The death of Benedict XVI (1927-2022) He leaves a void in Western culture when voices like his were most needed, which sprang from an extraordinary intellectual formation and from the encounter with the risen Christ. Notwithstanding his admirable academic and pastoral activity, the Bavarian theologian had become one of the instances of lucidity and moral clarity most authoritative of our time.
Indeed, all the great themes of his intellectual reflection – Christology, Ecclesiology, the dialogue between Faith and Reason, to name just a few – were enriched by the great currents of contemporary thought. There was no moment in universal history that eluded not a shadow of our time that did not face with lucidity and courage. For example, during his apostolic trip to Poland in 2006, Benedict XVI had heartfelt words of pain as Pope and as a German:
I am here today as a son of the German people, and precisely for this reason I must and can say like him: I could not help but come here. I had to come. It was and is a duty before the truth and before the rights of all those who have suffered, a duty before God, to be here as the successor of John Paul II and as a son of the German people, as a son of the people against whom a group of criminals he came to power through false promises, in the name of prospects for greatness, for the recovery of the nation’s honor and importance, with welfare provisions, and also with the force of terror and intimidation; thus, they used and abused our people as an instrument of their frenzy of destruction and domination.
It is inevitable to recall here the trip that, in 1979, he made John Paul II to that same place of destruction and death. The teaching of the two Popes in relation to totalitarianism is an obligatory reference for anyone who wants to understand the darkest decades in Europe.
A few years later, in Israel, upon his arrival at the Ben Gurion airport, Benedict XVI would have harsh words of condemnation of antisemitism:
Unfortunately, anti-Semitism continues to rear its ugly head in many parts of the world. This is totally unacceptable. Every effort must be made to combat anti-Semitism wherever it is found, and to promote respect and esteem for members of all peoples, races, languages, and nations throughout the world.
That intellectual courage earned him, over the years, the respect and admiration of many who, without sharing his faith, they did see the moral clarity of his words. He identified the radically perverse root of totalitarianism. In Erfurt, in 2011, he described the suffering of those who, after the Nazi tyranny, suffered the communist one:
Dear brothers and sisters, here in Thuringia, and in the then German Democratic Republic, you had to endure a “brown” dictatorship [nazi] and a red [comunista]which for the Christian faith were like acid rain.
It should not surprise us, then, that Germany is one of the European countries in which cultural Marxism has penetrated the deepest, one of whose sources was precisely the Frankfurt School.
From a more philosophical perspective, our Pope warned of the danger of turning Marx into the philosopher of theology. Indeed, he points out in his profound Introduction to Christianity (Follow me, 2016), that conversion implied admitting “the primacy of politics and economics” so that what had to be taken care of was “exclusively the material reality of historical facts” to which you had to “analyze and transform towards the correct goals with the appropriate means for it, among which inescapably there was violence“.
The denunciation of Nazism and communism was linked to the vindication of the cultural roots of Europe, which had given birth to a civilization born from the encounter of the classical tradition of Greece and Rome with Christianity. “The creative encounter of the classical tradition with the Gospel gave life to a vision of man and society sensitive to the presence of God among us.“, he told politicians and diplomats gathered in Prague Castle, the seat of the Czech Republic’s presidency, in 2009.
The now-deceased Pope was not blinded by post-colonial rhetoric justifying terrorism. On the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the attacks on the September 11, 2001Benedict XVI sent a letter to Timothy M Dolan, Archbishop of New York:
“The tragedy of that day was further aggravated by the claim of its authors to act in the name of God. Once again, it must be stated unequivocally that no circumstance ever can justify acts of terrorism“.
Benedict XVI also suffered from the scandal and the attempts to “cancel” world progressivism. His speech at the University of Regensburg in 2006, which revolved around the relationships between faith, reason and the university, scandalized well-thinking progressives. They did not forgive him for including in it a quote from the Byzantine emperor Michael II Palaeologus extracted from a dialogue that he had, during his captivity in Ankara, with a Persian ambassador:
Show me also what Muhammad has brought back, and you will find only bad and inhuman things, like his willingness to spread by means of the sword the faith he preached.
It was useless for the Pope to explain that, in an academic context, he had limited himself to introducing a quote. It was useless that the text of the speech itself said that “This sentence does not express my personal assessment of the Qur’an, for which I feel the respect that is due to the holy book of a great religion. By citing the text of Emperor Manuel II I only wanted to highlight the essential relationship between faith and reason. On this point I agree with Manuel II, but without making his polemic my own.“. Fortunately, it is not so easy to “cancel” a Pope.
Thus, in the life and work of Benedict XVI, we find, illuminated by faith in Christ, the great themes of our time: history, identity, freedom, human dignity. Her voice continues to resound in the consciences of all those who, with or without faith, reflect on the times in which we have lived.