Someone I knew at Cambridge once managed (some years before I met him) to wangle his way into a dinner given by the University’s Catholic chaplaincy in honour of the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. This would have been in the mid-1980s and Ratzinger’s notoriety as the Vatican’s top theological enforcer preceded him.

Pope Benedict has dedicated his life to the theology of reason

My friend, a Canadian Pole, was a grizzly bear of a man with a robust if good humoured ego. In the many hours I spent in conversation with him, he always did almost all of the talking, in full flow, and took that as natural.

So I was all the more struck when this gregarious, unapologetic, outspoken atheist told me of his encounter with Ratzinger.

He managed to talk himself into being invited to a dinner reserved for only a few of the stalwart helpers at the chaplaincy (where he had never even been). Once inside the dining room, he cleared a path to the seat on the immediate left of the cardinal. My friend was pleased with the food, the wine, the starched linen, the Roman collars and himself and was braced for a dazzling, sparring conversation with the guest of honour.

As the main course began, Ratzinger turned towards him, looked penetratingly into his eyes and, with the softest voice and greatest charm, said: “I hear you are an atheist”.

In the ensuing conversation, my friend was utterly seduced and often speechless, as Ratzinger used the meal both to befriend and, disconcertingly, to probe for difference and conviction.

Years later, my friend was still marvelling how he had entered the dining room a lion and left it a lamb. But such incidents must have been routine for Ratzinger. We know of more than one instance of a journalist, even from that time, who re-emerged from a lengthy interview with an entirely changed image of him.

I have recounted this obscure incident to make a point that’s often missed. Ratzinger’s famous personal charm is of a piece with his theological hard-man’s willingness to state religious differences baldly. He does not glide over them; he tackles them head-on. It can be intimidating because he’s not going to be put off by political correctness. But it can be seductive because, face to face, it’s abundantly clear that he is genuinely trying to reason and dialogue with people who are truly different from him. (One of his criticisms of radical relativism is that it promotes indifference.)

The real contrast between the Pope who announced his abdication on Monday and his immediate predecessor is not so much that the latter was magnetic and the former is timid. Ratzinger can leave audiences, even initially sceptical ones, feeling he has considerable charisma but to bring them round he needs a full conversation in an intimate setting.

I don’t think this is an incidental detail about the leader whose legacy the world is currently taking stock of. His champions, as well as his critics, have often zeroed in on his faith as holding the key to his identity. It would be odd if it didn’t. But it’s probably better to start somewhere else: with his particular understanding of reason and rationality.

It’s an understanding that has been as misunderstood by many fans as well as critics.

First, although he has the reputation of being the uncompromising defender of the dogmas of faith, he does not think of faith as a package deal of theological equations or a set of moral laws one accepts like the EU’s acquis communautaire.

For him, faith is firstly accumulated spiritual experience and wisdom.

Second, he thinks that reason, to be truly rational, has to take account of such experience, the knowledge of the heart. If reason is exclusively based on experimental, scientific knowledge it becomes too narrow. But so is faith that ignores reason. Ratzinger has consistently targeted fundamentalism for denigrating reason.

Third, the real difference between him and someone like Richard Dawkins is that he believes that nature is not blind but rational. For Ratzinger, this rationality is evident in our physiology and makes some lifestyles more rational (more in harmony with our nature) than others.

He also concludes that some cultural lifestyles are irrational because they are radically out of harmony with human nature. They repress our humanity, deceive us about our true desires and so reduce human freedom. His criticism of gay marriage is that it is irrational in this sense. He considers the Church’s appeals against legalisation to be based on reason, not faith. (As an argument, it has the same sweeping logic as a common criticism of clerical celibacy: that it is bad for the whole society because it’s repressive for the priest and, by denigrating human sexuality, gives the rest of us a lot of hang-ups. Ratzinger thinks exactly the same thing about gay marriage.)

Whatever you make of these ideas – I’m unconvinced myself – they raise one burning question about Ratzinger’s pontificate as it nears its end. If Ratzinger the champion of reason is, after eight years, unfamiliar to you, who’s to blame?

Meanwhile, we can see how his abdication is, in retrospect, the logical conclusion of this pontificate. It is fitting that this demystification of the Papacy – if one is physically unfit, one simply has to make way – was conducted by a Pope who has dedicated his life to the theology of reason.

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