|The Pope Deserves Better from Britain
September 15, 2010
Pope Benedict XVI is a serious man whose message risks being drowned out by misguided noise, argues Michael Burleigh.
The two Bush presidents liked to refer to themselves as "41" and "43" in a democratic succession that goes back to George "1" Washington in 1789. This country is about to receive Benedict XVI who, were he vulgarly inclined, could highlight that he is "265" in an apostolic succession that originated with Christ's commission to St Peter.
Under normal circumstances, one might say "welcome" rather than "receive". But the multiple sexual scandals that have afflicted parts of the Catholic Church have created a window of opportunity for sundry chasers of limelight – including human rights militants, crusading gays, Islamist fanatics, and celebrity God-botherers – to band together to "arrest" the Pope under laws so obscure that few knew they existed. Because child abuse is involved, rather than the more widespread phenomenon of homosexual predation on young men, these manifestations will receive much media attention, especially from the BBC, to the guaranteed perplexity of a less involved general public in a nominally Protestant country. It will require some effort of mind to tune out this noise to hear what the Pope will be saying.
The stations of Josef Ratzinger's life are almost guaranteed to make unthinking liberals recoil, just as his classical European erudition does not sit well with a local culture that has taken irony and philistinism to levels whose self-satisfied provincialism are not hard to parody. Britain may be bankrupt, but we have "comedians" aplenty.
As a 14 year-old, the future Pope was conscripted into the Hitler Youth, along with the majority of his age cohort. That year, 1941, one of his cousins, who had Down's syndrome, was murdered in the Nazis' monstrous "euthanasia" campaign. As the Nazis ran out of cannon fodder, even young seminarians were drafted into such tasks as manning anti-aircraft batteries, which Ratzinger did in the years before he briefly entered Allied captivity.
That typical German experience made Ratzinger especially receptive to the Church's multiple condemnations of totalitarianism, perhaps nowhere better expressed than in Pius XI's 1937 encyclical "With burning anxiety". Rabid anticlericalism and credulity towards the wonder-working state was the common denominator between 19th-century liberalism and the totalitarian creeds of the 20th century. Starting with the Russian Bolsheviks, followed by revolutionary Mexico and Spain, the progressively murderous Left sought to wipe out the Christian churches, which were sometimes intimately associated with inequitable social orders. Ironically, the late 19th-century papacy of Leo XIII had been in the forefront of demanding that industrial workers receive their due dignity and respect.
Both Communism and Nazism inaugurated what Churchill accurately described as "man worship" while the state barged its way into such spheres as the family and education, usually through dedicated youth organisations of the kind Ratzinger was impressed into. Although the Pope is not a political animal, there can be little doubt that he was influenced by that remarkable generation of post-war Christian Democrat leaders, such as Adenauer or De Gasperi, who did so much to restore the self-confidence of a continent turned into a desert of despair by totalitarianism.
As a distinguished academic theologian, Ratzinger was again exposed to the rabidly intolerant Left during a spell at the University of Tübingen in the 1960s. Whereas it would be axiomatic to an apprentice cobbler or mechanic that a master craftsman knew his trade, campus Marxists imagined that their dogmas explained both the entirety of history and all human knowledge. Entire disciplines had either to be re-forged in accordance with their materialist creed or considered redundant.
In the case of theology, this involved importing the tenets of revolutionary Marxism in the form of "Liberation Theology". In its extreme forms this meant that the Kingdom of Heaven would be realised through liberal resort to the AK-47s with which the Soviet Union flooded the Third World, and the kind of coercive measures that the likes of Salvador Allende or Hugo Chávez have used. The present Pope is very much a protégé of his de facto predecessor, John Paul II, who alongside Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the late 1970s and 1980s undermined a Soviet Communist system so morally bankrupt that it hardly deserved the epithet "Evil Empire".
Cardinal Ratzinger would have preferred, in his seventies, to become Vatican Librarian rather than Pope. He is temperamentally far removed from his "John Paul Superstar" predecessor, who in an alternative life might have been a successful actor. Benedict XVI, as he reluctantly became in 2005, is a prolific author, familiar with Christian theology at the most intellectually demanding levels, as well as a cat-loving type, who plays Mozart piano pieces for inspiration and relaxation.
To anyone with an open mind, one of the major advantages of the Pope is that while being entirely at home in several academic disciplines, he brings an entirely unique perspective to things that are routinely reduced to the political moment.
In choosing the name Benedict, the Pope linked himself with Benedict XV, the pope who tried to halt the carnage of the Great War, and, in a much longer frame of reference, St Benedict of Nursia, whose rule is the basis of the entire Western monastic tradition which preserved Europe's culture through the Dark Ages. The universities can no longer be trusted to perform this function since they have become both beacons of relativism and cash-and-carries. Whereas his predecessor identified Marxist materialism as the greatest threat to human freedom, Benedict is so concerned about the condition of contemporary Europe that in June he established a pontifical office to help re-evangelise it.
Secularism is at the heart of Benedict's concerns. By this the Pope does not mean the delimitation of Church and State, the sacred and profane – which is intrinsic to Christian culture as well as political society since the Reformation – but the amnesiac eradication of one of the principal roots of Western civilisation and the deliberate marginalisation of all religion to the private sphere. In its stead has come a society that thinks its existential despairs can be ameliorated by limitless consumer goods, or worse, by a state that racks up fathomless amounts of debt so as to throw money at problems that may have no material resolution.
While truly sinister philosophies and technologies, all camouflaged with the rhetoric of choice and freedom, infiltrate how we regard and treat the old or sick, or play around with the building blocks of life itself, the public space is dominated by a culture several notches below that of the late Roman empire. At least their satirists were amusing and gladiators did not blub copiously when they triumphed in their violent version of "Rome's Got Talent".
The churches are pushed to the margins, licensed at most as a pick-up service for the most intractable social problems, or for when life finally brushes up against mortality. Their room to exercise their traditional right to accord praise or blame is being curtailed, day in, day out, by the tyranny vociferous minorities exert over majorities through laws preventing "discrimination", which rarely favour Christians themselves.
Finally, Benedict has set himself against another tenet in the liberal creed, that of relativistic multiculturalism, thereby inviting upon himself the murderous attentions of what purports to be a religion of peace. Anyone looking at the raging, bearded faces we regularly see in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Luton and Walthamstow can surely agree – as did Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah – that parts of Islam have a major problem with the synthesis of religion and reason which has become normative in the West.
There cannot be a "dialogue" with Islam until there is meaningful reciprocity of such religious freedoms as the right to open places of worship or to convert without fear of death. To underline that, Benedict used St Peter's Basilica to receive the Italian Muslim convert Magdi Allam into the faith. Let's hope that this serious man's message about the West in the world manages to come across clearly, despite all the efforts that will be made to obscure it by liberals whose ears have long been closed.
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