Looking Forward: The Promise of Benedict XVI

The contrast with the previous papal election was striking. When, on October 16, 1978, Pericle Cardinal Felici announced from the loggia overlooking Saint Peter’s Square: “Habemus Papam…Cardinal Wojtyla,” there was stunned silence from the Roman crowd followed by a confused roaring. Who was this? An African? What had the cardinals done? A Polish pope appeared on the balcony and immediately won over the locals by informally addressing them in clear Italian. But for months afterward the media, along with many “experts” within the Church, had no idea what direction John Paul II’s pontificate might take. The New York Times, noting that the new pope was a champion of Vatican II, was pleased that the cardinals had elected a “liberal,” thereby commencing a near-perfect record of misconstruing his pontificate.

It was far different almost 27 years later. After a surprisingly short conclave—the shortest since the election of Pius XII in 1939—the senior cardinal deacon announced the name of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, and everyone around the world immediately knew what the cardinals had done. For a quarter of a century, Cardinal Ratzinger has been the second best-known prelate in the Catholic Church. He is a world-class theologian with a prodigious paper trail. There is no question about where he stands, not only on theological issues but on specific matters of ecclesial policy. In fact, his views on the direction of the Church, the priesthood, the liturgy, and controversial issues of discipline are, if anything, easier to identify than those of his predecessor. In his voluminous writings—both as theologian and as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—Pope Benedict XVI has given us a clear sense of the direction of his pontificate.

There are obviously striking differences of style and presence between Benedict and John Paul. On the Vatican balcony, we did not see a man who is going to work a crowd, who is going to be “Benedict XVI, Superstar.” Before the election, a number of commentators offered some good advice for the next pope: Don’t try to be John Paul II. In fact, it’s not a good idea that every pope be a charismatic performer; it gives a misleading idea of what the Petrine office is really about. There have, moreover, been impressive popes with a restrained, even awkward, public presence. The pope’s last namesake, Benedict XV (1914-1922), was, according to one historian, “a wisp of a man with one shoulder higher than another…. [N]one of the papal robes kept in readiness for the election was small enough to fit him.”

Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, is a warm and charming man; a bishop I know who has met him on ad limina visits describes him as “gracious and low-key,” but he gives the impression of being more at home in a book-lined study than on the public stage. The only time I’ve seen him was in the late 1980s in New York, where he gave the annual Erasmus lecture. John Cardinal O’Connor introduced him to the audience with an easy-going joke: “This man is the Grand Inquisitor.” Barely cracking a smile, Ratzinger dryly corrected him, pointing out that Dostoyevsky’s Inquisitor ran the Spanish, not Roman, Inquisition. He went on to read in a low, even voice a paper on biblical hermeneutics. I was reminded of Oscar Wilde’s quip about an Oxford professor: “We didn’t hear you; we overheard you.” About half a paragraph into this dazzling intellectual performance, a number of gay protesters in the audience began to act up. The police were ready, and there were 20 minutes of noisy scuffling before the lecture could continue. The entire time, the quiet German scholar stood at the podium, patiently waiting out the unpleasantness. When the commotion subsided, he calmly remarked, “I have listened to you, now perhaps you might listen to me,” and proceeded to finish his paper.

It is an extraordinary turn of history: One of the great theologians of modern times has become pope. There have been many first-class minds on the chair of Peter, but when did we last have a theologian of this caliber? Saint Leo I, who steered the Church through the bitter Christological controversies of the fifth century, comes to mind. There have been popes who were keen students of theology and even wrote a few good books. But no man has ever become Vicar of Christ with an intellectual record like Ratzinger’s.

He is the last and youngest of that brilliant generation of Catholic thinkers that included Karl Rahner, Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar, and Hans Urs von Balthasar. Ratzinger knew them all personally, had serious disagreements with some (notably Rahner after Vatican II), but shared their intellectual project: To find a way for Catholic theology to work with the Western schools of philosophy that had emerged since the Reformation; to go beyond the casuistry and natural law thinking of neo-Thomism and recover a morality rooted in the Person of Christ. In a word, to develop a Christian existentialism that could speak to the modern world.

A major intellectual influence on the young Ratzinger was the great Jewish thinker Martin Buber. Buber’s personalism, Ratzinger writes in his recent memoir, Milestones, “was for me a spiritual experience that left an essential mark, especially since I spontaneously associated such personalism with the thought of Saint Augustine, who in his Confessions had struck me with the power of all his human passion and depth. By contrast, I had difficulties in penetrating the thought of Thomas Aquinas, whose crystal-clear logic seemed to me too closed in on itself, too impersonal and ready-made.” This is perhaps not entirely fair to St. Thomas, and Ratzinger quickly adds that his reaction probably had something to do with the rigid way Aquinas was taught mid-century. But his experience was common for that generation of Catholic thinkers: Close thy Summa and open thy Pascal (or Heidegger or Scheler or Marcel).

As a student in the late 1940s, Ratzinger explains in Milestones, he chose to specialize in fundamental theology. This is the branch of theology concerned with revelation and how it is authoritatively known. Its primary datum, if you will, is the fact that God has established a Church that is the divinely authorized custodian and interpreter of revelation. Ratzinger chose this particular discipline for a reason that was far from academic: “The chief objection to Christianity appeared to me to be its apparent failure to transform the world and man. In the twentieth century after Christ, national socialism and communism had come to power. While the testimony they gave against the Redeemer of the world did not appear to me for one moment to be convincing, let alone alluring, in its negative way it did put faith to a harsh test: It was obvious that the world had not become better in twenty centuries of Christian proclamation.”

Ratzinger’s theological mission was twofold: to go ever more deeply into the identity and charism of the Catholic Church and to find a way for the Church to talk more convincingly to the modern world. This, of course, was the agenda of Vatican II, and Ratzinger was famously among the young theologians who participated in the council—in his case as an advisor to Joseph Cardinal Frings of Cologne. At the council, he played an important role in the debates that produced several key documents, especially Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, that went beyond the old (and perfectly valid) neoscholastic definitions to describe the Church in more biblical terms—as a shepherd and pilgrim moving through the centuries. While Ratzinger considered the tone of some of the council’s documents to be overly optimistic, he was an enthusiastic supporter of the move away from a triumphalist, overly juridical understanding of the Church.

In the decade following the council, Ratzinger was among those “liberal” Catholic thinkers who had welcomed Vatican II but were appalled by the rebellion that broke out in its aftermath. He and his fellow progressives suddenly found themselves being labeled “conservative” because they did not go flopping along with every whim that surfaced in the late 1960s. This group of chastened liberals included Jacques Maritain, von Balthasar, and de Lubac. They all wrote books and articles detailing how the council had been hijacked by the heterodox wing of the Church. Instead of a thoughtful implementation of the council’s teachings, we got a new, bourgeois form of Christianity intent on gutting doctrine and flattening the liturgy. The 16 documents of Vatican II became a dead letter, apart from certain phrases like “People of God” and “signs of the times.” “What devastated the Church in the decade after the Council,” Ratzinger wrote in 1980, “was not the Council but the refusal to accept it.”

Especially in The Ratzinger Report, a series of interviews that became a kind of reference book for Catholics who thought that many post-conciliar reforms had gone off the rails, Ratzinger was clear and forthright about the mistakes that had been made. He was particularly concerned about liturgical innovations. He later wrote that it was “reasonable and right of the Council to order a revision of the [Roman] missal…. But more than this now happened: the old building was demolished, and another was built, to be sure using materials from the previous one.” The new liturgy was in some respects not an organic, historical growth, “but the product of erudite work and juridical authority; this has caused us enormous harm. For the impression had to emerge that the liturgy is something ‘made,’ not something given in advance but something lying within our own power of decision.”

It is probable that during this new pontificate there will be a “reform of the reform,” a new liturgical initiative that will finally bring to life the real legacy of Vatican II. Ratzinger the theologian has stressed that the liturgy is the soul of the Church; its primary purpose is the worship of God and the sanctification of the faithful. It is something to be done with awe and reverence, with beautiful language and a participation by the congregation that is largely interior. Lex orandi, lex credendi—how we pray is how we believe. Don’t underestimate the positive effects on the life of the Church that will issue from a genuine liturgical renewal that is about 40 years overdue.

In his criticisms of the post-Vatican II period, Ratzinger has also expressed concern with the loss of Catholic identity, of a creeping “relativism” in the Church. Part of the problem is theological: There has been overhasty zeal to come to terms with other faiths in a way that downplays or even eliminates the truth that Christ, the “sole mediator,” founded a Church that is His mystical body. Other faiths contain valid truths that can help a person toward God but are not in themselves salvific. The Catholic Church has no business relativizing itself; it is a betrayal of her divine mandate. While her dialogues with other faiths and with the modern world are vitally important, the Catholic Church must first strongly confirm what (and who) she is.

The other problem of Catholic identity is institutional: During the past 40 years there has been a relentless secularization of Catholic universities, hospitals, chanceries, and even seminaries. There is no longer a clear confessional purpose—a sense of discipleship—in many Catholic organizations. The idea is to blend as much as possible with the surrounding culture. In many chanceries, one can sit through endless hours of bureaucratic meetings and hear nothing about the Church’s real mission. The “photocopying church” is often the reverse of evangelical. Its core convictions are political rather than apostolic.

It is a serious problem. Simply put, there is a hesitancy to be Catholic. There is an implicit assumption that the Church would be more healthy and prosperous if it morphed into yet another liberal Protestant denomination. But why, it may be asked, should we imitate mainline Protestantism, whose numbers are sharply declining and whose disintegration seems to be accelerating? That is not the way of the future. What the Church has to do under the new pontificate is to return, in Francis Cardinal George’s words, to being “simply Catholic.” And we have the right pope for this recovery. It won’t be easy, as it will involve proposing an examination of conscience to institutions that have apparently dropped everything except the label “Catholic.”

The upshot is that the new pontificate has a lot of internal, administrative work to do. It will range from tightening the Roman dicasteries to getting a better handle on how papal nuncios go about selecting new bishops. Each pope chooses his priorities. John Paul chose to evangelize and, by his own admission, did not pay as much attention as he might have to the administrative side of his job. If his two decades in the Roman Curia are any indication, Pope Benedict will no doubt strengthen the Church as an institution, confirm its Catholic identity, and encourage bishops to clean house and sign on to the new evangelization.

As all the world knows, Benedict chose as his name the patron saint of Europe. In 1991, he wrote a little book about Europe, pointing out that the cradle of Catholicism had fallen into a strange, post-Christian twilight. There was speculation before the conclave that the cardinals would choose a pope from the Third World, where Catholicism is growing most rapidly. Instead, they chose a German thinker who is a supreme diagnostician of what ails the advanced industrial countries. The main problem, Ratzinger points out, is a false concept of freedom—one that rejects the idea that man “does not himself invent morality on the basis of calculations of expediency but rather finds it already present in the essence of things.”

It has been said in recent years that the successor to the amazingly prolific John Paul II would have nothing left to write—that the Church might take a sabbatical from reading new pontifical documents. In his thoughtful Papal Primacy in the Third Millennium, Russell Shaw suggests that popes “should publish fewer teaching documents than they have been accustomed to do lately, and bishops should publish more.” Not bad advice, but perhaps it can wait for Benedict’s successor. Ratzinger is recognized by even hardened secularists as one of the most brilliant minds in Europe—the New York Times says that he has a “stratospheric intellect”—and he has much to say, especially to Europe and America, about the nature and destiny of post-Enlightenment man.

Since his election, some of Ratzinger’s books have gone to the top of the German bestseller lists, knocking Harry Potter from his perch. (At least it wasn’t The Da Vinci Code.) Those who open his books will find a forceful intelligence that has absorbed everything positive in modern culture while rejecting its ideological deformities. As pope, he will have a lot to say to a postmodern world that is finding only superficial gratification in relativism and consumerism. His message is that of his mentor, St. Augustine: Man can never extinguish his thirst for the infinite. We may have two great teaching pontificates back to back.

A quick perusal of Ratzinger’s books uncovers jewel-like observations addressed to a modern world that views the human person as no more than a walking bundle of appetites: “Man needs transcendence. Immanence is too narrow for him.” “There is nothing wrong with utility, but when it is made absolute, it becomes a force for evil.” “Freedom is demanding; it does not keep itself alive, and it ceases to exist precisely when it attempts to be boundless.” “Every positive formulation of law must be based on values that elude our manipulation.” (Note to Justice Kennedy: Please ponder this last sentence.) Ratzinger has also written about how, since physics is abandoning the mechanistic worldview and turning toward the unknown, it is time for philosophy to “return to metaphysics, which had become inaccessible since Kant.”

A nice paradox about Pope Benedict is his healthy skepticism about intellectuals, especially those who set themselves up as “experts” in the Church. In Milestones, he complains that since Vatican II, too much of our Catholic patrimony—even the Creed—has been handed over to scholars for approval and revision. Or, at least, so it seems to the popular consciousness. Ratzinger’s own view of what constitutes the real Church is refreshingly populist:

I have often reflected…on this remarkable disposition of Providence: that, in this century of progress and faith in science, the Church should have found herself represented most clearly in very simple people, in a Bernadette of Lourdes, for instance…. [Is this] a sign that the clear view of the essential, which is often lacking in the “wise and prudent” (see Mt 1 1 :25), is given in our days, too, to the little ones? I do think that precisely these “little” saints are a great sign to our time, a sign that moves me ever more deeply, the more I live with and in our time.

Which brings us to another hopeful sign of this new pontificate, one that I hesitate to mention, because this is to enter the private realm between another person and God: The evident humility and sanctity of our new pope.

In the middle of the twelfth century, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who dominated his age as few have ever done, wrote a series of letters to the new pontiff, Eugenius III, on how to be pope. These were eventually gathered into a little book called De Consideratione, which for centuries was a kind of operating manual for the papacy. A striking feature of these letters is their stress on the interior life, on the primacy of contemplation over action. St. Bernard insists that whatever the pope does will be fruitful only if nourished by a strong devotional life. He insists on prayer above all, especially for those who have high positions in the Church. The fact that the pope’s practical activities are in themselves meritorious and in the service of God is not enough. First, there has to be a heroic conformity to the will of God. Then, the pope may act.

With the modern decay of the sense of the supernatural, there is a tendency, even among Catholics, to dwell almost exclusively on the personal skills of a new pope. And these are undoubtedly important. Grace, after all, builds on nature. But the first thing required of a pope is sanctity. We don’t know how or when John Paul II will enter the official canon of saints; but if he does, it will be for one reason: His life radically conformed to the person of Christ. It is said of St. Francis that the secret of his appeal is that he was the one man of his time who was determined to follow Christ no matter what the consequences. Only God knows how far John Paul actually went down this path; but when all is said and done, his interior life—all those hours spent in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament—were an essential part of his pontificate. We are, after all, battling principalities and powers.

The office, in any event, will be a Calvary for its new occupant. This was certainly the case for most—and maybe all-20th-century popes. The wonderful thing about John Paul is that he did not, so to speak, drag the cross of his papacy, but carried it squarely on his shoulders. We saw this especially after the assassination attempt. The office of Peter, von Balthasar reminds us, is a “magnetic pole that attracts the darkest powers of world history.” I think what many of us saw when Pope Benedict first appeared on the Vatican loggia was an intimation of how he will be pope: Self-immolation with great good cheer. It is going to be an interesting pontificate.

  • George Sim Johnston

    George Sim Johnston is the author of "Did Darwin Get It Right? Catholics and the Theory of Evolution" (Our Sunday Visitor).

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