Russell Shorto has an fascinating article in The New York Times that profiles Pope Benedict XVI and the decline of religion in Europe. He makes the following observation:
Benedict is one of the most intellectual men ever to serve as pope — and surely one of the most intellectual of current world leaders — and he has pinpointed the problem of the age, as well as its solution, at the level of philosophy. His argument, elaborated in the years leading up to his election and continuing through his daily speeches and pronouncements, reduces to something like this: Secularism may be one of the great developments in history, but the secularism that holds sway in much of the West — that is, in Western Europe — is flawed; it has a bug in its programming. The mistaken conviction that reason and faith are two distinct realms has weakened Europe and has brought it to the verge of catastrophic collapse. As he said in a speech in 2004: “There exist pathologies in religion that are extremely dangerous and that make it necessary to see the divine light of reason as a ‘controlling organ.’ . . . However . . . there are also pathologies of reason . . . there is a hubris of reason that is no less dangerous.” If you seek a way out of the vast post-9/11 quagmire (Baghdad bomb blasts, Iranian nukes, Danish cartoons, ever-more-bizarre airport security measures and the looming mayhem they are meant to stop), and for that matter if you believe in Europe and “the West” (the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, a bottle of Chateau Lafite Rothschild, the whole heritage of 2,500 years of history), then now, Benedict in effect argues, the Catholic Church must be heeded. Because its tradition was filtered through the Enlightenment, the thinking goes, the church can provide a bridge between godless rationality and religious fundamentalism.
Ultimately, I think he’s right. Europe (and to a lesser extend America) suffers from a kind of intellectual malaise — a post-religious society is not going to be a particularly strong one. Religion plays a crucial role in society, and one which the post-religious order seems not to understand or appreciate. Religion has long been the principle means by which societies are socialized — not in the economic sense, but in the societal sense. What we’re seeing in Europe is the result of a culture in which God is being replaced by the imperfect and wholly inadequate substitutes of the State and the Self. The State cannot replace religion because the state is entirely a mortal institution — who wants to put their faith in flawed men and women, especially politicians? For that matter, Europe has already seen the results of a society in which the State became the epicenter of everything — and it cost the lives of millions. The Self cannot replace God because such an order leads inevitably to a culture of malignant narcissism — there’s nothing more corrosive to personal relationships than a society that encourages people to put themselves first.
So, Europe searches for something to replace the order that they’ve lost. However, in so searching they’ve only compounded their problems by diminishing the small-scale social institutions that form the political basis for a society. By absorbing everything into the EU, they’ve created a hierarchy that’s as complex as that of the Catholic Church with far less moral authority.
The Pope’s message is an important one: society must find its way between a society that ignores religion and a society in which fundamentalism reigns supreme. I’ve no doubt that Pope Benedict truly believes that the Catholic intellectual tradition strikes the right balance — as a Catholic, I would tend to agree. However, even if the Catholic Church isn’t the answer, a return to the values that made European society strong is. The Church, for many countries, is part of those institutions, but it is not the whole of them. Europe has spend decades tearing down its own institutions — is it any wonder that Europe is finding itself defenseless against the societal and political challenge of expansionist Islam?
It’s become all too fashionable to dismiss religion as mere superstition — which utterly ignores the crucial role religion has in shaping the formation of societal institutions. Society cannot defend itself at the same time it turns its back on its shaping institutions — and that is why the anti-religious sentiment in Europe leaves Europe in such a weakened state. Assimilation is impossible if the culture that seeks integration cannot vigorously defend itself.
Shorto’s article is critical of the Pope’s insistence on hierarchy and relatively inflexible doctrinal standards — which is a legitimate argument. There is no doubt that institutions must evolve with the times, albeit slowly and with great consideration. However, it is difficult to make such changes in a time when many would rather tear the whole institution down. There are many legitimate criticisms to be made of the Catholic Church in the 21st Century — however, that does not invalidate the Pope’s essential message.
Neither faith nor reason are sufficient on their own. In a time when moral nihilism and fundamentalism are both threatening the foundation of Western society, it is appropriate that Cardinal Ratzinger would choose to identify his papacy with that of St. Benedict — a man who was responsible for preserving much of the knowledge of the Western world in a time of upheaval and anarchy. Their mission is identical, but hopefully their circumstances will not be.