Religion & Liberty Online

Faith and Reason in the Life and Work of Benedict XVI

(Image credit: Associated Press)

The passing of Joseph Ratzinger, pope emeritus, offers an opportunity to reflect on his legacy as a teacher, not only within the Church but for the world.

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With the December 31 passing of Pope Benedict XVI, the Catholic Church, Christianity, and the world lost one of the most significant and insightful minds of the last century. Certainly, within the Church, Joseph Ratzinger was among the most influential and esteemed theologians of the second half of the 20th century, all the way through his pontificate in the early 21st, to include the period of the Second Vatican Council, to which he was an important adviser. Unfortunately, this intimidating intellectual stature often led observers to paint Ratzinger, as Benedict and before, as a curmudgeonly recluse, bookish and aloof, where his predecessor in the Chair of St. Peter had been outgoing and charismatic. In fact, though, Ratzinger the theologian was an exciting figure with an uplifting style, writing on serious and complex subject matters in a way that made it accessible and moving for the wider public. Moreover, his speeches and written work were optimistic and generous to his interlocutors, with calls for the faithful to engage happily and lovingly with the world. It is this Joseph Ratzinger, this Pope Benedict XVI, that should be celebrated at this time, both because such recognition is deserved and because so many of his consistent messages bear repeating now and in the future.

Among the remarkable contributions of Pope Benedict XVI to Western thought, his address to the faculty of the University of Regensburg in September 2006, or “The Regensburg Lecture,” stands out. In it the then-pontiff provides, in brief and moving form, a truly enlightening summary of the relation between faith and reason in the modern world. The speech made international headlines and caused no small amount of controversy for one particular line, which contained not Benedict’s own words but those of a 14th-century Byzantine emperor in dialogue with a Persian counterpart around the time of the siege of Constantinople. The dialogue was relevant as it covered the themes of both faith in relation to reason and violence in relation to faith. The controversial quote, which was critical of Islam in its position on these philosophical relations, was even introduced by Benedict with the disclaimer that it was made “with a startling brusqueness, a brusqueness that we find unacceptable.” That disclaimer notwithstanding, many in the Muslim world took great exception, and many in the Western media followed suit.

That said, most in the West, to include prominent political figures, insisted that the quote was purposely being taken out of context and that the speech in general was to be celebrated. The world moved on, and now the Regensburg Lecture can rightly be viewed and discussed for the masterpiece that it is. True to form, Benedict began the remarks with a celebration of collegiality among diverse thinkers from varying fields of study: “Despite our specializations which at times make it difficult to communicate with each other, we made up a whole, working in everything on the basis of a single rationality with its various aspects and sharing responsibility for the right use of reason.” The basis in reason, and its “right use,” was telling, as the pope went on to emphasize reason as a theme that could unify modernity, progress, and faith.

Specifically, Benedict teased out, starting with the Byzantine emperor’s (Manuel II Palaeologus) dialogue, the way in which Greek philosophy—what the present-day observer might describe as Aristotelean thinking—had joined the tenets of Christianity to clarify and forward an understanding of God and reason, resulting in an approach that the present-day observer might describe as Thomism. He quotes the emperor: “God is not pleased by blood—and not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature…. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats.” God’s nature is to act with reason, Benedict emphasized, before tracing this line of thought throughout all of biblical and Christian tradition. The God of the burning bush, with the “I am” statement, asserted reality over myth, and reasserted the same reality even apart from the ancestral homeland of Israel at the time of the Babylonian exile (as God’s reality was not dependent on land). It was a point brought to ultimate clarity in the prologue to the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.” Importantly, of course, “word” in that prologue was conveyed by the Greek logos, which meant, also, reason. This allowed Benedict to make clear, in a remarkably concise manner, that the combination of Greek thought with Christian tradition was no accident of history, no mere forced amalgamation of two separate schools of thinking. Rather, the compatibility of reason with faith was already inherent in Christianity—as demonstrated by the above examples—and the turn to Greece itself was divinely intended, as shown in Acts, when Paul dreams of seeing the roads to Asia obstructed before hearing a man call him to Greece.

Of all the ways in which these points are important, Benedict was, given the theme of his speech, concentrating on the manner in which faith must remain a part of modern dialogue, with reason bridging any gaps between schools of thought. In his telling, this way of thinking was an important counter to raw empiricism, in which “the subjective ‘conscience’ becomes the sole arbiter of what is ethical” and “ethics and religion lose their power to create a community,” representing a “dangerous state of affairs for humanity, as we see from the disturbing pathologies of religion and reason which necessarily erupt when reason is so reduced that questions of religion and ethics no longer concern it.”

Rather than this arbitrary separation, Benedict at Regensburg argued that “the scientific ethos is … the will to be obedient to the truth, and, as such, it embodies an attitude which belongs to the essential decisions of the Christian spirit.” Such a view balanced the possibilities of scientific progress with an ability, even a necessity, to perceive “the dangers arising from these possibilities” so that humanity could “ask ourselves how we can overcome them.” To not do so would be to court danger and sow division, he insisted, as “a reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures.” Rather than to remain so deafened, Benedict called for “the courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur…. It is to this great logos, to this breadth of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures.”

Brief and easily understandable, the Regensburg Lecture thus summarized the urgent need for a religious faith—and specifically one that perceived reason as a part of the nature of God—to be ever incorporated into global dialogue on the state of mankind and its progress. Characteristically, Benedict presented his case in a manner that would be difficult to argue against, and that sought to accomplish its end through openness, collegiality, and mutual respect. His own words from the speech indicate why he could hardly do otherwise: “The truly divine God is the God who has revealed himself as logos and … has acted and continues to act lovingly on our behalf. Certainly, love, as Saint Paul says, ‘transcends’ knowledge and is thereby capable of perceiving more than thought alone…. Consequently, Christian worship is … worship in harmony with the eternal Word and with our reason.”

Love would be another great theme of Benedict’s theology and pontificate, and also the subject of his most famous encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (“God Is Love”). In its pages, in fact, he depicted how reason, or the communication of God, is received and enacted by humankind as love: “The ancient world had dimly perceived that man’s real food … is ultimately the logos, eternal wisdom: this same logos now truly becomes food for us—as love.” As an articulator of faith, reason, and love—what they are for the Church and what they are in the world—Benedict XVI was unparalleled; may he rest in the peace and the light of their source.

Kevin Duffy

Kevin Duffy is an American writer living in Spain.