THE BLOG
09/11/2007 04:02 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Pope Benedict and the Crisis of Truth


In an especially moving passage from his recent speech in Vienna that kicked-off his three-day visit to Austria, Pope Benedict XVI said, "It should be everyone's concern to ensure that the day will never come when only its stones speak of Christianity." That was then followed with the statement, "An Austria without a vibrant Christian faith would no longer be Austria."

By now this has become the consistent refrain from Benedict -- namely, that the secularization of Western society stands as its greatest threat. By secularization, of course, the pope is referring to an increasingly autonomous population that is willing to question the authority of the church. Even more fundamentally, he has in mind the way by which secularization (which, mind you, one could just as easily and more positively term as pluralization) contributes to the relativization of truth. As Benedict stated in his speech the following day, "This attitude of resignation with regard to truth lies at the heart of the crisis in the West, the crisis of Europe."

In certain respects, I am inclined to agree with Benedict in affirming the positive role religion has played in shaping our cultural heritage. Indeed, as unlikely and as exaggerated as the scenario is, it would be a great shame if all that remained of Western civilization's Christian heritage were empty cathedrals standing as ancient relics of a forgotten and distant past.

But the problem is that Benedict's concerns are misplaced betraying an almost blinding insecurity. For instance, when he asserts that an Austria without a vibrant Christian faith would no longer be Austria, that same assertion might easily be turned back on Benedict and the religious institution that he represents in the form of a question: Would a church that allowed the ordination of women as priests and for its priests to marry still be the Church? Might Benedict's own recalcitrance on this subject be at least partly to blame for the crisis of authority that his church faces in such places as Austria? And with many Austrian Catholics angry over two prominent sex scandals involving the clergy, to what extent is this responsible for the crisis of credibility that Benedict and his church face when they seek to assert their own moral authority?

So while the Pope expresses concern that Europe may extinguish itself by being forgetful of how Christianity "profoundly shaped the continent," apparently he needs to remind himself of his own history. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, and I don't mean to be flippant, but the Roman Catholic Church no longer has a religious monopoly on truth. That ended almost five centuries prior whenever Martin Luther posted his famous 95 Theses on the Wittenberg church door and thus unleashed the forces of individualism that have become the hallmark of the modern Christian West -- which is to say nothing of the cultural contributions and enduring presence of other faith traditions. This too has profoundly shaped the continent. Rather than bemoan this fate and hearken back to a past age of supposed religious unity and unquestioned religious authority, we might discern some truth in this history.

Or, put more dogmatically, that which is true needs no defense because its truth is realized in and by the history we are now living. It is true that the West no longer (as if it ever did!) speak with one voice. But this does not mean, as Benedict suggests, that we need the church to reassert its truth as absolute and universal. Perhaps instead it means that Benedict and his church need to better come to terms with the truth of our history.