Americans exhausted by adolescent chants of “Pass this bill!” and the rest of the rhetorical detritus of the 2012 pre-campaign might go to the Vatican web site, click on Pope Benedict XVI, and spend a half-hour reading through the texts of the Holy Father’s recent visit to his German homeland. It’s amazing how refreshing it can be to listen to an intelligent and compassionate adult after weeks slogging through the slough of sound-bites crafted from focus-group hissy fits.
For, despite the fact that a lot of the mainstream media long ago decided that Benedict XVI was a non-story (save for when he was being accused, ludicrously, of responsibility for the sexual abuse of the young), the 84-year-old pope has, in six years, established himself as perhaps the world’s premier adult, at least among major international figures. He tells the truth to the roiled worlds of Islam about the imperative of finding Islamic warrants for religious freedom and the separation of religious and political power in a just state. He tells the truth to the United Nations about the irreducible moral core of world politics and economics. He tells the truth to Great Britain about the necessity of nurturing the human ecology that makes democracy possible (and does so in the place where Thomas More was condemned).
And he does all of this without hectoring and without scolding. Rather, this elderly Bavarian, who is indisputably one of the most learned men on the planet, draws upon a deep and broad knowledge of the taproots of Western civilization, which he deploys rhetorically through the skills of a master-teacher in order to invite others into a deeper apprehension of the truth.
It’s not snap, crackle, and pop; it’s something far more nourishing. And it draws. Benedict XVI drew somewhere between 1.5 million young people to Madrid in August for World Youth Day, a massive event that got precious little media attention, especially when compared to the slavish coverage of a few thousand young hellions trashing the streets of Britain earlier in the month. And he drew large and receptive crowds in his native Germany this past week, despite the carping of such disgruntled former colleagues as Prof. Hans Küng, who told Der Spiegel that Benedict was responsible for the “Putinization of the Catholic Church”, which was rather thick, coming as it did from the Aaron Burr of the Catholic revolution that never was.
But I digress.
In the Bundestag
In his September 22 address to the Bundestag, Benedict spoke some home truths to his countrymen who, like many of their European Union compatriots, have forgotten a great deal about the cultural foundations of the West — foundations that are essential in supporting the political edifice of human rights and the rule of law. Contemporary Europe imagines that it can sustain its democratic politics with resources drawn from the continental Enlightenment and its intellectual heirs; Benedict XVI takes a longer and deeper view. And in a setting that inevitably conjures up memories of the vile anti-Semitism that led to the Shoah of European Jewry, Joseph Ratzinger boldly reached back into the Hebrew Bible to teach a lesson to politicians about their vocation:
In the First Books of Kings, it is recounted that God invited the young King Solomon, on his accession to the throne, to make a request. What will the young ruler ask for at this important moment? Success — wealth — long life — destruction of his enemies? He chooses none of these things. Instead he asks for a listening heart so that he may . . . discern between good and evil. (cf. 1 Kings 3.9). Through this story, the Bible wants to tell us what should ultimately matter for a politician. His fundamental criterion and the motivation for his work . . . must not be success, and certainly not material gain. Politics must be a striving for justice. . . . Naturally a politician will seek success, without which he would have no opportunity for effective political action at all. Yet success [must be] subordinated to the criterion of justice, to the will to do what is right, and to the understanding of what is right . . . ‘Without justice, what else is the State but a great band of robbers?,’ as Saint Augustine once said . . .
And from that patristic vantage point in 5th-century North Africa, Benedict did not hesitate to connect the dots to the bloody 20th-century drama in which he and so many of his audience were caught up: “We Germans know from our own experience that these words are no empty specter. 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.”