Benedict XVI and Christian Europe, as seen by a Japanese scholar

Cover of Hajime Konno's "Benedict XVI: the Renewal of Christian Europe."
Cover of Hajime Konno's "Benedict XVI: the Renewal of Christian Europe."

.- Benedict XVI’s role in Europe is the focus of a Japanese scholar who says the Pope emeritus’ recent decades show his engagement in a dialogue that promotes both Catholic identity and what he saw as the best of Western values.

“What Pope Benedict XVI wanted to emphasize was the independence of the Catholic Church,” Hajime Konno told CNA Aug. 12. He said this principle of self-determination was central to the Pope on questions of Church reform.

At the same time, Benedict did not hesitate to dialogue with thinkers such as the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas and the Italian Social Democrat and atheist Paolo Flores d’Arcais.

“In his opinion, a dialogue does not automatically mean a compromise of the Catholic side, as many outsiders expected,” Konno explained. “But a dialogue without agreement is much better than violence without dialogue, for the coexistence of many cultures.”

Konno, who teaches German studies at Aichi Prefectural University in Japan, has authored a new book on the former Pope: Benedict XVI: the Renewal of Christian Europe. The Japanese-language book draws on his research in German history, culture, and politics.

In Konno’s view, Benedict’s efforts to renew Christian Europe had two main methods. The first approach: an emphasis on Christian and Catholic identity.

“He insisted that the dialogues with other confessions and religions must not be confused with one-sided compromises of the Catholic Church. He did not hesitate to criticize other confessions and
religions,” the professor said. He noted Benedict's Regensburg speech of 2006, which critically compared the roles of faith and reason in Islamic thought with their roles in Christianity.

This approach, as well as Benedict’s dedication to liturgical principles, encouraged traditional Catholics in their faith. While this helped build bridges with such groups as the Society of St. Pius X, it sometimes drew protests and objections from the Pope’s opponents.

Benedict's other approach emphasized “Western values” as a common base for humanity.

“He insisted that the modern ‘western values’ were originally Christian ones, that Christianity is a religion of rationality and an indispensable foundation for the European community,” Konno said.

According to Konno, Benedict’s 2004 discussion with Habermas was among his successes, and the Pope emeritus' work has had an impact.

“Thanks to these efforts, he was accepted by most political leaders in the world as the moral leader of the time,” Konno said. He acknowledged that some of the Pope’s past rivals, like the Swiss theologian Hans Kung, were not satisfied.

Benedict saw the dignity of humankind as a valuable principle of modernity. He also saw possibilities to cooperate with political progressives in areas such as bioethics and Middle East peacekeeping.

At the same time, the Pope’s most important target of criticism was “the idea that man can always decide his fate by himself.”

“According to Pope Benedict XVI, this attitude means a lack of modesty before God, and is the main cause for many problems of the time, such as environmental problems, divorce, abortion, and social inequalities. But this idea is a basis of freedom for the progressives,” Kanno said.

He explained that Benedict is not well-known in Japan, and he wants his book to show Japanese people “the western discussion on the modernity of the Catholic Church.”

Kanno, who is agnostic, said Benedict’s arguments were not always persuasive. The professor found his view of the rationality of Christianity to be “one-sided.”

Kanno’s family, from the north of Japan, was traditionally Orthodox Christian. “Although my father was an atheist and I am not a Christian, I am interested in Christianity as a culture,” he said.

One of his areas of interest includes the conflicts between the Catholic Church and German left-wing intellectuals in the late 20th century.

“The German progressive intellectuals insisted that all persons in Germany must accept unconditionally ‘Western values’.” This insistence applied to the Catholic Church, to East Germans, Turkish immigrants, and Japanese students.  

“I thought, the modern ‘Western values’ are really theoretical weapons against the people who seem to be not completely modern,” Kanno said.

He explained that he first became interested in Cardinal Ratzinger when the future Pope was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Then-Cardinal Ratzinger published the 2000 declaration Dominus Iesus, on the unicity and salvific universality of Jesus Christ and the Church.

Kanno saw the document as a rejection of the idea that the Catholic Church must adapt without conditions to the mode of the time.

“That was a very courageous and dangerous act,” he said.

Kanno sees Pope Francis, Benedict’s successor, as a “modest and humble man,” but not a strong reformer.

“The Catholic Church needs his reign as a truce,” the professor said. Following Francis' pontificate, he thinks the cardinals “must think again how the Catholic Church has to confront the modern world.”

Kanno’s book is available in Japanese, though he hopes to have it translated into English.

Tags: Joseph Ratzinger

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