner identity of Europe. In the awareness of man's responsibility before God and in the acknowledgment of the inviolable dignity of every single human person, it has established criteria of law: it is these criteria that we are called to defend at this moment in our history.
"As he assumed the mantle of office, the young King Solomon was invited to make a request. How would it be if we, the lawmakers of today, were invited to make a request? What would we ask for? I think that, even today, there is ultimately nothing else we could wish for but a listening heart—the capacity to discern between good and evil, and thus to establish true law, to serve justice and peace."
The final September Speech summarizes the entire argument of the Holy Father. The great project of Western Civilization has three contributing parts: Greek philosophy, Roman law and Biblical revelation. Benedict goes so far as to say that the expression of the Biblical faith of Israel in the Greek language itself belongs to the history of revelation. His argument is that if one of the three is removed—the Greek confidence in the use of reason to know the truth with certainty; the Roman confidence in the capacity of law to achieve justice and the order that is peace; or the transcendent horizons and unchanging principles revealed by God first to Israel and then most fully in Jesus Christ, born and put to death in sight of Jerusalem—the entire project is threatened by fundamentalisms of all kinds. Our elite culture is alert to the danger of religious extremism and fundamentalism, but secular fundamentalism is real, too, and a mortal threat to liberal democracy is also posed by what Joseph Ratzinger called, on the eve of his election to the papacy, the "dictatorship of relativism."
An assembly like the Bundestag carefully follows its procedures and norms. Yet laws that are only procedurally correct can be easily manipulated, even perverting justice if so desired by powerful interests. Benedict noted that had happened in Germany by quoting his favourite author, Saint Augustine: "Without justice—what else is the State but a great band of robbers?"
He further elaborated: "We Germans know from our own experience that these words are no empty spectre. We have seen how power became divorced from right, how power opposed right and crushed it, so that the State became an instrument for destroying right—a highly organized band of robbers, capable of threatening the whole world and driving it to the edge of the abyss."