The Man Who's Become Benedict

Author: Lawrence Cunningham

A few weeks after the 2005 election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as the Bishop of Rome, a spate of instant books by self-described expert Vatican watchers appeared. Most repeated the same banal cliches about the new pope: He was a lover of classical music and fond of cats as well as an enforcer of orthodoxy who had wielded considerable power under the papacy of the late lamented John Paul II.

Reading these books, one had visions of the new pope playing Mozart while consigning theological dissidents to the Vatican equivalent of solitary confinement. He was shy and scholarly and old enough to have served as a young teenager in the German army. He was a superbly well-trained theologian and prolific author. He had lined up with the so-called “liberals” at Vatican II but later in life would take a dim view of liberation theology, innovations in the liturgy, historical criticism of the scriptures and those who would erode the Church’s moral or doctrinal teachings.

It was said, in addition, that he gritted his teeth when the late pope assembled leaders of the various religions of the world to Assisi for a day of prayer for peace. By way of conclusion, according to these pundits, it was reported that the reactionaries were rubbing their hands in gleeful anticipation while the progressives were wringing theirs in despair.

What a huge surprise it must have been when, only a few weeks into his papacy, the pope invited Hans Küng, the outspoken Swiss theologian who had lost his mandatum to teach Catholic theology, to dinner and a four-hour conversation at the papal summer home at Castel Gandolfo. Küng had not been happy with the outcome of the papal conclave and, as usual, said so to the press. His history with Ratzinger had gone back to their days at Germany’s Tübingen University, when Küng had recruited the then-young Bavarian theologian to join the Catholic faculty.

If liberals took this dinner date as a welcome sign of things to come, it only proves that they are no better at interpreting papal gestures than their conservative counterparts. The pope is on record as praising Küng for his interreligious work in attempting to construct a world ethics (while also registering his doubts about the workability of the project), but a simple gesture of personal reconciliation is not the same as saying that Küng’s theological views are such to warrant his bona fides as a Catholic theologian. The one thing that was significant in all this, as many noted, was that the late John Paul II only had those who sang his song to dinner; there were no contrarian voices at his table.

If we are to understand the worldview of this pope we might begin by considering the significance of the name Cardinal Ratzinger chose for himself: Benedict XVI. Saint Benedict is considered, somewhat simplistically, the father of Western monasticism. His brethren were the primary missionaries who brought Christianity to the pope’s native Bavaria. As the current abbot primate of the Benedictine order, Notker Wolf, himself a Bavarian, has noted, the new pope is deeply attached to the Benedictines. He made his annual retreat with them when he lived in Bavaria; he shared their love of the liturgy and their spirituality rooted in the monastic practice of nourishing the life of prayer by a continual absorption of the Word of God in scripture.

It is the Bible as received in the tradition and a reverential love for the liturgy that is at the root of the pope’s spiritual formation. Ratzinger’s theology, made all the more clear in his recent book Jesus of Nazareth, is an attempt to dive deeply into the meaning of the biblical text while keeping aware of what modern scholarship has had to say about it. His book is a work that is in dialogue with modern scholarship but never allows that scholarship to pre-empt the fact that the Gospel speaks to the heart a word of truth.

In Jesus of Nazareth, Benedict insists that to look at the Gospels as only works of history provides us with a portrait of a historical person but does not bring us to the living resurrected Lord. To read those same Gospels with the presupposition of faith, however, reveals to us the living Jesus who is at the center of our faith and makes him more than an historical personage.

Following JPII

Others read a good deal into the fact that the previous pope taking the name Benedict, Benedict XV, was elected to succeed Pius X, who was personally holy but led the charge against modernism in a ruthless fashion. Benedict XV, a man of reconciliation, brought the more egregious heresy hunters during the Modernism crisis to heel. Whether Benedict XVI would bring in a new dawn for progressive elements in the Church was the wistful hope among those who waited in the cold during the Wojtyla papacy, but that hope might be exactly that: wistful.

Pope John Paul II, to be sure, is a tough act to follow. He had held the world stage in a period when vast changes were taking place. He was a master of the public performance. He was the first pope to come from the Slavic world. His travels were legendary. His piety and evangelical zeal went unquestioned. His influence on world affairs was clear, at least for his symbolic role in the eventual downfall of the Soviet regimes of Eastern Europe, beginning with his undeniable place in the rise of Solidarity in Poland.

He also had a formidable personal biography to present to the world when he was elected in 1978. After all, he had lived both through the period of Nazism and Stalinist Communism—the two worst scourges of the 20th century—and, to boot, was a former actor, practicing poet, sometime playwright, polyglot university professor of philosophy and a forceful priest who rapidly ascended the hierarchy of the Church.

His long papacy was not without its problems. His indifference to the running of the Vatican bureaucracy was notorious. His choice for bishops in various parts of the world was, to put it mildly, not infallible. His theological world view was marked by a curiously dense blend of traditional Thomism, baroque devotionalism and continental phenomenology, a blend reflected most frequently in his wordy encyclicals. John Paul II had a singular devotion to the more reactionary elements in the new ecclesial movements, best exemplified in the almost indecent haste with which he had the founder of Opus Dei canonized. He was a human being with all the faults and shortcomings characteristic of we children of Adam despite his singular gifts, his profound personal holiness and his shaping influence on the Church.

Pope Benedict XVI, then, is the successor of a larger-than-life person at whose funeral banners were unfurled saying Santo Subito! (“Sainthood now!”) and whose most ardent devotees began to refer to him, somewhat precipitously, as “John Paul the Great” ( a title afforded only a handful of popes in the entire history of the papacy) shortly after his death. Much of the same show of exuberance followed immediately after the death of Pius XII in 1958.

The Church is wise in demanding a bit of temporal distance when making saints, and it is a bit to be wondered at that the canonization cause of John Paul II has been advanced without the usual waiting period. On this score it is useful to be reminded, just for history’s sake, that today in Saint Peter’s basilica the tomb of Pius X (canonized rather quickly) is left somewhat bereft of pilgrims while a policeman is on duty to keep order at the tomb on Blessed John XXIII, who has yet to be canonized. The sense of the faithful is always to be reckoned with!

The main difference

Benedict is not an extrovert and does not cultivate his own persona in the exuberant fashion that John Paul II did. He went to the already scheduled World Youth Day in Cologne early in his papacy but did not attempt to play to the crowd in the way in which John Paul would have done. Nonetheless, Benedict draws record crowds to his Wednesday audiences and, despite his personal diffidence, has his own kind of charisma.

Therein, I think, is the most radical difference between the two popes: Benedict has neither the desire nor the instinct to personalize his papacy. If John Paul used the papal office as a personal vehicle for his own passion as an evangelizer (thus, those frenetic trips all around the world; the multiplication of canonizations), Benedict prefers to see himself as a servant of the Church, in his dual role as the linchpin of its unity and as the teacher of the Church. In doing that, he has exercised his papacy without putting his own personality forward. He has enough respect for both the theology of the episcopacy and its place in the Church to have revised the way the synods of bishops will function.

The synods consist of bishops who are called to Rome to discuss problems and issues germane to their part of the world. They were established after Vatican II as a vehicle to allow the bishops some space to reflect their concerns with the Bishop of Rome. Under John Paul II, the agenda and the final report were the sole product of the Vatican. Every bishop in attendance would speak for three (mind-numbing) minutes on a range of topics selected beforehand. One of the more prominent Asian theologians told me that their body of theological advisers almost boycotted the Asian synod as a waste of time. Only the plea of their bishops going to the meeting stopped that from happening.

Benedict, by contrast, has opened up these synodal proceedings to allow the bishops to speak their minds more freely. Benedict actually responded to their points, for example, after the first synod of his papacy in a long document called Sacramentum Caritatis a year after that synod—he seems to take the bishops seriously!

All of this not to say that Benedict will subordinate his own theological viewpoint or mute what he thinks to be the truth. In the famous lecture he gave at Bavaria’s University of Regensburg (where he had once been a professor) he used an old historical source from Byzantium to make an argument about the aggressive militancy of Islam. Was that a diplomatic faux pas or a carefully intended allusion to a European audience that historically resisted the incursions of the Ottoman Empire in the East and the present day influx of Muslims into Western Europe? Who knows?

One thing is certain: Benedict has a clear view that Europe is rooted in Christianity and that Islam must not be a majority force in Europe. That attitude, of course, caused a major flap in the world and made things somewhat tenuous for his visit to Istanbul even though, in fact, he carried off his visit with aplomb.

The pope has also sanctioned a recent document emanating from his former office in the Vatican, stipulating in clear language that the true church of Christ is to be found in the Catholic Church. Even though what the pope said caused a flap in the press and no little consternation among Christian bodies, it is evident that the pope wanted to have articulated a clear understanding of what he meant by the term “church,” not as a sociological category but as a precise theological term so that Christian differences do not get smoothed over in the warmth of ecumenical dialogue. Benedict values precision, especially when the precision involves theological discourse.

Mixed messages

But Benedict XVI has been in the chair of Peter for a relatively brief time. It is far too early to provide a full assessment of his papacy. He has sent out some mixed messages. His reorganization of the curial offices is a still a project in the making and going on at a dilatory pace. His first encyclical (Deus Caritas Est) was powerfully written, succinct and, what must be a milestone, was oriented toward answering the biting critique of Christianity offered by the German philosopher Nietzsche, one of the so-called “masters of suspicion.”

More precisely, Benedict emphasizes two points in that encyclical. First, erotic love is a positive good and leads us to the love of others and to the love of God and, second, the love of others and service to them is a crucial part of what it means to be a full Christian. Witness and proclamation of the Gospel and authentic worship of God is the requirement of service in love. That service is not some accidental form of social doing of the good but the exercise of love in action.

We still do not have a clear picture of what kind of bishops he will appoint (always an indirect signal of a papal mind). The recent papal document authorizing the use of the older form of the Roman rite for the celebration of the liturgy was framed with extraordinary care to allow under specific circumstances the use of the Latin Mass. Benedict may well believe that the restoration of the Latin liturgy may heal the schism triggered by those dissidents who rejected much of Vatican II in general and the “new” liturgy in particular. It also will be a comfort to those (rapidly aging) who long for the old liturgy.

Benedict’s own instincts with respect to the liturgy are reverential, and that may be behind his desire to shift the emphasis away from the priest as “presider” (an ancient word in the tradition but too easily elided into “performer”) and more toward his role as “priestly,” as one who stands between God and community to offer sacrifice.

Today the demographics of Catholicism are in a rapid state of change. The churches of Africa and Latin America are both vibrant and faced with enormous challenges. The Church in the United States is undergoing a radical face-change as Hispanics make up an ever-growing presence in our congregations. The natural instinct of the pope is to keep the face of Europe before him, since he is a man profoundly shaped by that culture and profoundly worried by its slide into secularization.

The rise of both India and China (both have significant Catholic minorities) as world-class economic powers brings its own pressures to bear on the faith. The much-anticipated letter of Benedict on the Church in China has come out oriented toward a long-term goal of crucial importance, as the Vatican makes efforts at solving the schism in China between those who have been faithful to Rome and the “patriotic church” firmly under government control.

It is no secret that John Paul II wished to visit Russia during his papacy, but as a Slav his presence there would have been too inflammatory. Benedict himself, keenly concerned with ecumenical relations with the Christian East and profoundly knowledgeable about Orthodox theology, will continue that effort with vigor. Benedict is only too aware of the acids of modernity eating at the West, and his desire for a recognition of the Christian character of Europe will make his turn to the East a top priority.

Problems in abundance

While North Americans tend to think only of the U.S. situation, the pope, on a daily basis, is faced with enormous issues that are much wider than American “problems.” Consider the distinct challenges different parts of the world bring to the attention of the Vatican. What to do about the AIDS pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa? How can the Church react to the appalling poverty in so much of the world? What about the shortage of priests in so many parts of the world? How does one balance the legitimate particularities of local cultures and still maintain the unity of the churches? What to do about the corrosive aftereffects of the clerical abuse situation, which is not only a problem in the United States? How does one respond to the significant Islamic minorities in Europe? What must be the Church’s response to the rising tide of Protestant fundamentalism in Central and Latin America?

No single person, not even the pope, can solve those problems, but what the pope can do is focus the attention of the entire Catholic Church on such issues. Sometimes those who question the papacy of Benedict frame it this way: Is the pope too traditional, too European, too academic, too lacking in direct pastoral experience and too conservative to face the exigent problems facing the worldwide Church in this new century? Who would be bold enough to answer that question with certainty?

The role of the pope in the Church is to conserve both the unity of the Church and to preserve the unity of the Gospel. It is not in his job description to create radical change. He is, by office, a reformer in the classical meaning of the term: to call back into unity the “form” of the Church.

Pope Benedict understands that task better than most. Thus, by turns, he encourages, corrects, teaches and recalls the whole Church into fidelity. To do what he is called to do is always a disappointment, simultaneously, to those who want change or action now and those who call for a pox on all change. The correct response to this conundrum was once wittily summed up in this fashion: If one wants things to remain the same, change is a necessity.

At the same time, the pope must be alert to the “signs of the times,” to borrow the famous quote from Vatican II. While the pope is called upon to conserve the faith, he must also be alert to how that faith is made palpable in the real world. To ignore that duty is to reduce the faith to an abstraction and the Church to a museum piece.

Benedict XVI seems to work at his own pace. He meets the crushing weekly grind of audiences, homilies, meetings and visits from the bishops making their calls to Peter’s successor while, at the same time, planning and carrying out his travels to various parts of the world.

Benedict probably will practice a kind of principle of subsidiarity—allowing those below him to do what can be done at a level that does not require his direct intervention. That may seem like a management tool, but it is, in fact, his insight into what the bishop of Rome ought to be doing. He should be manifesting the unity of the Church and making his voice heard when it is required and otherwise be attempting to do two difficult things at the same time: being bishop of the local church in Rome and the chief pastor of the universal Church. That twin focus, central to the mind of John Paul, whose memory the present pope reveres, will be at the forefront of Benedict’s thinking.

Joseph Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, has spent a lot of years in Rome and seems to have absorbed the truth of an old Roman proverb: chi va piano, va sano e lontano—if one goes slowly, one goes healthily and far. Like all old proverbs, it carries with it a good deal of wisdom. At the same time, there is the cautionary worry that in this world of demands for the instantaneous, going slowly has its own problems. Navigating between those two poles is the awesome task of the pope. So far, he has shown himself quite capable of shouldering that responsibility.

Lawrence Cunningham is John A. O’Brien professor of theology at Notre Dame.