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 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….”
Full story by John Daniel Davidson, senior editor for the Federalist, at the Federalist.com.