St. Benedict was born in 480, in a small Umbrian village. In 529, as a monastic town was being built for Benedict and his monks on the brow of Monte Cassino, Plato’s Academy closed in Athens.
The timing nicely illustrated a conviction of the late John Paul II: “In the designs of Providence, there are no mere coincidences.” As a great embodiment of classical culture shut its doors, the “academy of Christianity,” as the new pope once called it, was being established.
And a good thing, too. The Roman empire was in rapid decline, beset by wars, economic dislocation, and social disorder. The civilizational achievement represented by Plato's Academy could have been lost; classical culture might have gone the way of the Mayans. That it didn't had a lot to do with Benedict. His monks not only preserved crucial elements of the civilization of Athens and Rome during the Dark Ages; they transformed that civilization by infusing a biblical understanding of the human person, community, origins and destiny into the classical culture they preserved for future generations in their scriptoria and libraries.
The result of that fusion of Jerusalem, Athens and Rome was what we know as “Europe,” or, more broadly, “the West.” It was a colossal, indeed world-historical achievement. And the achievement was entirely consistent with what Pope Benedict XVI remembered in a recent interview as “a Benedictine motto: Succisa virescit pruned, it grows again.” Thanks to St. Benedict and Western monasticism, the demise of classical civilization was the occasion for a new beginning and, eventually, a nobler civilizational accomplishment.
Benedict XVI once described that accomplishment through another Benedictine motto: Ora et labora, pray and work. “Turning the earth into a garden,” he told the German journalist Peter Seewald in 2000, “and the service of God [were] fused together and became a whole…. Worshiping God always takes priority…. But at the same time, it's a matter of cultivating and renewing the earth in an ethos of worship. This also involves overcoming the ancient prejudice against manual labor…. Manual labor now becomes something noble…an imitation of the Creator's work. [And] along with the new attitude toward work comes a change in our ideas about the dignity of man.” Thus the culture of the classical world was not only preserved; it was transformed into a culture of freedom.
Benedict XVI has long been concerned that the West risks the possibility of a new Dark Age. What he described in a sermon on the day before his election as a new “dictatorship of relativism” is one dimension of the problem. If there is only “your truth” and “my truth” and nothing that we understand as “the truth,” then on what principled basis is the West to defend its greatest accomplishments: equality before the law, tolerance and civility, religious freedom and the rights of conscience, democratic self-governance? If the only measure of us is us, isn't the horizon of our aspiration greatly foreshortened? (And if you want to see what that kind of metaphysical and spiritual boredom can do to a once-great civilization, look around Western Europe, where self-absorption and a stubborn resistance to saying that anything is “true” has led a continent to the brink of demographic suicide.)
Pope Benedict also senses that a new Dark Age may be aborning in those laboratories where human begetting is turned into human manufacture the Dark Age of Huxley's brave new world. So just as we can expect the new pope to champion a revitalization of Christian faith and practice in Europe as the necessary condition for the rejuvenation of the public life of the West, so we can expect him to be, like his predecessor, a global champion of the dignity and worth of human life from conception until natural death.
A first public test of these two thrusts of the new pontificate will come as early as mid-August, when Benedict XVI will return to his native Germany for the International World Youth Day that will be celebrated in Cologne. Can he rally the millions of young who streamed into Rome for John Paul II's funeral Mass, determined to say goodbye to a man in whom they sensed the solidarity of true fatherhood? Can Benedict be a father who inspires his young charges to enter the lists of contemporary culture, not primarily to deplore it, but to convert it? A lot of 21st-century history may ride on the answer we'll get in four months, there along the banks of the Rhine.
As with the program, so with the man: He is a Benedict in the depths of his interior life and in his intellectual accomplishment. Benedict XVI has an encyclopedic knowledge of two millennia of theology, and indeed of the cultural history of the West. He is more the shy, monastic scholar than the ebullient public personality of his predecessor; yet he has shown an impressive capacity for a different type of public “presence” in his brilliantly simple homily at John Paul II's funeral and in his first appearance as pope. He has known hardship: He knows the modern temptations of totalitarianism (paganism wedded to technology) from inside the Third Reich; he has been betrayed by former students (like the splenetic Brazilian liberation theologian Leonardo Boff) and former colleagues (like Hans Kung, a man of far less scholarly accomplishment and infinitely less charity). His critics say he is dour and pessimistic. Yet I take it as an iron law of human personality that a man is known by his musical preferences; and Benedict XVI is a Mozart man, who knows that Mozart is what the angels play when they perform for the sheer joy of it.
Indeed, and notwithstanding the cartoon Joseph Ratzinger, the new pope is a man of Christian happiness who has long asked why, in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, summoned to be a “new Pentecost” for the Catholic Church, so much of the joy has gone out of Catholicism. Over some 17 years of conversation with him, I have come to know him as a man who likes to laugh, and who can laugh because he is convinced that the human drama is, in the final analysis, a divine comedy.
He once called himself a “donkey,” a “draft animal” who had been called to a work not of his choosing. Yet when Joseph Ratzinger stepped out onto the loggia of St. Peter's to begin a work he never sought, I couldn't help think of the conclusion of Alasdair MacIntyre's penetrating study of the moral confusions of the West, After Virtue. In a time when willfulness and relativism had led to a frigid and joyless cultural climate, MacIntyre wrote, the world was not waiting for Godot, “but for another doubtless very different St. Benedict.” The world now has a new Benedict. We can be sure that he will challenge us all to the noble human adventure that has no better name than sanctity.
(This article is provided courtesy of Ethics and Public Policy Center.)