Pope Benedict XVI, the great theologian, has much to teach us about the proper place of reason

The Hyde Park vigil taking place today is apparently not quite sold out. As Cristina Odone revealed on her Telegraph blog, the Diocese of Westminster recently sent out an urgent message to Catholic school administrators. The message was to be printed out by each recipient, and taken straight to the headmaster’s office. “Please organise a school trip to the Pope’s Hyde Park vigil,” it begged them. Or else.

But, Cristina noted, it would be naïve to expect some sort of spontaneous “youthful outpouring of faith and devotion”. How many young people do you know who would patiently sit through a religious service for nine whole hours?

Anyway, her blog post got me thinking. Without wishing to be rude, would we say the same if it was Pope John Paul II coming to Hyde Park on Saturday? Would young Catholics, faced with the chance to see Karol Wojtyła in the flesh, have rather stayed at home? I doubt it. He had a magical gift for drawing crowds, a film star quality that captivated millions throughout his life, Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

My parents remember standing in Victoria to see him arrive in 1982 (five years before I was born), during the last papal visit. He had fairly patchy English, they tell me, but it didn’t seem to affect his ability to communicate. An Israeli acquaintance echoed their thoughts – when Pope John Paul II came to the Holy Land in 2000, he said, “the Israeli people fell in love with him as soon as they saw him.”

Benedict XVI is a different sort of man. But the trouble is, most of us don’t know much more than that. We haven’t had the luxury of a decades-long papacy to find out who he really is. A German Shepherd, God’s Rottweiler – or some other breed entirely?

The truth, of course, is that Pope Benedict XVI is one of the most brilliant theologians alive today – one who would have had a glittering academic career even as a layman. Too often this is forgotten. Appallingly, as the Church tries desperately to appeal to its youth, treating them crudely as spiritual environmentalists and wannabe community workers, the Pontiff is sidelined.

So here’s a quote from the Pope Theologian himself, something that, believe it or not, many young Catholics will understand more than their elders. After criticising bigoted “pathologies in religion” in an essay addressed to Jürgen Habermas, the famous German secularist, Joseph Ratzinger concludes: “There is a hubris of reason that is no less dangerous. Indeed, bearing in mind its potential effects, it poses an even greater threat – it suffices here to think of the atomic bomb or of man as a ‘product’.

“This is why reason, too, must be warned to keep within its proper limits, and it must learn a willingness to listen to the great religious traditions of mankind. If it cuts itself completely adrift and rejects this willingness to learn, this relatedness, reason becomes destructive.”

British Catholics know all of this too well. Unhappily, we live in one of the most anti-religious countries in Europe; a place that is willingly cutting itself adrift from its Christian heritage and is instead embracing a destructive, savage secularism.

So if you go to the Hyde Park vigil to stand in the rain for nine hours, do it to welcome and to pray with the brilliant thinker who is the leader of the Church and the Successor of St Peter, Benedict XVI. And for God’s sake, don’t get stuck with your headmaster.