The late pope fought a brave, lonely battle against the tyranny of nothingness.
In 2010, when Pope Benedict XVI visited the UK, there was fury from the fashionably godless. The preening macho rationalists of the New Atheist set couldn’t believe that such a ‘controversial’ pope had been gifted a state visit. Richard Dawkins, Philip Pullman, Stewart Lee and others wrote to the Guardian – of course they did – insisting that ‘Pope Ratzinger’ should not be ‘given the honour of a state visit’. Yes, they really did use his birth name, Joseph Ratzinger, rather than his papal name. That’s how petty they were. That’s how insulting they were determined to be to the leader of a faith adhered to by more than a billion people.
There was a ‘Protest the Pope’ rally in central London. Richard Dawkins told a crowd of 10,000 ostentatious unbelievers that Benedict was ‘an enemy of humanity’. People waved condom balloons in fury at Benedict’s utterly unsurprising opposition to birth control – he was the pope, guys. Others waved placards branding him a ‘bigot’, a ‘homophobe’. There were rainbow flags. And there were foghorn atheists as far as the eye could see. You remember those people from the weird God Wars of the 2000s – devoted to Dawkins; always reeling off a Hitchens quote (Christopher, not Peter); never more than three minutes away from telling some poor soul: ‘I’m an atheist, you know.’ These showy rationalists lined the streets to contrast their commitment to reason with the ‘cruel, damaging’ dogmas of Benedict’s backward religion.
It was a pretty spiteful affair, proof of the intolerance that lurked in that secularism on steroids that was so popular in the mid-Noughties. There was also a profound irony in this Benedict-bashing spectacle. Because this man they loved to hate, ‘Pope Ratzinger’, as they demeaned him, was a far keener defender of reason than they were. He was a more rigorous student of Enlightenment, too. And he did more than they ever will to challenge the real menace to truth in the 21st century – not religion but the ‘dictatorship of relativism’, as Benedict called it. There was more humanism in Benedict’s brave, often lonely battle against today’s tyranny of nothingness than there is in the New Atheists’ snotty rage against religion.
Benedict XVI, or the pope emeritus, as he came to be known when he surprisingly resigned the papacy in 2013, died today. He was 95. He was a fiercely intellectual pope. His first church was the academy. He was ordained as a priest in Freising, in southern Germany, in 1951, but he spent far more time teaching in universities than preaching in churches. By the age of 31 he was a professor of theology. His star as a theologian rose and rose in the Sixties and Seventies. In 1977, there was much surprise when Pope Paul VI made him the Archbishop of Munich and Freising: normally a seasoned priest, not a university intellectual, would assume such a role. He later went to Rome, where he was made prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, arguably the most important institution in Roman Catholicism, the one charged with defending the church from heresy. It was there that he further sharpened his intellectual sword. He became pope in 2005 and resigned in 2013 – the first pope in 600 years to do so.
READ ON BELOW…Pope Benedict vs the calculating elites – spiked