Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI gave his final September Speech last week in Rome. Benedict didn’t give the speech himself. His private secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, spoke at the launch of the Italian edition of The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher’s much discussed book about how St Benedict’s withdrawal from a corrupt and declining Rome offers a model for Christians today.
For many years now one of my favoured lecture topics is the “September Speeches” of Benedict XVI. The quintet forms an accessible entry point to the thought of Ratzinger/Benedict on how biblical faith relates to reason, science, politics and law.
The five speeches were all given in September and all on papal trips. The first remains the most (in)famous, the Regensburg address of September 12, 2006, in which Benedict argued that biblical faith is reasonable, and therefore to act against reason is to act contrary to faith in the God of Abraham, incarnate in Christ Jesus. Hence, violence in the name of faith – as is claimed by terrorist jihadis – is contrary to reason.
Exactly two years later, September 12, 2008, in Paris, addressing the world of culture at the Collège des Bernardins, once home to the Cistercians, Benedict argued in the opposite direction, namely that the world of reason needs the intellectual motivation provided by faith. The monks were motivated by their search for God, but their work of research on the Word of God gave rise to an entire culture of literature, science and scholarship.
Another two years passed, and Benedict gave his historic address at Westminster Hall on September 17, 2010. The following year at the Bundestag in Berlin, the fourth speech was given on September 22, 2011. The two speeches argued that law and politics had to follow the dictates of reason, not revelation, but that human nature gives rise to a moral order that must be respected.
The final September speech was given the following year on September 15, 2012 in Beirut, where Benedict explored freedom and truth in the context of religious pluralism, articulating a vision of peace for Lebanon and the Middle East.
What marked the September Speeches was their delivery before audiences made up of scholars, diplomats, politicians and the world of culture. It was Benedict addressing the learned as a fellow scholar, but a scholar who knows that faith is also a witness to the truth.
Archbishop Gänswein’s speech last week was also before such an audience, as the book launch was held at the Italian Chamber of Deputies. The topic was typical Benedict, on the relationship of faith to culture. How can faith survive in a hostile culture? And does that culture still need what the faith has to offer?
Gänswein situated his remarks in the light of the sexual abuse crisis. And just as Benedict has long considered the question of the credibility of the faith in the age of reason, Gänswein examined how the Catholic faith can be credible in the face of the moral counter-witness of so many of her clergy.
“If the Church does not know how to renew itself again this time with God’s help, then the whole project of our civilisation is at stake again,” Gänswein said. “For many it looks as if the Church of Jesus Christ will never be able to recover from the catastrophe of its sin – it almost seems about to be devoured by it.”
Gänswein made reference to key speeches of Ratzinger/Benedict on sexual abuse threatening the Church from within, but above all returned to the Paris speech of September 2008. The monks, whose mission was quaerere Deum – to seek God, renewed a civilisation with the broad horizon of their worship and the depth of their witness.
The truth of the faith is not in question due to the sinfulness of the clergy, but there can be no doubt that the credibility of the Church’s witness to that truth is compromised. Gänswein echoed Benedict’s long conviction that the secular order depends for its health on being open to the wisdom to which faith is a portal.
In that regard, just as Benedict’s speeches were saturated in history, ancient and contemporary, Gänswein made a bold diagnosis of the current moment.
“The crisis of the Church is at its core a crisis of the clergy,” Gänswein said. “And that now the hour of the sovereign laity has struck, especially in the new and independent Catholic media, as almost embodied by Rod Dreher.”
Gänswein suggested that Dreher’s approach was developed in dialogue with Ratzinger’s concept of the Church as a creative minority.
“Well, he’s right about that,” concedes Dreher. “But then, most of what I think and write is in some real sense a dialogue with that old monk living in the Mater Ecclesiae in the Vatican.”
Last week, this September, it seemed like the old monk was speaking again.
Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of convivium.ca
This article first appeared in the September 21 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here