Even after one year, we are still getting to know our new pope.

Pope Benedict XVI is a bit of an enigma to both those who heralded his election and those who dreaded it, and publishers have been rushing into print a plethora of titles hoping to explain the brilliant scholar who now leads the Church.

"Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam" appeared on Italian newsstands only hours after the pope's election in 2005. It grew out of an exchange of ideas between then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Marcello Pera, president of the Italian Senate and a self-described secularist.

In 2004, Pera gave a speech at the Pontifical Lateran University that reflected upon the decline of Europe and the rise of relativism. The next day, Cardinal Ratzinger addressed similar themes in a speech to the Italian Senate.

Noting the points of convergence in their talks, and some differences, Pera initiated a correspondence with Cardinal Ratzinger to further continue the conversation.

The result is this short, easy-to-read book with some very big ideas.

Then-Cardinal Ratzinger is unsparing in his diagnosis of the decline of Europe, declaring the current crisis to the decline of the Roman Empire. "At the hour of its greatest success," he told the Italian Senate, "Europe seems hollow, as if it were internally paralyzed by a failure of its circulatory system that is endangering its life...." Its spiritual life has collapsed, its ethnic identities in decline, and it "is infected by a strange lack of desire for the future," where even "children are seen as a liability rather than a source of hope."

In a brief, fascinating survey of Western history and contemporary issues, the cardinal looks at the historical and philosophical roots of this crisis and its implications for the West and the Church.

Perhaps of even greater interest to Catholic Americans, he discusses knowledgeably the history and current challenges of the United States: why this country is in many ways different from Europe, even as it is threatened by the same forces of secularism and relativism. We Americans are clearly blessed with a pope who knows and understands our history perhaps far better than many of us do.

Then-Cardinal Ratzinger concludes that what is needed is a resurrection of Christians as a "creative minority." He emphasizes that Christians must again be a leaven in an increasingly pagan society in order to "help Europe to reclaim what is best in its heritage and to thereby place itself at the service of all humankind."

"Without Roots" provides readers an opportunity to appreciate the pope's intellectual style. His openness to dialogue with a friendly non-believer, his unfailing tone of respect, his breathtakingly succinct and insightful survey of history and philosophy, and the clarity and honesty of his writing are all on ample display in this provocative volume.

Greg Erlandson is the president of Our Sunday Visitor.