ROME — Theologian and author Michael Novak currently holds the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. The veteran Vatican-watcher spoke recently with Register correspondent Edward Pentin about some of the emerging themes of the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI.

What is your opinion on Pope Benedict's strategy on confronting secularism, particularly in Europe?

That is the leading issue. He would be evading reality if he did not address it.

It's not simply that Europe is becoming more secular and that's not Christian. It's really that it's very dangerous to the European conception of rights. There is a humanism that has been built into Christianity since Christ, but made quite explicit in St. Augustine's City of God, which was written in 420 A.D.

But it's very clear in Aquinas — Aquinas really put the stamp of humanism on the Church well before the secular Renaissance. There's a very fine book by Professor Rubenstein from George Mason University called Aristotle's Children (Harcourt, 2003). There's a decisive moment which moves the West ahead of the Muslim world — Aquinas, the turning to Aristotle, which put the West on an empirical path that had enormous power.

You have to remember, as the sociologist Robert Nisbet said, the Enlightenment chose for itself in its own name one of the all-time high marks of bigotry — it called itself the Enlightenment, the enemy's the darkness. My goodness, how much can you stack the argument?

This was tragic because many of the best things of the Enlightenment were actually Christian values in secular terms but now without their Christian grounding. For instance, a care for the vulnerable and the needy — every progressive person feels that today. But that's not Greek nor Roman, nor is it Kantian. Even though it's described in secular terms — liberté, égalité, fraternité (liberty, equality, fraternity) — it's a Christian inheritance.

How much do you think the problems of secularism could be a cause of a possible “clash of civilizations”?

If you look at the new Islam, the secular political movement, one of the main strains has been the appalling record of the secular West, which is the disdain for what happens to young Muslims when they come into the secular West and the wasteland that is the spiritual landscape.

They find themselves spiritually far superior in depth and in their sense of God to what they see in the West. And they particularly single out France for this, and Turkey. Turkey took a draconian secular model rather than the British and American way [that was] a mild kind of secularism and a tolerant sort of secularism, recognizing the role of religion.

As Pope Benedict says, they're against societies that have become godless?

Yes, to them it's a distressingly low-brow, low-value basis for civilization. It opens to hedonism and nihilism.

So when Pope Benedict calls on Europe to rediscover its Christian roots to tackle it, that's going to the heart of the same issue?

I would think so, and this will have an impact on family life, on morale, on confidence in the future, even — though it may be a little bit strong — its stability. There are pearl-like sentences in Pope Benedict's speech in Subiaco in early April.

Why is the evolution debate so prominent right now in the United States?

It is partly because the science is leading so many scientists — those who are not in biology and even some who are — to have a few questions about the overstatements of Darwin's theory, and that at so many junctures in evolution history, cosmic history even, a slight change in the conditions would have made human life impossible on earth, and at every one of those junctures a turn was taken to making human life possible.

This happened several hundred times, if you think about it, so there seems to be a pattern here. That's what they mean by intelligent design: The design was always one way and that was in the direction of human consciousness.

And the rational response of the Catholic Church gives room for debate?

Yes, for those who are willing to take it up, and more and more are.

What's really striking is the number of intellectuals who have become pro-life in the last 10 years. Take for example the Weekly Standard, but they're not alone. Quite remarkable, because once you admit to yourself that whatever it is that's aborted has its own individual genetic code, you can no longer say it's a thing. You can no longer say it's anything but a human being in general. It's an individual human being, and then the more you let that sink in, the more the logic unfolds.

What's your overall assessment of Benedict so far?

You remember how people used to cheer “John Paul II, we love you”? The new cheer is taking the Roman numeral I, “Benedict X-V-I, he's our guy.” That sort of says it. I think he's very popular so far.

Are there many surprises to come?

I think so — he's going to be a much more radical Pope than people expect.

Generally, my theory is, “Go with the brightest guy.” Bright guys don't always have their heads turned on straight, but if they do, go with that guy. I think the cardinals did that.

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.