Benedict the Brave: The Regensburg Address Ten Years Later

On September 12, 2006, Pope Benedict XVI took to the dais of the University of Regensburg’s Aula Magna to offer a few “memories and reflections.” Contrary to the resulting rebukes, the 79-year-old pontiff knew exactly what he was doing.

Ten years ago Pope Benedict XVI took to the dais of the University of Regensburg’s Aula Magna to offer a few “memories and reflections.” The speech, which became widely known simply as Regensburg, has long been dismissed as an infamous gaffe in a generally misunderstood pontificate; it was leveled as incendiary and undiplomatic in solemn rebukes from leaders like Jacques Chirac; it sparked firebombings and effigies; death threats from the Mujahideen Army against the pontiff; and generally did little to enhance Benedict’s reputation. But how much of Regensburg was actually read, understood, and properly digested, and what was its overall intention?

Contrary to the ensuing censure of the Pope and his speech, the 79-year-old pontiff knew exactly what he was doing. “As I said at the time,” stated Fr. James V. Schall, SJ about its lasting legacy, “this address is one of the world’s most penetrating analysis ever made of intelligence and the consequences of the willful refusal to face its truth.” If really taken to heart, Regensburg at one point may have been the touchstone for a more truthful world—and still might be, a decade later.

The address consists of 4,000 words and 16 paragraphs—one paragraph is for the introduction, three on Islam, and two its conclusion, leaving ten paragraphs devoted to the issue of “reason.” Yet, this issue of reason and its relationship to God is rarely the topic of debate or discussion about the address. That is reserved almost entirely for the short section about Islam, particularly Benedict’s citation of a 14th century Byzantine emperor, Manuel II, a quotation which the Pope himself prefaced as one of “startling brusqueness, a brusqueness that we find unacceptable.” The emperor’s statement—“Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached”—is the most cited passage, and the one sometimes leveled against Pope Ratzinger as his own.

The denunciation that followed exposed a great deal about the jittery cultural unease about not only Islam, which continues unresolved to this day, but also the deficiencies of an increasingly atheistic public worldview. “I think the problem is [Benedict] may have still been thinking like a German academic and perhaps forgot that there were people outside the room who were listening,” Jesuit commentator Fr. Thomas Reese suggested a few days later, summarizing one critique that Joseph Ratzinger the man, as Benedict the pope, could and should only limit his thought to perfunctory papal addresses. That the matter in question—“not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature,” in other words, the opposite of reason, namely violence—was labeled insensitive and provoked scorn is itself more paradoxical than disputable, as Lars Brownworth noted in his 2009 book Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization: “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.” 

Even Benedict sought to moderate tension the Sunday after Regensburg: “I am deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address at the University of Regensburg, which were considered offensive to the sensibility of Muslims. These in fact were a quotation from a medieval text, which do not in any way express my personal thought.” But should the Pope have apologized for being magnificent? At the time of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in January 2015, Dr. Samuel Gregg recalled Regensburg, something not a few thinkers were doing with frequency in light of such attacks: “Many professional interfaith dialoguers don’t like the Regensburg address because it highlighted how much of their discussion was utterly peripheral to the main game,” he said. Now in the ten years since 2006, in the wake of the Arab Spring, expanding terrorist attacks, a media blitzkrieg by Islamic State touting beheadings of Westerners, Coptic Christians and others, global financial chaos, a Europe struggling in its own narrative, a United States enduring an identity crisis, the brilliance and bluntness of Regensburg remains.

It comes down to a matter of the truth: Was the Pope really on to something of such magnitude it was completely overlooked by an unprepared public?

Fr. Schall thinks so. In his book on the speech he readily ranks Regensburg with not only John Paul II’s 1979 Poland voyage that set in motion the end of Soviet Communism, but also Cicero’s Pro Archia, Pericles’ Funeral Oration, Plato’s Apology, Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, Henry V on St. Crispin’s Day, Lincoln at Gettysburg, Solzhenitsyn at Harvard, Churchill at war. “Events need not be words,” he writes. “But words can also be events…” And now there’s Benedict at Regensburg: “Academic words are primarily to enlighten us, to take our minds to the heart of what is. This enlightenment is the purpose of Regensburg. It is what has been lacking in our understanding of where we are.”

It also launched a hallmark of memorable, culturally impactful “September speeches” from Benedict, that included, for instance, his challenge to Parisian cultural elite in 2008, his bold evocation of St. Thomas More in Westminster Hall in 2010, and at the Reichstag in Berlin before Germany’s political leaders in 2011 (all appear in Liberating Logos, edited by Dr. Marc Guerra). While all unique to their own time and place, all point back to what was said at Regensburg: “[N]ot to act with reason is contrary to God’s nature.” Dr. Guerra himself notes how prescient Benedict detected the “flight from reason” that was surrounding him:

Looking back, Pope Benedict’s penetrating diagnosis of the intellectual, moral, and spiritual pathologies that are spawned by our late modern flights from reason—whether these are born out of religious voluntarism or scientific reductionism or cultural perspectivalism or, increasingly, religiously motivated humanitarianism—is, in many ways, more relevant today than it was a mere ten years ago. Truth be told, the Church and the West still have much to learn from the Regensburg Lecture.

Benedict’s aim is not to champion reason alone, but ratio recta—right reason. It’s a direct challenge to the pervading dictatorship of relativism he has long sought to confront and crush. Such tyranny extends down to the very universities meant to explore that reason in multiple subjects of life. It is no accident that Benedict chose a university setting and directed his Address to “representatives of science.” As recent social crises in academia have revealed, the typical foundation for a university as a place of discourse on ranges of ideas is now a shrinking footprint. Doing so inevitably excludes real discussion of God. Not only is the subject of God the central theme of Joseph Ratzinger’s life, but the central theme of the great thinkers and civilizations in history. It was of such import that Regensburg could not ignore exposing the attempt to replace God totally: “A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures.” Is this right reason, the kind of reason now realigning public discourse, the public way of life?

As Gregg noted on this site a few months ago, reason is being remade not in the image of God, but of a certain perception of how man is to be today: thus, the opposite of reason, in this mentality, is not unreason but faith itself. Anything having to do with faith is immediately dismissed as contrary to reason—and thus must be eradicated. This is what the Pope confronts at Regensburg and what concerns Gregg:

Benedict XVI’s Regensburg lecture was as much about the West’s crisis of faith in reason as it was about the deeper theological problems driving Islamist terrorism. If the West forgets that the Jewish and Christian God is, in fact, not just Love (Caritas) but also Divine Reason (Logos), then it cannot help but collapse into mere sentimental humanitarianism. The present prevalence of feelings-talk and emotivism in much of Western Christianity, including among some prominent Catholics, and their evident disinterest in right reason and natural law tells us that Benedict’s warnings were right on the mark.

The Pope at Regensburg, without ingratiating to feelings-talk or emotivism to express his views, and without talking down to his audience in the Aula Magna and beyond, put on display in 30 minutes that the Christian proposal needs both fides and ratio to reach its full potential. “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth,” opens Pope Saint John Paul II’s penultimate encyclical Fides et Ratio, a text which bears a heavy Ratzingerian influence, “and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.”

The proper relationship of faith and reason, therefore, is the Logos. Logos means both word and reason,” Benedict summarizes in the lecture. Addressing it inevitably leads one into the purview of religion; the Pope knows that unlike the wishes of elitist proponents of statism, it cannot be discounted, and having empathy and knowledge of diverse cultures and traditions where a faith in something greater than themselves is standard—instead of ignorance and contempt—leads to mutual understanding. Even if it makes one unpopular. “We seem to be witnessing a clash between two great cultural systems,” he remarked, “the ‘West’ and Islam, with very different forms of power and moral orientation. But what is the West? And who is Islam?” 

In his own lecture given in 2007 at James Madison University explicating both Benedict at Regensburg and Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s 1978 Harvard commencement address, Fr. Schall observes Benedict’s grasp of limitation—limits of government and its influences on the human person; limits on human life itself; the Kantian limits of reason alone; and the limits of sola scriptura, for instance. Determine the degree of limitation on reason and there you will define what you really believe—that is the challenge of Regensburg. It is so challenging we dare not address it, instead choosing to occupy our passions and anger on the branches rather than the root of what is

It is a challenge that still remains, and its words still await discovery. The ones who seek a better world, who know true diplomacy and dialogue are necessary but recognize truth is the real summit, the ones who will actually pivot the world onto a better course must first sit in quiet and read Regensburg alone, then with each other, and a conversation will start and action follow. But not without risk. Dr. Mary Mumbach, professor at Northeast Catholic College and contributor to the collection of essays on Regensburg titled Gained Horizons: Regensburg and the Enlargement of Reason, notes as such: 

Threats of enforcement of political correctness, and in some cases, of terrorist attacks increasingly place in jeopardy models of faith and reason housed in the sanctuaries dedicated to the cultivation of these spiritual gifts. Increasingly, professors of the life of reason (and/or of faith) labor in the shadow of threats against their livelihood and sometimes against their very lives. Pope Benedict’s witness manifested what cost might be exacted of those who labor in universities as well as in Christian churches.

For those dauntless in following Benedict’s lead, perhaps such charting of a better course indeed will happen within a university, where such discourse was intended. And maybe it will take place this year, when a bold professor or daring staff member inspired by the courage of Benedict the Brave makes Regensburg required reading either in the classroom or in some clandestine meeting of counterculturals yearning for change, who know that two wings are needed to soar. To see past the layers of distraction created by controversy and to meet Benedict where he wanted to take not only the faithful but all people of goodwill: to new heights of intellect and faith.

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About James Day 12 Articles
James Day is the author of Father Benedict: The Spiritual and Intellectual Legacy of Pope Benedict XVI (Sophia Institute Press, 2016). He is a producer and operations manager for EWTN’s West Coast Studio at the Christ Cathedral campus in Orange County, California.

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