Benedict XVI's papacy will be defined more by his lectures and homilies than soundbites or photo opportunities. Its signal event, thus far, had been a discourse on faith and reason delivered in 2006 at Regensburg, the idyllic German university campus where the scholarly pontiff had once taught theology. But despite his soft-spoken erudition, Benedict's Regensburg discourse became better known for the furor it sparked, and even isolated rioting, among Muslims over its perceived criticism of the Prophet Mohammed and of violence plaguing contemporary Islam. Still, Regensburg had laid out, in forceful language, the keynote theme of Benedict's papacy: his belief that faith and reason can, and must, live side by side, within the individual and in society at large.
Two years to the day after Regensburg, Benedict on Friday renewed his warning of the danger he sees of faithless reason taking root in the West. Some in the Vatican press corps even billed the address as Regensburg II.
And again, the Pope chose to deliver his remarks in a tranquil, scholarly setting in the heart of Europe the recently restored 13th-century College des Bernardins in Paris's Latin Quarter. Benedict worries that the Old Continent, the birthplace of his Church, is particularly susceptible to the forces of what he denounces as unbridled "relativism".
"It would be a disaster if today's European culture could only conceive freedom as absence of obligation," the Pope said, speaking before 700 academics, cultural figures and representatives of the Muslim community. "Absence of obligation and arbitrariness do not signify freedom, but its destruction."
The 81-year-old pontiff wished the Muslim leaders in the audience well over Ramadan, but did not specifically mention Islam in Friday's address. He reiterated the warning in the Regensburg speech of a dual threat the violence that can issue from "fundamentalist fanaticism" and faith not tempered by reason, on the one hand, and on the other, "subjective arbitrariness," the absence of morality when reason is not infused with faith.
The 45-minute speech used its setting, in what was once a place of study for priests and monks, to explore how Christian Europe had fused faith and reason, God and science, Greek thought and modern innovations into the construction of Western culture. "Monasteries were the places where the treasures of ancient culture survived, and where at the same time a new culture slowly took shape out of the old."
The Pope explained that the individual quest to find God by monastic scholars was at the heart of the development of modern reason. Today, he insists, the purveyors of reason must find the path back to the Divine. "It is through the search for God that the secular sciences take on their importance," he argued.
The tension between the secular and spiritual regularly make headlines in France, but mostly on stories about concerns that a growing Muslim population that has challenged the nation's longstanding commitment to laicite, the principle of keeping religion out of the public sphere. French Catholicism, once known as the "eldest daughter" of the Church, is in a steady decline, with no more than 10% of the population attending mass. During shorter speeches earlier in the day at the Elysee Palace, Benedict and French President Nicolas Sarkozy agreed that all faiths and French society at large would benefit from a new, less rigid formula for secularism. As he's done before, Sarkozy called it "positive" laicite, although his calls for a greater role for religion in French society has been criticized across the political spectrum. The Pope called for a "healthy" balance of the secular and religious in public life.
He concluded his Latin Quarter address by laying out in sweeping terms his view of the stakes for Europe and the West: "God has truly become for many the great unknown. But just as in the past, when the question concerning the unknown God was hidden and present, so too the present absence of God is silently besieged by the question concerning him," the Pope said. "To seek God and to let oneself be found by him is today no less necessary than in former times. A purely positivistic culture which tried to drive the question concerning God into the subjective realm, as being unscientific, would be the capitulation of reason, the renunciation of its highest possibilities, and hence a disaster for humanity, with very grave consequences. What gave Europe's culture its foundation the search for God and the readiness to listen to him remains today the basis of any genuine culture."
That dense exhortation is unlikely to set off any riots. But even for all its intellectual punch, in 21st century France it may not set off anything at all.