Benedict’s Legacy
A brilliant mind, a peerless communicator, an indifferent executive

St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City (Katie Hosmer)


Thus, with Benedict XVI, the door is closing on the Counter-Reformation Church and an ecclesial sensibility of institutional maintenance, as the door opens on Evangelical Catholicism: a Church in which all Catholics understand themselves to have been called to a missionary vocation, and in which every Catholic enters mission territory every day. In completing this transition from one phase of Catholic history to another, Benedict XVI ended, for all serious purposes, the 40-year debate over the Catholic future that ensued after Vatican II. The strategy has now been defined, Catholic Lite is over, and the Barque of Peter is launched on the course proposed by John Paul II in his apostolic letter closing the Great Jubilee of 2000 — the Catholic Church is putting out “into the deep” (as John Paul wrote, citing Jesus in Luke 5:4): The Church is casting its nets into the roiling waters of postmodernity in order to convert the world. How? By proposing Jesus Christ as the answer to the question that is every human life, and by modeling a more humane way of living in an increasingly frigid and calculating world that measures human beings by their utility rather than honoring their inalienable dignity.

As for the world, Benedict XVI has left behind a legacy of profound insight into democracy and its 21st-century discontents, in what the Canadian author Father Raymond de Souza has nicely styled the “September Addresses.”

In September 2006 at Regensburg, the Bavarian university where he taught before being named archbishop of Munich and Freising, Benedict XVI reminded the Western world that its civilization derived from the fruitful interaction of Jerusalem and Athens: the encounter between Biblical religion and Greek reason, which purified religion while deepening and broadening rationality. Absent either Jerusalem or Athens, Benedict warned, the Western commitment to the rule of law (the Roman contribution to the foundations of the West) would weaken, and perhaps crumble.

Moreover, he suggested, in the meeting of revelation and reason that was Christianity’s engagement with classical learning, Islam could find a model by which it could move beyond its present intellectual sterility, thus abandoning the lethal politics that derive from a faith undisciplined by reason. Might Islam find, in an encounter between disciplined reason and its own religious resources, a way to warrant both religious tolerance and the separation of religious and political authority in a 21st-century state? That, Benedict argued, was the way that Islam and “the rest” might find a way to coexistence, perhaps even mutual enlightenment. He was pilloried for suggesting any such thing by an uncomprehending world media and by less learned men, such as the ubiquitous Al Jazeera commentator Yususf al-Qaradawi. But history will show that Benedict put his finger squarely on the critical issues that must be addressed if this clash of civilizations is to be tempered.

Then, at the Collège des Bernardins in Paris in September 2008, Benedict XVI took up the other side of the reason/revelation dyad, suggesting that reason cut off from revelation — from transcendent truths encountered in the Word of God — was, inevitably, diminished. Reason’s “capitulation” to positivism, as he put it, led to a hollowing out of culture, for a culture that dismissed the Word would become a culture of mere words: a culture of sound and fury signifying, not nothing, but a new kind of barbarism. It was an astutely placed observation in the very city where madcap rationalism had led to the Reign of Terror.

In Westminster Hall in London, addressing the great and good of the United Kingdom in September 2010, Benedict XVI (the German pope who thanked the people of the U.K. for having won the Battle of Britain) gently reminded his listeners that they were gathered at the place where Sir Thomas More had been tried, found guilty of treason, and condemned to death. Here, the pope suggested, was a lesson for the present: Just governance is imperiled without men and women of conscience, whose conscience tells them (as their faith reveals to them) that there are limits to state power, and that even the noblest polity can descend into tyranny when power trumps moral truth at every point.

March 11, 2013    |     Volume LXV, No. 4

  • The progress of Stephen Harper, Canada’s Conservative prime minister.
  • We never needed a postal monopoly.
Books, Arts & Manners
  • Allis Radosh reviews Coolidge, by Amity Shlaes.
  • Matthew J. Franck reviews Constitutional Conservatism: Liberty, Self-Government, and Political Moderation, by Peter Berkowitz.
  • W. Bradford Wilcox reviews What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster, by Jonathan V. Last.
  • Mackubin Thomas Owens reviews The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today, by Thomas E. Ricks.
  • Katherine Connell reviews Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church, by George Weigel.
  • Ross Douthat reviews Side Effects.
The Long View  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Athwart  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Poetry  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Happy Warrior  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .