Benedict the Wise

If one is unfamiliar with Pope Benedict XVI’s nearly 10-year-old speech now known simply as Regensburg, it might be time to read it. As terror-related onslaughts at home and abroad threaten to become blithely accepted by a polarized culture as a “new normal,” the content offered in the Regensburg address remains more timely and potent today than the day in 2006 when the former theology professor Joseph Ratzinger took to the stage at his former university.

What he delivered became an essay so misunderstood its public reaction indicated both a disturbing level of ill-preparedness that remains unabated in the West, and yet also clearly revealed the one global figure who possessed the sheer intellectual brawn and spiritual heft to lay forth a vision of peaceful renewal—a vision unfiltered by political ideology, indecisiveness, and misguided analysis on the problems of our times.

That figure was Benedict XVI.

Regensburg, given on September 12, 2006, has been consistently evoked after horrific terror attacks signifying the relevance of the Pope’s insights, namely the absolute necessity for a positive relationship between faith and reason. See, for instance, George Rutler’s “Benedict XVI: Pope as Prophet” and George Weigel’s “Regensburg Vindicated” from 2014, and Samuel Gregg’s “Regensburg Revisited: Ten Years Later, A West Still in Denial” from this past April. These three pieces, among others (such as the collection of essays, Gained Horizons: Regensburg and the Enlargement of Reason, and the full length study of the speech by Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., The Regensburg Lecture), routinely evoke the wisdom from the Regensburg speech as a prophetic antidote to the confusion of today.

Courageously, the Pope took the opportunity—without vitriol, ad hominem attacks, ignorance or arrogance—to make some things clear: violence in the name of God has no place in such a positive relationship, nor will a solely secular response to such violence suffice in the long run. The only assurance to such terror, fear, and incomprehension, the radical solution to the plaguing issues of the 3rd millennium in general, is the eternal Logos, “the great Logos”—Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, the prince of peace: God. Love incarnate.

It is in this promotion of the Logos where Regensburg retains its lasting significance. It is why it is a text so difficult to forget for those who have studied it. It argues so conclusively of Christianity’s promotion of both faith and reason the world did not know how to react, so it devolved into what it knew best: outrage. Over time, the only way seen to counter its claims was to suppress it—no, the transcendent cannot be boxed into a walled off area for private religious belief while a purported righteous equality espoused by certain ideologies supplants it as a secular gospel (Benedict called these forms the “dictatorship of relativism”). That would render faith meaningless, and irrelevant.

And so the public response to Regensburg, taking out of context Benedict’s section on Islam as its target, was anything but harmonious: a storm of controversy engulfed Benedict; related violence flared in the Middle East; and world leaders admonished what Benedict had laid forth in his speech. “We must avoid everything that increases tensions between peoples or religions,” then-President of France Jacques Chirac intoned, a notion that while superficially noble neuters actual pursuit of truth. In his book on Byzantine history, Lost to the West, Lars Brownworth noted the paradox of what ensued following Regensburg: “Benedict XVI [argued] that violence had no place in faith. Ironically, the speech unleashed a firestorm of controversy in the Middle East, resulting in the destruction of some churches and several deaths.”

And yet, as politics ebb and flow, as leaders come and go, now almost ten years later Regensburg’s memory yet remains. As jihad persists, as secular powers fumble to respond, and a general public grows deeper into division, the Logos continues to remains a legitimate solution—but only if we allow it, and in doing so to embrace reason. That is perhaps what perplexed the public the most about the Pope’s speech, as if schooled in this age of reason by a figure seen as anything but earthly: the Logos can only be effective when sought with both faith and reason. “The courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur—this is the programme with which a theology grounded in Biblical faith enters into the debates of our time,” the Pope said.

The result, if followed, could see a stunning transformation into a world of peace and harmony, a hope too often dismissed as naïve idealism, as a pious fiction. The real world does not have to be terror and retaliation. Or better, from Benedict himself, at his Easter Vigil 2011 homily:

“Are irrationality, lack of freedom and pure chance the origin of everything, or are reason, freedom and love at the origin of being? Does the primacy belong to unreason or to reason? This is what everything hinges upon in the final analysis. As believers we answer, with the creation account and with Saint John, that in the beginning is reason. In the beginning is freedom. Hence it is good to be a human person.”

image: Philip Chidell /


James Day's work has appeared in Crisis, Catholic World Report, and Catholic Exchange. He is the author of Father Benedict: The Spiritual and Intellectual Legacy of Pope Benedict XVI (November 2016, Sophia Institute Press).

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