Upon hearing the news of Pope Benedict XVI’s death on Saturday morning, I immediately thought of a long road trip I took with my wife 10 years ago, from Alaska to Texas, and a lonely stretch of highway in central Wyoming where, trapped in a car with nothing else to do, I listened to hours and hours of interviews conducted in the ’90s with then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the man destined to become Pope Benedict XVI.
I didn’t know it at the time, but those interviews planted seeds that would take years to bear fruit, which they did in 2018 when my wife and I were received into the Catholic Church.
Now of course recorded conversations about philosophy and theology aren’t usually what helps one stay awake on a long road trip. But after nearly a week on the road, we were totally burnt out on music, crime noir novels, and just about everything else we’d brought with us. I asked my wife, who was trying to nap in the passenger seat, if it would bother her if I listened to the Ratzinger interviews while I drove since that was all we had left (a gift from my brother, who had entered the Catholic Church years before). She assured me it wouldn’t stop her from nodding off.
Three hours later, somewhere in the vast expanse of the Wyoming Basin, we were both wide awake, listening with rapt attention to a man unlike any we’d encountered before. (The recordings, I should note, were not of Ratzinger himself, but English language readings of in-depth interviews he’d done with German journalist Peter Seewald in 1996. A six-disc set of the recordings in English was released after Benedict’s election as pope in 2005.) To my embarrassment, I had never paid much attention to Benedict before then, nor had I seriously considered Catholicism or engaged honestly with the propositions and teachings of the Catholic Church, so what I heard on that long drive struck me in a way I didn’t expect — and never forgot.
Here was a man who insisted there was no conflict between faith and reason, who could easily and convincingly explain the reasonableness not just of religious faith but of faith in Jesus Christ, in His crucifixion and resurrection, and in the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church” He established on Earth. Here, too, was a truly educated man who grasped the entire sweep of Western civilization and, in a kindly and even mirthful way, could level devastating critiques of the Enlightenment, the Reformation, and modernity’s blinkered, anemic understanding of human reason and the role it should play in answering ultimate questions.
Those interviews eventually prompted me to go back and read Benedict’s 2006 Regensburg address, which I remembered at the time only because of the feigned outrage it provoked among an ignorant and malicious corporate press that misread it as an attack on Islam. It wasn’t that, but it was an attack on the modern West’s narrow, “scientistic” view of knowledge and truth, a ringing defense of the inherent reasonableness and rationality of faith, and a call to include theology as a legitimate science, properly understood.
Benedict knew what should be obvious to all of us by now: We have serious problems with our modern view of science and knowledge, and with what he called the “dehellenization of Christianity.” At Regensburg, he described “the modern self-limitation of reason” and explained how “modern scientific reason with its intrinsically Platonic element bears within itself a question which points beyond itself and beyond the possibilities of its methodology.” Put another way, what we can know, and know with certainty, is more than what our instruments can measure and our scientific methods can replicate in a lab. Excluding questions about God from what we can know means “a reduction of the radius of science and reason, one which needs to be questioned.”
This was important, Benedict said, because if ultimate questions about human origins and destiny — the sort of questions raised by religion — have no place in the modern world’s view of what constitutes legitimate or scientific knowledge, then those questions “must thus be relegated to the realm of the subjective.” The problem, he argued, is that if each person’s subjective conscience becomes the arbiter of right and wrong,
ethics and religion lose their power to create a community and become a completely personal matter. This is a dangerous state of affairs for humanity, as we see from the disturbing pathologies of religion and reason which necessarily erupt when reason is so reduced that questions of religion and ethics no longer concern it. Attempts to construct an ethic from the rules of evolution or from psychology and sociology, end up being simply inadequate.
Benedict was not calling for a rejection of science or a turning back of the clock to pre-Enlightenment times, “but of broadening our concept of reason and its application.” If reason and faith could be brought together in a new way, we could rediscover what he called reason’s “vast horizons.”
One example of how Benedict did this was his restoration, in 2007, of the Tridentine or Latin Mass. His Summorum Pontificum, which made it easier for Catholic parishes to celebrate the Mass according to the 1962 missal used before Vatican II, was a great moment in Catholic history. It reminded the world that Catholicism is a faith of the mind as well as the emotions, but the mind — reason — comes first because it is the only way to defend the faith against what Cardinal St. John Henry Newman called “the energy of human skepticism.”
Benedict had been a peritus or theological adviser at Vatican II, but as pope, he came around to rein in some of the abuses of the council, most notably the way it allowed many bishops to shove the Latin Mass aside while also committing what he called “deformations of the liturgy,” which he cleaned up by issuing long-overdue corrections to the language used in the Novus Ordo or vernacular Mass promulgated after Vatican II.
The fruits of Benedict’s Summorum Pontificum are today plain to see: Parishes that celebrate the Latin Mass are full of families and young people. They are vibrant and alive, places of reverent, beautiful worship and thick community. It is not too much to say, in 2023, that the Latin Mass is the future of the Catholic Church — even in the face of recent efforts to suppress it by Pope Francis. At the very least, the future of the Catholic Church is literally to be found in parishes teeming with small children during celebrations of the Latin Mass.
Today, thanks in no small part to Benedict, I’m one of those people who regularly attends a very crowded Latin Mass. My family is indebted to him for that, but every person in the world, whether they realize it or not, is indebted to him for the way he championed reason and faith, and in so doing pointed the way back to Christian civilization amid the ruins of modernity.