By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Precisely two years ago today, Pope Benedict XVI delivered a speech during a foreign trip, billed as an address to the world of culture, which fired a shot heard round the world. Speaking at the University of Regensburg in Bavaria on Sept. 12, 2006, he cited a 14th century Byzantine emperor to the effect that Muhammad, the founder of Islam, had “brought things only evil and inhuman,” triggering protest across the Islamic world.
Regensburg and its aftermath opened a breach between the Vatican and Muslims which in some ways has yet to fully heal.
Today, once again on the road, Benedict XVI delivered another speech addressed to the world of culture, and his audience at the Collège des Bernardins in Paris included a small delegation of French Muslims. France has the largest Muslim community in Europe, and is currently locked in debates about the extent to which its secular culture of laïcité can or should accommodate Muslim sensitivities.
Despite the symbolic resonance of both the date and the place, Benedict made no reference in tonight’s address to Regensburg or, more generally, to Christian-Muslim relations. Instead, the pope focused on a topic that, at first blush, might seem of merely intra-Christian interest: the legacy of monasticism.
tBenedict’s lone inter-religious note of the day came in a brief session with French Jews held earlier in the day at the Eysèe palace, when he dramatically echoed the famous line of Pope Pius XI that “spiritually, we are all Semites.”
Upon reflection, however, Benedict’s address at the Collège des Bernardins may nonetheless point to a future beyond Regensburg for Catholicism’s relationship with Muslims as well as religious believers of all sorts. In effect, the pope invited believers to join forces against what he regards as the real enemy – an exaggerated secularism that would deny religion a place at the table of culture and public life.
Benedict began his 4,000-word speech by tracing the development of European monasticism, describing monasteries as “the places where the treasures of ancient culture survived, and where at the same time a new culture slowly took shape out of the old.”
The pope went to argue that two elements have been constitutive of the monastic experience: Scripture, including a commitment to rational interpretation of the Word of God, excluding “everything that is today known as fundamentalism”; and manual labor, understood as a sharing in the creative work of God.
Along the way, there were a few vintage Benedict touches, such as the insistence that freedom does not mean the mere absence of obligation, but rather the possibility of freely seeking and embracing the truth. That understanding of freedom, Benedict argued, wards off the twin dangers of “fanaticism and arbitrariness.”
Benedict’s bottom line seemed to be that monasticism amounts to a classic Christian expression of a basic human impulse – the desire to seek the truth about God. Cultures may temporarily seek to stifle the religious impulse, but eventually, he said, it erupts anew.
“The present absence of God is silently besieged by the question concerning him,” the pope said at the end of his address.
“A purely positivistic culture which tried to drive the question concerning God into the subjective realm, as being unscientific, would be the capitulation of reason, the renunciation of its highest possibilities, and hence a disaster for humanity with very grave consequences,” Benedict said.
“What gave Europe’s culture its foundation – the search for God and the readiness to listen to him – remains today the basis for any genuine culture,” he said.
If taken seriously, that message could serve as the basis for cooperation among all religious believers, especially in an ultra-secular Europe in which the claim that openness to God is essential to “genuine culture” can be a tough sell.
tEarlier in the day, Benedict XVI met with a group of French Jews on the eve of the Sabbath. He told them that “because of its very nature, the Catholic church feels obligated to respect the covenant made by the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”
Benedict said he wished to repeat in his own voice the famous remark of Pope Pius XI, made in 1938 as the storm clouds of the Second World War gathered over Europe: “Spiritually, we are all Semites.”
“The church opposes every form of anti-Semitism,” Benedict added, “for which there is no acceptable theological justification.”
“I feel the duty once again to render an emotional tribute to those who died unjustly, and those who have worked to ensure that the names of the victims remain present in memory,” the pope said, in an indirect reference to the Holocaust.
He concluded his 500-word address by wishing the Jews a hearty “Shabbat shalom !”
John Allen is filing stories throughout the pope's visit to France and Lourdes. Read all the stories in his daily news column: John L Allen Jr Daily Column. Stories he has already filed include:
• Pope offers prayerful meditation on Eucharist: Jesus 'past, present and future'
• Pope in France: Traditionalists deserve 'a place in the church'
• The Cross, Mary, and hope for 'new vigor' in the Church
• No reference to Muslims, but pope makes a call to resist 'disaster for humanity'
• Benedict makes a case for 'healthy secularism'
• Pope in France: Averting a secular Iron Curtain
• Pope in France: Latin Mass an 'act of tolerance'
• Extracts from Sarkozy on church/state relations in France
• Cardinal Tauran on the pope's trip to France
• The Marian Papacy of Benedict XVI
• Benedict hopes to tap the 'creative minority' of French Catholics
(Editor's Note: Some stories are double posted, on NCRonline.org and on NCRcafe.org.)