Christendom's Return; Pope Benedict XVI Espouses a Muscular Christianity: Europe Stands at an Abyss, and Only True Belief Can Save It
Dickey, Christopher, Pentin, Edward, Newsweek International
Byline: Christopher Dickey (With Edward Pentin in Rome)
On the day before Pope John Paul II died last April, as the faithful and the curious gathered in St. Peter's Square awaiting word of his fate, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger visited the village of Subiaco in the Sabine hills outside Rome. Priests, monks and nuns gathered in the chilly Gothic convent. "Europe has developed a culture that, in a manner unknown before now to humanity, excludes God from the public conscience," he told them. Attempts to manage human affairs while "disdaining God completely" have led us "to the edge of the abyss."
At the time, little attention was paid to Ratzinger's remarks. But in the months since he succeeded John Paul to become Pope Benedict XVI, those words have been studied closely. American theo-logian Michael Novak sees the new pontiff's teachings outlined in Subiaco as a harbinger of how Benedict will shape his papacy. "There are pearl-like sentences," says Novak, destined to have immense impact on "family life, morality and confidence in the future" across a continent shaken by terrorism and almost existential social uncertainty. As Novak sees it, Benedict's outward calm and cautiousness mask an extraordinary will to restore the Roman Catholic Church's centrality as a source of relevance and truth in European daily life. "He's going to be a much more radical pope than people expect."
Indeed, the Subiaco text--recently published in Italy as a book entitled "The Europe of Benedict: In the Crisis of Cultures"--could be considered something of a manifesto for the mission that many cardinals said they elected him to fulfill. Call it the re-Christianization of modern Europe. Conservative American Catholics, like Ratzinger biographer George Weigel, believe the mission is equally vital to the United States, which he fears could follow Europe's godless example. This is more than a debate about abortion and condoms, as these people tell it. They're literally talking about the future of civilization, or at least their own.
Consigning the Almighty to the sidelines of public life, Benedict said at Subiaco, fuels a rage that threatens all of Europe--not just among Christians angry at Europe's radical secularism, but also among the world's Muslims. "Muslims do not feel threatened by our Christian moral foundations," he declared, "but by the cynicism of a secularized culture that denies its own foundations." The same is true for Jews, he said. "It is not the mention of God that offends those who belong to other religions, but rather the attempt to build the human community absolutely without God." Thus the violence of terrorism is fed less by the clash of civilizations or belief than by its lack, and the insult to God (and the founding mystery of the universe) that European disbelief represents.
If the only moral standards are supposed to be those calculated by governments and individuals, Ratzinger went on to say, then society is cut off from its Christian roots and loses its way. Individual choice can justify anything, including murder and terrorism. Knowledge for its own sake "becomes, as we can already see, a power of destruction." He cites nuclear and biological weapons as examples. He also condemns the scientific manipulation of life at its inception, when a human being "no longer comes into the world as a gift of the Creator, but as a product of our action."
Vatican scholars who've studied Benedict's approach see him walking a careful line between asserting the moral authority of the church and mixing it up in national politics. But from the start, outsiders have found that a hazy distinction. His first formal visit with Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, in June, came at a sensitive moment. Days before, Italy's cardinals had campaigned successfully against liberalizing the country's policies on human-fertility practices. Ciampi spoke to the pope about the traditional separation of church and state--a "necessary distinction," he called it. …