Ever since I started writing about Joseph Ratzinger in the late 1990s, two qualities about the man impressed me. The first was his quiet but clear love of Christ as a living Person rather than the vague abstraction of liberal, often atheist theologians.
The second was Ratzinger’s genuine humility. Intellectually, Ratzinger far surpassed the usual suspects who want to turn Catholicism into something between the disaster otherwise known as the Church of England, and the rather sad leftist-activism of aging nuns stuck in 1968. But against the increasingly-absurd rants of a Hans Kung or Leonardo Boff, Ratzinger simply continued defending and explaining orthodox Christianity’s essential rationality with a modesty lacking in his opponents.
Which brings me to what I think will be this great Pope’s last legacy. In forthcoming weeks, there will be many commentaries on what this Pope has achieved in a relatively short time. This ranges from his efforts to root out what Ratzinger once called the “filth” of sexual deviancy that has inflicted such damage on the priesthood, his successful outreach to Catholicism’s Eastern Orthodox brothers, his generally excellent bishop appointments, to his reforms of the liturgy.
But we need to remember that Benedict XVI is arguably the most intellectual pope to sit in Peter’s Chair for centuries—even more so than his saintly predecessor, who was certainly no slouch in the world of ideas. And if there is one single thing that stands out in Benedict’s papacy, it’s this: his laser-like focus on the root-cause of the intellectual crisis that explains not only Western culture’s present wallowing in facile relativism that’s on full display in the content-free rhetoric of your average EU politician, but also the trauma that explains the violence and rage that continues to shake the Islamic world and which Islam seems incapable of resolving on its own terms.
And that problem is one of reason. As Benedict spelt out in four key addresses that repay careful re-reading—the famous 2006 Regensburg lecture, his 2008 address to the French intellectual world, his speech to the Bundestag in 2011, and his remarks to the world of British politics in 2010 in Westminster Hall (the site, not coincidentally, of St Thomas More’s show-trial in 1535)—man, especially Western man, has lost confidence in reason’s power to know more-than-empirical truth.
And what’s the result? It means very basic discussions in the realms of politics and universities are no longer conducted along the lines identified long ago by figures such as Aristotle and Aquinas. Instead it’s all about power, who is stronger, and who can evoke the highest degree of sentimental humanitarianism from people looking for guidance in increasingly incoherent societies.
In the religious world, the crisis of reason means two things. First, God is reduced to the status of a cuddly Teddy Bear incapable of distinguishing between good and evil and who, as Benedict once wrote, “no longer does anything but affirm us.” Or, conversely, God becomes a creature who demands that we behave unreasonably—be it by driving trucks full of explosives into Catholic churches in Nigeria, beheading teenage Indonesian Christian schoolgirls, or other unmentionables that professional inter-faith dialoguers never want to talk about.
Much of the world hasn’t been interested in listening to Benedict’s constant underscoring of this point. Why? Not because it’s a hard argument to understand. Rather it’s because some religions do understand God either as an amiable but ultimately pathetic Teddy Bear, or as the undiluted ruthlessness of Pure Will. To abandon these positions would mean fundamentally changing their very nature as religions.
In other cases, embracing Benedict’s argument translates into changes in lifestyles that many people simply don’t want to make. But a pope’s job isn’t to tell people what they want to hear. Instead it’s to teach them that Jesus Christ who is Caritas is also the God who is Logos: the divine reason who loves us so much that he wants to save us from our hubris, and who has imprinted his reason upon our very nature to help us know and freely choose the true and the good.
Unlike those who we’re inclined to think are great people today, Joseph Ratzinger won’t be hitting the global-lecture circuit, garnering appointments to yet-another meaningless U.N. commission, participating in syncretistic Parliaments of Religion, or trying to retrospectively recover his reputation by writing Clintonesque memoirs. Instead, he’ll likely live out his days in a monastery, writing, thinking, but above all praying to the One who Benedict knows will one day call him home to the Father’s house.
But, like another Benedict who spent most of his life in a monastery but nevertheless managed to save Western civilization, Joseph Ratzinger knows that, in the long run, there’s something else that the world needs besides a renewal of reason in all its fullness. And that’s sanctity: the sanctity of a Thomas More, Thérèse of Lisieux, or John Paul IIwhich produces that vision of fearless and indestructible goodness that truly changes history. Never did Benedict make this point so well as when he spoke these words during a prayer vigil for thousands of young Catholics at World Youth Day in Cologne in 2005:
The saints are . . . the true reformers. . . . Only from the saints, only from God does true revolution come. . . . It is not ideologies that save the world, but only a return to the living God, our Creator, the guarantor of our freedom, the guarantor of what is really good and true. True revolution consists in simply turning to God who is the measure of what is right and who at the same time is everlasting love. And what could ever save us apart from love?
This article first appeared on National Review Online.