Thoughts on Pope Benedict


By Steven Shea


Two years ago, when this author last appeared in these pages, I wrote that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was “probably too old and controversial” to be elected pope.  I was wrong.  I, like most Vatican watchers, thought the papal conclave of April 2005 would be a long, complicated affair.  Instead it was short and simple.  It came down to a contest between Ratzinger, the longtime champion of the conservative wing of the Roman Catholic Church’s College of Cardinals, and Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, longtime champion of the progressive wing.  Since the conservative Pope John Paul II appointed many more conservatives than progressives to the College of Cardinals, Ratzinger won.  I tip my hat to Fr. Richard McBrien of Notre Dame University.  He predicted that the new pope would be one of the older cardinals.  It is a tradition in the Catholic Church to name an old man pope after the long reign of a previous one.  I thought that logic would not hold in the 2005 conclave.  After the long physical decline of John Paul II, I incorrectly thought the College of Cardinals would not want to risk repeating such a sad spectacle anytime soon.  The College of Cardinals were willing to take the risk.                 


The first decision any pope makes is the choice of papal name.  It usually is an indication of what kind of papacy the new pontiff intends.  Ratzinger’s choice of Benedict XVI was a surprising one.  The last pope with that name, Pope Benedict XV, who reigned from 1914-1922, is remembered for two things.  First, he ended the heresy hunting campaign of his immediate predecessor, Pope Pius X.  Second, he tried, and sadly failed, to bring peace during the First World War.  Ratzinger’s choice of name is particularly ironic since he was the head heresy hunter under John Paul II.  As the head of The Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith, previously known as The Holy Office and before that as The Inquisition, Ratzinger became the most powerful and feared member of the College of Cardinals.  Indeed the German heresy hunter, and former soldier of the Third Reich, was nicknamed “Herr Panzer Kardinal” for his tendency to run over progressive theologians like a tank.  Incredibly, one of the first gestures made by Benedict XVI was to invite his former colleague and nemesis Fr. Hans Kung, the most famous progressive theologian of the last forty years and the first theologian disciplined by John Paul II, to the Vatican for a meeting.  This was a signal that Benedict XVI would be a little different than Cardinal Ratzinger. 


Benedict XVI has said he chose his name to salute St. Benedict, the patron saint of Europe.   During the long deathwatch for John Paul II most of the TV talking heads made inane comments on his papacy.  One of the more thoughtful comments came from papal biographer and legendary Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein.  He noted that after Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo in 1815, Europe underwent a religious revival.  The Catholic Church was renewed by a huge spurt of vocations to the priesthood and religious life.  Bernstein said John Paul II expected the same thing to happen when the Soviet bloc collapsed midway through his papacy.  When it did not, he was bitterly disappointed.    More recently, the Vatican lobbied the European Union very hard to explicitly mention Europe’s Christian heritage in its new constitution.  The more secularly minded constitution framers rejected the idea.  Nonetheless, Benedict has made it clear he still has not given up on a religious revival in Europe.  The election of Benedict XVI then is a very backward looking choice.  As the first pope of the new millennium, he carries huge symbolic importance.  I thought the new pope would be a vigorous, younger man from the Third World, where the future of the church lies in the centuries to come.  Instead it is an older man from the First World.  The hierarchs of the Catholic Church have not given up on its primary home of the previous thousand years. 


Previously I also wrote that John Paul II’s primary contribution to the papal profile is media skills.  His outstanding media presence in the age of cable news networks made him a superstar and even carried him through his last years when his body failed him.  Benedict XVI does not have the media skills of his predecessor, and wisely he does not pretend that he does.  He makes only a fraction of the public appearances of his predecessor.  Indeed, for those who found the cult of celebrity surrounding John Paul II tiresome, Benedict XVI is a breath of fresh air.  Still, he has paid the price at least once for a lack of media savvy.  His choice of a pejorative quote about Islam from a Byzantine Emperor in a speech during his trip to Germany created a firestorm in the Muslim world.  It was precisely this kind of misstep that John Paul II did not make.  Nonetheless, Benedict XVI looks like a quick learner.  His subsequent trip to Turkey, his first to an Islamic nation, was a success full of diplomatic gestures.


Many Catholic progressives feared and many conservative Catholics hoped there would be a purge of liberal Catholics under Benedict XVI.  That hasn’t happened.  Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things magazine, the de facto voice of conservative American Catholics, has already called Benedict XVI a disappointment.  Even on the child sex abuse issue, where John Paul II had a dismal record, the new pope has shown some prudence.   Last year he disciplined Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the ultra-conservative order of priests The Legionaries of Christ.  Former seminarians had long accused him of sexual abuse.  John Paul II had protected him, but under Benedict an investigation was reopened.  To the surprise of many, Maciel Degollado was removed from ministry. 


Still, it would be a huge mistake to think Benedict XVI is a moderate.  Like John Paul II, he appoints conservative bishops.  There will be no progressive reforms of the church during this papacy.   Indeed his next major move will be to widen the use of the Latin Mass, something dear to the hearts of Catholic reactionaries. 


Over the last thirty years the prevailing direction among the world’s religions has been conservative to fundamentalist.  Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and all the major branches of Christianity have been swept up in this trend.  Religious scholars who study this phenomenon say it is a spiritual reaction to the dizzying pace of technological and cultural change in contemporary society.  There is no reason to believe it will end anytime soon.


Steven Shea is a freelance writer from Milwaukee.  He is a graduate of Costa Catholic and GHS.  He has a M.A. in Modern European History from Marquette University.