The recent death of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI reminds us of an essential and historic connection between religion and Western civilization. Religious belief and practice may be falling from favor in modern times, but throughout history it was an essential building block to Western civilization.
Known as a brilliant theologian and a deeply faithful Christian, Pope Benedict also served as an ardent defender of Western culture. During his papacy, he courageously stood up for Western principles at a time when the West had come under great criticism for the faults and shortcomings of its past. He pushed back against the relativists who argued that the West was no better, if not worse, than other cultures.
Benedict reminded us that Western civilization had produced and fortified the conditions that produced freedom, rational learning and thought, tolerance, the rule of law, and a respect for individual dignity. In the process, he also reminded us that the Judeo-Christian tradition had paved the ground for these advancements in Western culture.
Critics of Benedict’s defense of Western civilization often confused or distorted the essence of his message. Benedict did not assert that religion must control society or culture. He did not claim that religious beliefs or leaders must dictate government policy; nor did he argue that individuals must be made to conform to religious commands. Rather, his message was an historical and cultural truism. Without the influence of the Judeo-Christian tradition, Western civilization would not have evolved as it did.
Without the influence of religion, democracies would not have evolved from authoritarian rule, tolerance would not have come to characterize society, individual liberty would never have triumphed over tyranny. But whether this historical development will continue to prevail may be open to question.
Science, materialism and self-centeredness in the modern world have shoved religious belief and observance to the margins of social life. Scandals occurring within religious institutions have further weakened their credibility, as well as the allegiance of their followers. Consequently, religion has been minimized as a constructive contributor to the health and vibrancy of society.
Perhaps contemporary culture rejects religion; but this rejection does not mean that previous ages and cultures did not base the advances made in their social, political and legal systems on the influence of religious belief and practice. Perhaps people and cultures now reject religious belief; but at the same time, they should recognize that it was religious belief that built the conditions necessary for the freedom, prosperity and stability that now characterize modern life.
Benedict left us with countless theological insights. But he also left us with an important lesson about the very foundations of democratic society and culture that we often take for granted.
Garry is a senior fellow at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy.