This is the first of a seven-part series on the papacy of Benedict XVI. Part 1: Pope Benedict vs. Secularism.
It is certainly sad that Pope Benedict will be leaving us, but we should not forget all that he has left us — a great legacy of the deepest theological and philosophical reflection that can guide and inspire the New Evangelization he’s demanded of us. A little history puts that legacy in its proper context.
The first Benedict, St. Benedict of Nursia (480-547), left us a rule that established monastic order in the West and, in doing so, grounded the evangelization of Europe. Benedictine monasticism was the deepest root of the Church’s infusion of order into a pagan society, creating a fountain of spiritual, intellectual and moral discipline that saturated the fragile seeds of the Gospel planted in the Church’s first centuries so that they could grow into Christendom, a unified civilization built out of the woefully disparate elements of a decaying empire and brutal, warring local tribes.
It is in this precise sense of integration through the faith that Hilaire Belloc’s famous epigram so admirably captured: “Europe is the faith, and the faith is Europe.”
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who has lived through much of Europe’s disintegration, chose an appropriate name upon becoming pope in 2005. When I heard that he took the name Benedictus XVI, the chilling ending of philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue immediately came to mind.
Drawing a parallel between the fall of Rome and consequent Dark Ages of barbarism and societal disorder in the fifth century, and the radical moral and social disintegration of our own time that is ushering in a new barbarism, MacIntyre wrote that “we are not entirely without hope. This time, the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another — doubtless very different — St. Benedict.”
While it is premature to speak of canonization, Pope Benedict has seen all too clearly the forces of disintegration in Europe caused by drying up the faith that was the original source of its integration. For Benedict, the horrors of the 20th century were a kind of return to pagan barbarism, a barbarism much darker than the one from which the Christian faith saved the West a millennium and a half before.
Benedict sees at the heart of this return to darkness and disorder the West’s embrace of radical secularism, a creed that explicitly denies the truths of the faith and reduces human beings to soulless material creatures. It is the creed that, in attacking the faith, purposely unwinds Christendom and returns us to a worse kind of paganism and barbarism than that from which the faith had once delivered us.
“When a culture attempts to suppress the dimension of ultimate mystery, and to close the doors to transcendent truth,” Pope Benedict warned, “it inevitably becomes impoverished and falls prey, as the late Pope John Paul II so clearly saw, to reductionist and totalitarian readings of the human person and the nature of society.”
If anything, Pope Benedict has been more insistent than Pope John Paul II on this point.
But the danger doesn’t just threaten Europe. The just-quoted words come from Pope Benedict’s ad limina address to the American bishops in early 2012. We, too, face the same forces of disintegration, for we are cultural offspring of the Christendom that defined Europe. And so the Pope issued a call to all of us:
“Here, once more, we see the need for an engaged, articulate and well-formed Catholic laity, endowed with a strong critical sense vis-à-vis the dominant culture and with the courage to counter a reductive secularism which would delegitimize the Church’s participation in public debate about the issues which are determining the future of American society. The preparation of committed lay leaders and the presentation of a convincing articulation of the Christian vision of man and society remain a primary task of the Church in your country; as essential components of the New Evangelization, these concerns must shape the vision and goals of catechetical programs at every level.”
I will be offering the following six guest blogs as a contribution to that effort.