Published: April 20 2005
Joseph Ratzinger has a reputation as a crustily conservative theologian that is quite at odds with a sunny and witty personality. It also does not reflect the way in which over the past years he has been trying to develop the moral theology of the Catholic Church. He was presumably elected as a gesture of continuity with the legacy of John Paul II, to whom he was very close. What bound them was an intellectual affinity. Cardinal Ratzinger - who has chosen the papal name Benedict XVI - is a man of ideas, fascinated by the history of the papacy. Are there historical parallels to the present that might hold out some instruction?
In particular, he sees one 18th century pope (another Benedict) as a model for a Church in a self-consciously secular world. In the Enlightenment, belief was in rapid retreat. Cardinal Lambertini, the head of the Roman inquisition (whose successor, the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, headed up to now by Cardinal Ratzinger) thought it was not enough for the church to be defensive. But if the church was to deal with a world in which active Christians were in a minority, it needed to convince others of the importance of what it was saying. It could no longer do this by force, but needed to use argument and rationality. So Lambertini corresponded with Voltaire, the greatest philosopher of the French Enlightenment, and maintained this dialogue when he became Pope Benedict XIV.
In the early 21st century, with belief receding in much of the industrial world, Cardinal Ratzinger thought it important to start a dialogue. Two issues in particular brought him together with a secular European liberal and left liberal tradition: the question of the legitimacy of armed interventions, and the legitimacy of human attempts to alter the genetic environment. On both of these central debates, Cardinal Ratzinger, like his predecessor, interpreted the church's teaching about human dignity. He found a liberal tradition instinctively hostile to attempts to reshape the world by the application of political science theories in the style of American neo-conservatives, or to remake the genetic world by natural science. But that tradition found it hard to explain the ethical basis of their opposition.
At the beginning of last year, Cardinal Ratzinger participated in a debate with Jürgen Habermas, the leading European philosopher of secular rationality. It was a conscious reworking of the dialogue of Voltaire and Benedict XIV. Cardinal Ratzinger concluded there was a "necessary co-relationship of reason and belief, which are called to mutual healing and cleansing, and each of which need each other". He also posed the problem in a fundamental way: both secular rationality and traditional Christianity had been accustomed to think of themselves as universalistic, but it was very obvious that this claim to universality was contested. The fact that there are big clashes does not mean the modern world can only be interpreted through the lens of Samuel Huntington as a "clash of civilisations". So Cardinal Ratzinger thought that the clash needed to be ended with a dialogue. He concluded it was necessary to reject not only religious pathologies (in other words radicalised fundamentalism), but also rationalistic pathologies (such as the pathologies of Marxism). Only on the basis of a re-examination of values could the two traditions, religious and secular, establish a "polyphonic co-relationship" and begin a "process of cleansing". Instead of thinking that economic development and enhanced technology would automatically produce prosperity and thus solve by a kind of magic the problem of values, he felt we needed to think and talk explicitly about values. There are more commonalities across cultures in this discussion than we initially might suppose.
A symbolic and perhaps important exemplification of unity around values was the line-up in modern Rome at the funeral of John Paul II. Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders appeared in a show of unity, while the Israeli and Iranian presidents shook hands. A notion of the commonality of values despite difference might even be extended beyond the brackets linking religious traditions to the debate of reason and faith that Habermas and Cardinal Ratzinger tried to begin.
Can this dialogue really be a productive one? The 18th century story is usually confined to a historical footnote. The century is the century of Voltaire, not that of Benedict XIV. Can Benedict XVI be more successful in the debate begun by Benedict XIV?
The writer is professor of history at Princeton University and author of Europe Reborn (Longman)