Popes have frequently attacked the moral, political, and intellectual developments that gave birth to modern Italy. On the occasion of the death of Pope Benedict, we today review his controversial Regensburg Address to see what it says about modern Rome.

Show Notes

In my last podcast I reported that I’d be taking a break to work on a few questions I can’t answer now to my own satisfaction. This remains true, but a few things have occurred to me that I hope will justify this podcast.

My last main suggestion was that a thoughtful visit to Rome should not focus exclusively on the art and monuments that so capture our attention. Other fascinating signs of the prevailing culture can be found in the people on the street, the food in the restaurants, the issues raised by politicians, and so forth. Unfortunately, it is much more difficult to see these signs once a culture has passed, which is why we need to look carefully at the art and artifacts it left behind and, especially, to read its writings.

In particular, I suggested that one important feature of modern Rome is its secularism, which it shares with modern Europe and the modern West in general. It is not the main point of any single work of art, so secularism does not get mentioned in the guidebooks, but isn’t it both fascinating and important to observe the varied changes that occur when a society moves from a predominantly Christian culture to a secular one? The ruling ideas of the society change dramatically, and so do the many lives lived in accord with these ideas.

Celebration of Michelmas at the Eritrean Church in Rome (Photo: Rome Art Lover)

The secular revolution is more visible in Rome than in most places. A walk in Rome on a Sunday morning will show, for example, that many of Rome’s great churches have very few churchgoers in them, even though Rome’s many churches were built to support the religious needs of a population only five or ten per cent the size of today’s: many more people need many fewer churches. My own Sunday morning walks revealed an important exception to this rule, that some of the churches that serve non-European worshipers are hopping with activity, such as Santa Pudenziana, with its Filipino population, and the church for the Eritrean Orthodox Community, on Via San Salvatore in Campo, but elsewhere the tourists outnumber the faithful, even on Sunday.

And, as I’ve pointed out in podcasts on the Vittoriano, the Statue of Garibaldi, and elsewhere, there is a striking absence of Christian symbols on Rome’s many monuments to modern Italy and its heroes. I say “striking” because for the 1,500 years prior to the birth of modern Italy, almost every monument and most works of art bore a Christian message. So one reason I decided to give myself some time off from podcasting was so I could think again about the massive cultural revolution represented by the victory of modern liberalism and its secularism in Italy and the West in general.

There is no shortage of help on this question, since authors as different at Karl Marx, Fredrich Nietzsche, and Alexis de Tocqueville all took seriously the question of the relationship between the old Christian world and the less enchanted world issued in by modern science and modern political thinking. Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court magically plops a modern and technologically minded reformer into a medieval society, and this allows him to contrast the unique features of two very different kinds of society and the kinds of human beings they produce. Perhaps surprisingly, the cheerful, optimistic, clever, and very modern Yankee does not escape criticism, especially in the novel’s dark conclusion, and one can think that Twain sees the modern age, for all its wonders, as having brought with it a touch of callous inhumanity. But the very vastness and variety of the literature on modern secular liberalism requires long attention.

What prompts me to write today is that no sooner did I declare modern Rome to be mostly secular than emeritus Pope Benedict XVI died, which elicited a worldwide outpouring of grief and respect. The occasion served as a reminder that the Roman Catholic Church has about 1.3 billion members worldwide, and many of them continue to look to the pope as a powerful leader. The still more beloved Pope John Paul II, who even played a role in toppling the Soviet Union, shows that the papacy remains a tremendously influential office. These and other signs of enduring religiosity do not keep me from continuing to think that the modern West is predominantly secular, but they do remind me that a single adjective cannot adequately represent a complex culture or age.

Benedict’s death sparked me to reread his infamous Regensburg Address, for I recalled that it argued that whatever the many benefits of modern times, we in the modern West have also lost something. Have we? I’d like to know, so I reread the address.

What is most known about the address is that it contained some very harsh words for Islam, and this stirred up such a fuss that the main points of the speech were often overlooked. It did not seem to matter that the harsh words were not those of the pope but of a Byzantine Emperor who has been dead for seven centuries. The pope denied that he agreed with the opinions he quoted, but his denial was not sufficiently vigorous to protect him against the charge that he was stirring up anti-Islamic sentiment and intensifying hostility between two great biblical religions. This controversy then made it difficult to consider the main points in the lecture, which is what I’d like to do here.

His main point is that something important has gone missing from the modern West, and that this now poses a fundamental problem. He usually calls the missing something a belief in “reason,” and I’ll call it “Reason” with a capital “R.” He also calls this missing something “philosophy,” the “Greek heritage,” and “Greek inquiry.” The big picture he paints suggests that for a very long time, Western Civilization was marked by a cooperation between Reason and faith. Each kept an eye on the other, but both helped one another to attain its maximum vigor and do the greatest good. As he puts it in the fifth paragraph, he sees a “profound harmony” between faith and reason, as least when they are understood properly.

Whereas I have suggested in past podcasts that the coming of Christianity to Rome was divisive and led to violence, the destruction of statues, and sharp polemics, the late pope’s address emphasizes more a later collaboration between the classical culture with its emphasis on philosophy and medieval Christian culture with its emphasis on faith. In support of his thesis, he stresses the importance of the word logos in the Bible, which means speech or reason in Greek, and he refers to the thinking of Saints Thomas and Augustine as positive examples of the collaboration between faith and Reason.

St. Thomas with Philosophy in the Carafa Chapel (Photo: Wknight94 talk, CC B)

The pope does not say this, but perhaps some of the art from Rome’s Christian ages illustrates the respect for philosophic reason that faith sometimes exhibits. Raphael’s famous School of Athens was commissioned by a pope, and it honors the life of thought even as lived by non-Christian thinkers. About twenty years before Raphael’s great painting, Filippino Lippi made St. Thomas the central figure in the Carafa Chapel of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, where the saint is surrounded by female figures representing Philosophy, Astronomy, Theology, and Grammar. Both of these frescos are from the Renaissance, and they might offer some support for the pope’s thesis regarding the mutual respect between theology and philosophy.

To his credit, Benedict grants that this was not the only Christian interpretation of the complex relationship between faith and reason. Duns Scotus lived a little after St. Thomas and was apparently not persuaded by Thomas’s reconciliation of Christian faith and Aristotelian reasoning, so if Benedict is correct that the case for philosophic Reasoning has grown weak in modern times, it would not be for the first time.

But the late pope considers the cooperation between faith and reason to be more characteristic of Western Civilization’s most Christian centuries, and he uses the term “rapprochement” to describe the relationship between these two great authorities. This rapprochement encouraged Christian thinkers to study philosophy and use its help as they thought about ethical, political, and theological problems, and those pursuing philosophy would recognize the limits of what reason can fully prove, which opens them to the need for faith.

Others have agreed with Benedict’s general view, and they have used the cities of Athens and Jerusalem to personify philosophy and faith. Rome, which became the meeting place for influences from Athens, the home of philosophy, and Jerusalem, the home of the Bible, could then be explained as a kind of synthesis of these two cities. Jerusalem plus Athens equals Rome, some might say.

But then things changed, according to Benedict, and this period of harmony came to an end or at least was severely diminished, and then both faith and philosophy come under severe attack. Divided, their influence in the modern world is overshadowed by that of science, the new authority in town. Perhaps the will of the majority is another new authority. Rome, like the West in general, thus lost touch with both Jerusalem and Athens and began to follow the lead of Paris and New York.

Benedict presents the attack on the rapprochement between faith and Reason as having occurred in three waves. He calls these waves three stages in a process of “dehellenization.” The Greeks called themselves Hellenes, so “dehellenization” simply means getting rid of Greek influence, that is, ceasing to honor Reason with a capital R. The first stage was the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, the second was the liberal theology of the 19th and 20th centuries, and the third is the current enthusiasm for cultural pluralism, which invites every new age or culture to reinterpret things as it pleases, for it appears that there is no way to judge any one culture superior to another.  The net result, Benedict thinks, is that the modern West has been dehellenized and has lost the ample Greek view of a kind of Reason that could help us think more clearly. Instead of philosophical thinking that tries to solve problems of ethics, politics, culture, and theology, Benedict sees our age as honoring only scientific or positivistic reasoning. In his view, we need more.

Thus, the first intended beneficiary of Benedict’s essay is the broad or philosophic reasoning he associates with the Greeks. Science can do great things, like cure the sick, but it cannot guide our moral lives or help us think better about God. It helps us do, but it cannot say what we should do.

Yesterday’s celebration of the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King provides a useful example. His daughter said of him that “He was God’s prophet sent to this nation and even the to world to guide us and forewarn us. . . .  A prophetic word . . .  challenges us to change our hearts, our minds, and our behavior.”  Whether or not the late pope would agree entirely with this statement, it is an example of the kind of appeal that science cannot make, and King’s leadership, which was closely tied to his life as a Baptist Minister, had a religious and moral core that cannot come directly from the cold, clear reasoning of a laboratory.

I have now summarized his argument, but it is beyond me to take the next step and assess it, especially since he wrote other essays and books, and I have read only one them. But if it stimulates our thinking, I don’t think it’s out of line for me to make a few observations and ask a few questions. I limit them to his Regensburg Address and don’t presume to speak about his thought in its fullness. As always, I welcome comments sent to Wayne at

As for the main points of the Regensburg Address, I think they are helpful stimulants for our thinking. The most important of them, as I see it, is that we now tend to see modern science as the exemplar of human reasoning. Philosophic reasoning has been successfully challenged by the apparently more rigorous reasoning the late pope called “scientific positivism,” which means reasoning that follows a very strict methodology, usually involving experimentation as a way of confirming results. Modern science has certainly shown that it can do things, amazing things, so it is natural that its eye-catching successes cast a shadow over other kinds of thinking. Of what comparable successes can philosophy or ethics boast?

It happens, then, that some hitherto non-scientific disciplines try to imitate the hard sciences, so that they too can share in the glory won by physics, chemistry, and engineering. But, as it seemed to me as a young student of political science, and still seems to me now, to really stress the scientific part of the study of politics, you have to ignore the most interesting questions, since science cannot answer them. Science cannot can tell us what justice is, for example, or whether there is such a thing as a common good, or whether we really are endowed by nature with inalienable rights; these wonderful questions require a broader understanding of reason, or perhaps, frighteningly, they admit of no reason at all. To put this in other terms, not used by Pope Benedict, science can teach us lots about facts and the way nature operates, but it has nothing to say about values. The pope wants to emphasize this modern quandary, and, whether or not there is a solution, I think we do face some such challenge.

Perhaps the late pope says more in other writings about his three stages of dehellenization. As causes of these attacks on reason, he stresses especially developments in theological thinking, beginning with the Protestant Reformation. My suspicion is that there were also other powerful causes at work that served to weaken the alliance between faith and reason he says existed in the long period before the Reformation. In particular, he does not mention developments in modern philosophy, but I think they are a big part of the story.

Consider such thinkers as Machiavelli, Hobbes, Spinoza, Bayle, Rousseau, Hume, Voltaire, Thomas Paine, Marx, and Freud. I don’t think any of them attacked philosophical Reason, but they all attacked Christianity in one way or another. Even if the pronounced atheistic streak among modern thinkers did not trouble the late pope, which I doubt, their example suggests that the harmony between faith and philosophy is precarious: once this modern crowd of reasoners is introduced, St. Thomas looks much lonelier, and philosophic Reason looks more threatening to religious belief than the late pope had implied. Reason with a capital R may stand ready to address moral, political, and theological issues, but there is no guarantee those who embrace this powerful tool will arrive at the conclusions the pope would have wished.

In the capable hands of a St. Thomas Aquinas, Reason can seem to be an ally of faith, and yet Reason resists being held down, and it does not always lead where we want it to go. If the late pope is correct that there was a rapprochement between faith and reason in the Middle Ages, did this amount to a solid and durable alliance? I wonder what the exact terms of the rapprochement are and whether the Reason Benedict honors—philosophic Reason—would always be faithful to them. As the pope himself mentioned, the same period that gave us Saint Thomas, whose reasoning labored hard on behalf of the rapprochement, also gave us Duns Scotus, whose reasoning rejected it.

This is enough by way of introducing a recent papal discourse, the Regensburg Address. If you find yourself asking, what does this have to do with getting ready for Rome, here is my answer. The identity of a culture has as much or more to do with its thought or ideas than with its museums and monuments. Even if we cannot see or touch this thought, it’s out there conserving or changing a society, helping or hurting it. In thinking about the West in classical, Christian, and modern times, the late pope argues that we have narrowed the scope of Reason to the point that it is identical to science, which he finds this beneficial in some respects but severely limiting in others, for as he indicates, science is “deaf to the divine” and to morality. The big question, which should not sound surprising, is this: What provides authoritative moral guidance if the voices of God and Reason have grown more faint in the modern West? One historical answer to this question is that Nazism did, which can help us appreciate the importance of the problem.

I’m now heading back to the sabbatical I’m awarding myself, and I promise that at least in the next podcast, I’ll not allow myself to be drawn into another philosophical discussion, important though I think they are, not least for a visit to the city where classical philosophy and Christian faith struggled for influence for a thousand years.