April 8th, 2007

Benedict XVI wind

Theological Notebook: NYT Magazine Article on Benedict XVI, Europe, and Secularism

As jucundushomo rightly noted, a well-contextualized article. (Although notably light, not surprisingly, on what I'd call news media responsibility on the persistence of certain misinterpretations. Yellow journalism tends to pop up on this subject because of the defensive secularism of the reporting caste.)

Keeping the Faith

Paolo Pellegrin/Mangum, for The York Times

Spreading the Word Postcards for sale at one of the many kiosks near St. Peter's Square.

Published: April 8, 2007

Walk into a shop to buy a newspaper or a wurst or a Game Boy in the German city of Regensburg and your server will probably welcome you with a brisk “grüss’ Gott,” shorthand for “God greet you.” It’s the local form of hello: street-corner dudes and grandmas, everyone says it. This is Bavaria, Germany’s Catholic heartland, a region that gives the lie to the popular notion that Western Europe has tossed its Christian heritage in history’s dustbin. Bavaria is as modern as you please — a center of the European telecommunications industry, the home of BMW (as in Bavarian Motor Works) — but on any special occasion you see couples wandering around looking like Hansel and Gretel, in lederhosen and dirndls. Elsewhere in Germany, Bavarian jokes serve the same function that Polish jokes used to in the United States. Bavarians will tell you they hold to tradition, religion and antique styles of speech not out of stupidity or addiction to kitsch but because they believe these things encompass what is real and true.

The center of Regensburg is all old stone, a carefully preserved medley of medieval towers, gates and spires clustered on the banks of the Danube, and in various ways — the firmness of the material, the rigorous workmanship, the serious commitment to the past as a component of the present — you might see this clutch of buildings as a metaphor for the mind and heart of Bavaria’s most illustrious native. Joseph Ratzinger — Pope Benedict XVI — was born in a little village tucked between a ridge and a broad plain of farmland to the east, and the major events of his childhood and much of his adulthood played out around here. It was in many ways an idyllic, almost fairy-tale youth. The family home in Traunstein was an 18th-century farmhouse with a single wood-shingled roof covering living quarters, hayloft and animal stalls. The Roman Catholic Church provided both structure and spectacle: at Eastertime, black curtains hung on the windows of the village church, so that, as Ratzinger wrote in his 1997 autobiography, “the whole space was filled by a mysterious darkness. When the pastor sang the words ‘Christ is risen!’ the curtains would suddenly fall, and the space would be flooded by radiant light. This was the most impressive portrayal of the Lord’s Resurrection that I can conceive of.”

The Bavarian idyll dissolved: Nazi songs crept into the music books at school. Ratzinger entered the seminary in 1939 as Hitler’s soldiers completed the occupation of Czechoslovakia. Shortly after, at age 16, he was drafted and began his much-reported stint in the Hitler Youth, assigned to guard a BMW plant north of Munich. When the Americans arrived, they used his family home as their base and took him as a war prisoner. Throughout the Nazi experience, his father guided him to see it as an outgrowth of modern godlessness. The effect was to reinforce the idea of the church as a bulwark against darkness — against secularism and rationality run amok.

Returning to the seminary immediately after the war, Ratzinger became deeply influenced by the philosophy of personalism, which saw the basis of reality not in bloodless science but in the individual human being and whose adherents would come to include Vaclav Havel and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He looked, too, to the German philosophers Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger as guides, for their inquiries into “pure being” allowed for a more human understanding of the world than the scientific materialism that was rapidly winning acceptance in Western culture. But all of this was mere supplement to Catholic theology. “Dogma” wasn’t a dirty word — it was the ground. “Dogma was conceived not as an external shackle but as the living source that made knowledge of the truth possible in the first place,” he wrote in his memoirs. Ratzinger rose rapidly through the ranks of Bavaria’s intensely rigorous Catholic institutions, holding the chairmanship in dogma at the University of Regensburg from 1969 to 1976, until he was appointed archbishop of Munich and Freising and his career focus shifted toward Rome.

So the occasion of the speech that Benedict made at the University of Regensburg last September — the speech that caromed around the world and caused protests in the Middle East and attacks on Christians and churches in Iraq, Somalia and the West Bank for his seeming to say that Islam is a religion of violence — marked a homecoming, albeit an incendiary one.

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