Pope Benedict Stays Lofty in Austria

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Johannes Simon / Getty

Pope Benedict XVI arrives for an afternoon mass at the pilgrimage church Mariazell during the second day of his visit to Austria

It was a pilgrimage, Pope Benedict XVI insisted, not a political outing. The pontiff's just-completed stay in Austria was built around a visit to Mariazell, an 850-year-old shrine to Mary in the foothills of the Alps, just over two hours south of Vienna. And though Benedict used his three-day trip to touch on some familiar hot-button issues both inside and outside his Church — abortion, euthanasia, the so-called "de-Christianization" of Europe — he did so in a context and spirit that matched the humble "just-a-pilgrimage" billing he announced just before takeoff from Rome on Friday.

But of course the 80-year-old pontiff is no ordinary pilgrim. Not only is he the absolute leader of the billion-strong Catholic Church, he's also one of contemporary society's leading intellectuals — an unquestionably big thinker with the world's biggest platform for espousing his ideas. Speaking in his native German, and amongst believers much like those from the neighboring region of Bavaria where he was born, the Pope seemed especially comfortable on this latest trip. In a steady rain, Benedict pulled out the latest nuggets from his seemingly inexhaustible mine of deep thoughts on a now familiar theme: why his black-and-white brand of faith is the right response in a contemporary world given to compromises and what he disparagingly and repeatedly calls relativism. "Our faith is decisively opposed to the attitude of resignation that considers man incapable of truth as if this were more than he could cope with," the Pope said to some 40,000 fellow pilgrims at Mariazell. "This attitude of resignation with regard to truth lies at the heart of the crisis of the West. If truth does not exist for man, then neither can he ultimately distinguish between good and evil." He acknowledged legitimate fears that "faith in the truth might entail intolerance," but insisted that the Catholic Church espouses not a threatening truth, but one that he says "proves itself in love. It is never our property, never our product, just as love can never be produced, but only received and handed on as a gift."

Benedict has made his mark as a Pope by exploring timeless philosophical questions with a keen sense of the contemporary context, and by making complex Christian theology digestible for the masses. Progressive Catholics may not like his proselytizing for the traditions of the faith, but no one can deny the clarity with which he lays out his vision.

Some wonder, though, if that is enough. John Paul II may have raised the bar forever on what we expect from a Pope. His central role in undoing Communism, critiquing capitalism and calling on world religions to actively seek peace made the last Pope a major global player. One can sense that Benedict understands that he cannot just do all gospel, all the time. In Austria he dropped in references to globalization, economic disparity and even the environment. But on those subjects he doesn't exhibit the incisive intelligence that characterize his theological and philosophical musings.

No doubt Benedict is playing to his strengths. And he may still be trying to regain his footing after his most ambitious attempt at jumping into the global debate his speech in Regensberg, Germany, last year about faith, reason and violence in contemporary Islam — largely backfired. Indeed, many in the Vatican were pleased that this trip to Austria came off with little controversy.

But ultimately, to stand out the way John Paul II did on world affairs, Benedict will again have to use his skills as theologian-philosopher to make a political point — adding a bigger dose of diplomacy than he did last year in Regensberg. He had a chance during an address last Friday to Vienna-based diplomats to lay out his broad vision of world affairs, but he chose not to take it. With key figures at the International Atomic Energy Agency present, for example, he made no mention of growing tensions between the West and Iran. Still, Benedict may soon get another, even bigger political opportunity: Vatican insiders say that the Pope could speak at the United Nations in New York City next spring. That would be a pilgrimage of an entirely different order of magnitude.