The Prime Minister has augured that the Pope's visit will shine a spotlight on the values on which Maltese society is founded. Whether it does or not depends a great deal not just on who is looking but also on what we make of Benedict XVI himself.

Joseph Ratzinger has never been an easy man to fit - accurately, that is - into pigeon-holes. If his visit is going to be used as a measure of Maltese society, a closer look at the shape of the thought of Ratzinger the intellectual may be useful.

The first obstacle to clear is the frequent characterisation of Ratzinger as a conservative. In its modern, political-cultural sense, conservatism is a tradition based on a reaction against the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. But this does not quite fit Ratzinger.

He reveres a tradition much older than that, going back to the foundations of Christianity, and which, in some important ways, challenges some of the key ideas of modern conservatism. Not least, its backward-looking historical orientation and its belief that human nature do not fundamentally change.

It is an important aspect of Ratzinger's thought that the Church fathers had, so to speak, two cultural forebears: Moses and Socrates, one a law-giver and the other a critical gad-fly, ready to take reason into unaccustomed places and to raise politically-incorrect questions.

Indeed, some of the uproars that followed the then Cardinal Ratzinger's public statements had less to do with assertions of faith against the claims of reason than his claims, based on reason (though not always the best information available), against certain faiths.

Hence, his question whether all religions deserve the name of "religion". And his scepticism about "inter-religious" prayer (like those assembled by John Paul II in 1986 and 2002) - if that meant not just a common commitment to world peace and justice but was also taken to imply a lack of concern with what different religions actually believed and the difference that made for one's intellectual coherence.

He has not held back from asking awkward questions of his own Church. Questions like: How can Christians call all men brothers, embracing everyone in an equal manner, and expect to be taken seriously? If tolerance is an important modern value, how can any religion lay claim to have recognised the essential truth and not be in some way responsible for the continuation of the spiral of violence that runs through the history of religion?

His awkward reputation arises from his belief that he has a right to ask any questions he considers to be reasonable. With respect to tolerance, we might say that he considers the right attitude to be that of rational impatience with incoherent arguments but social tolerance of them.

He has, it is true, often expressed scepticism about the claims made by dissenting Catholics for freedom of conscience. This attitude has sometimes been interpreted as being dismissive of individual liberty. In fact, his objections are usually couched in terms that emphasise liberty.

He has caustically noted that the heroes of individual conscience have usually been non-conformists ready to give up their lives for it; while the people who cite them as a model usually do so to make things easier for themselves, if not also to conform more thoroughly with the cultural norms of the majority.

Thus far it would appear that Ratzinger is a model Enlightenment intellectual when he manifestly is not. What explains the man who enraged certain other Christian Churches (by suggesting they were not really Churches at all), Muslims and the gay movement, among others?

Partly, the answer has to be that he has never quite relinquished his role as University professor. And so he makes statements that just about bear scrutiny under close analysis but not as a sound-bite - and then expects the world media to conduct that analysis.

Partly, it is because he is critical of the Enlightenment in one significant respect. He believes the scope of reason is damagingly narrowed when it is only applied to questions that can yield up answers that can be proven. He thinks there are other forms of truth, such as those based on spiritual experience, which cannot be dismissed as mere opinion. What he has often tried to do is to take reason into places where secular intellectuals often fear to tread.

In some of these intellectual travels, his equipment has not often been up to date. He subscribes, for example, to the 19th century view that world history consists of the succession of "civilisations" (hence, his views on Islam and Europe's identity), a claim about which most historical sociologists and anthropologists would be sceptical.

However, in his insistence on the claims of reason, on the need for social tolerance but logical intolerance of incoherence, on being ready to debate a case publicly (as he often did as cardinal), the spotlight he may throw on Maltese society may not be altogether flattering.

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