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Pope Benedict's Seminar on Fundamentals

By Daniel Henninger

It is somehow appropriate that amid the confusions of the U.S. involvement with the sectarians of Iraq, Pope Benedict XVI, fresh from his own "engagement" with contemporary Islam at Regensburg, should come to Turkey, which has sought membership in the European Union for 20 years. The theologian Michael Novak said recently of Benedict, "His role is to represent Western civilization." I'd say Benedict is more than up to the task. What remains to discover is whether Western civilization is still up to it.

We have been in this spot before, and won.

When Stalin famously asked how many divisions the pope had, he assumed that the brute force of military power would be everywhere decisive. That belief led to a four-decade standoff between the Soviets' tank armies and NATO. Finally in the 1980s, John Paul II, the Polish pope, gave intellectual hope and heft to anticommunist dissidents. Ronald Reagan and his allies prevailed over Europe's marching pacifists and installed Pershing missile batteries in Europe. By decade's end, the long Cold War with communism was dissipating. The pope's engagement mattered.

One may assume that in some Himalayan redoubt, history's latest homicidal utopians, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, believe that coupling their ideology to Islamic suicide bombers--in New York, London or Baghdad--is more than a match for the will of a morally diminished West. Are they wrong?

Benedict XVI has written with force about a morally diminished Europe. So like his predecessor, this pope decided to engage in the greatest military and intellectual battle of our age.

We all know how a few months ago at the University of Regensburg, Benedict made himself a central player in the post-9/11 era by quoting the 14th-century Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus. Not much noted at the time was Benedict's second quotation from Manuel II: "God is not pleased by blood, and not acting reasonably [emphasis added] is contrary to God's nature." Benedict's lecture at Regensburg mentioned "reason" and "rationality" repeatedly. He went so far as to claim that the "rapprochement" between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry (reason) was "of decisive importance" for world history. "This convergence," said Benedict, "created Europe and remains the foundation of what can rightly be called Europe."

Very simply, he is talking about and defending what we call "the West"--both the place and the classically liberal idea, which radical Islam wants to blow up. Just as John Paul championed the jailed or hiding dissidents behind the Iron Curtain, Benedict is seeking similar protections for persecuted Christian minorities--indeed all minorities--across the Islamic world. Starting in Turkey.

Arriving in Ankara, the pope immediately raised two ideas from the wellsprings of the West. He said on his first day that a just society requires freedom of religion and on behalf of Turkey's tiny Catholic community, he raised the issue of property rights.

One might say the pope's counteroffensive--in the Islamic world and in the West--is overdue. One might also say his chances of winning are a long shot. Benedict's appeals to Europe to rediscover strength inside its religious tradition comes at a difficult moment. He admitted as much in a book-length interview 10 years ago ("Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millennium"). It is Islamic belief, Cardinal Ratzinger said, that "the Western countries are no longer capable of preaching a message of morality, but have only know-how to offer the world. The Christian religion has abdicated."

Militant Islam is on the march, literally, with enormous moral self-confidence. By contrast the West, as Wilfred M. McClay, an historian at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, aptly described it recently, is in "an era of post-modern moral insouciance." With others, Benedict argues that this moral insouciance is the West's greatest vulnerability. This, too, ought to be part of "homeland security."

Every nation in Europe has a birth rate below replacement, opting for material well-being over the (relative) sacrifice of raising two or more children. (Of all industrialized nations, only the U.S. birth rate exceeds replacement.) Against this trend, Benedict has thrown what he's got: the traditional Western notion of finding strength in the union of reason and religious faith.

It has become a hard sell. If the Vatican opposes abortion or stem-cell research, the West's intellectual elites deem it unfit to participate in any imaginable public forum. In the U.S., Christian evangelicals are feared by many as a threat equal to Islamic extremists, and unfit to participate in our politics. The hottest "religion" subject in the West now is atheism in the person of Richard Dawkins, author of "The God Delusion," who, Time magazine wrote this month, is "riding the crest of an atheist literary wave." Our obsessions seem to be off-subject.

I think the pope is right that the West is engaged in a decisive intellectual competition with the ideas of radical Islam. This won't end with the battle for Baghdad. Will scientific agnosticism defend the West against militant Islam? With what? In Europe, its intellectuals can barely mount an argued defense against internal threats. Externally, as in Afghanistan, they won't even fight.

Benedict XVI's evident intention is to engage the Islamic world, particularly its religious and political leaders, in an intense and long discussion of the religious, political and legal rights of their resident minorities, in other words, the Western tradition. The implications of this effort are obvious for achieving an acceptable modus vivendi with global Islam.

How many divisions does this pope have? Good question. At the moment, I'd say, not as many as the last time.

Daniel Henninger is deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page.

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