In August 1917 Pope Benedict XV proposed terms of peace to the nations engaged in the First World War. Though so close in content and formulation to Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points of January 1918 that Benedict’s most recent biographer, John F. Pollard, charges the Calvinist and notoriously anti-Catholic American president with taking his inspiration from the pontiff, the latter’s proposals were spurned and rejected by all the warring powers. Following Germany’s defeat, the victors excluded the Holy See from the Versailles Peace Conference of 1919. Had the war been concluded earlier on the basis of the pope’s proposals, there would have been no Versailles Treaty. Without its harsh and punitive measures against Germany, Hitler would have had scant appeal to his countrymen. There might never have been a Second World War or Holocaust.
In April 2005 the world witnessed a kind of historical revenge for this missed opportunity as representatives of more than 100 nations, including three American presidents, gathered in Rome for the funeral of Pope John Paul II. Presiding at the funeral was the dean of the College of Cardinals, Joseph Ratzinger, who a fortnight later, following his election as pope, would take the name of the failed World War I peacemaker.
Ratzinger had been elected dean in December 2001, following the resignation of the previous dean, the African Cardinal Bernard Gantin of Benin. If there was a kingmaker in the conclave of 2005, John AllenVatican correspondent for The National Catholic Reportercontends in The Rise of Benedict XVI, his riveting account of the death of John Paul II and the election of his successor, he was a man too old to participate: Cardinal Gantin. By making way for Ratzinger to become dean of the College, he allowed Ratzinger to tower over the interregnum, and the momentum Ratzinger built over those two weeks proved to be unstoppable.
That momentum was anything but self-willed. Benedict himself confirmed this when he told German pilgrims within days of his election that when he saw his votes mounting in the conclave, and the guillotine about to fall, he had begged the Lord to choose someone younger and better. Robert Moynihan, founder and editor of Inside the Vatican magazine, in Let God’s Light Shine Forth, points out that this pattern is consistent with the whole of Ratzinger’s life. He wanted to be a scholar, but was compelled to be a church official and administrator.
Speculating on the identity of the new pope prior to the conclave, the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus wrote in his Rome Diary that, once elected, faithful Catholics will have no doubt that he is the choice of the Holy Spirit. The new pope’s own view is more modest. Asked in 1997 whether the Holy Spirit picks the pope, Ratzinger responded: I would say that the Spirit does not exactly take control of the affair, but rather like a good educator...leaves us much space, much freedom, without entirely abandoning us.... Probably the only assurance he offers is that the thing cannot be totally ruined. There are too many contrary instances of popes the Holy Spirit would obviously not have picked.
Allen is justified, therefore, in claiming that when Ratzinger was made prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1981, he was the first truly first-rate theologian to become the Pope’s top doctrinal authority since St. Robert Bellarmine in the sixteenth century. And unlike John Paul II, who badly needed an editor and whose ideas, though often electrifying, were frequently expressed in dense philosophical prose, Benedict is a master of the word, able to make complex ideas understandable in a simple, clear way. We witnessed this in his homilies: at the funeral of John Paul II, on the morning of the conclave and in his first week as pope.
I experienced Joseph Ratzinger’s rhetorical gifts myself 40 years ago. His lectures at the University of Münster attracted not only students but people from the town, who came to hear him at 8:15 a.m. before going to work. After every lecture one wanted to go into a church and pray. A regular attendant at the lectures was a Protestant student from South Africa. The Catholic students predicted his imminent conversion: Bei Ratzinger fällt der stärkste Mann um (Facing Ratzinger the strongest man falls over.) Though intended as a jest, the remark was not so wide of the mark. Decades later the journalist Peter Seewald, whose interviews with Cardinal Ratzinger led to the books Salt of the Earth and God and the World, returned to the practice of the faith as a result of his conversations with the cardinal.
The unstoppable momentum that would propel Ratzinger to Peter’s chair started with the reaction to his predecessor’s death. Prior to John Paul’s death and funeral, Allen writes, it was by no means certain that a towering personality is what some cardinals were looking for in his successor. Many were ready to elect a transitional pope, like John XXIII or John Paul I. But popes, like American Supreme Court justices, frequently disappoint the hopes of those who select them. John XXIII, who was supposed to keep the papal chair warm, reading speeches written for him by others until the cardinals decided on a replacement for the great Pius XII, shocked his electors by calling an ecumenical council. John Paul I shocked them by dying 33 days into his reign.
This time the shock preceded the conclave. All thoughts of a transitional pope were swept away by the numbers of mourners, estimated at up to three million, most of them young, who poured into Rome and waited in line for as long as 16 hours for the chance to spend a few seconds walking past the late pope’s body. Almost to a man, the cardinals were stirred by what they saw in the streets of Rome, Allen writes. And not only the cardinals. Secular journalists too were at a loss to explain the spectacle unfolding before them. One of them phoned me from Rome two days before the funeral to ask for an explanation. I suggested that for many the pope’s body was like an eastern Orthodox icon: a window onto the eternal.
The funeral itself, attended by an unprecedented number of heads of state and other V.I.P.’s, representing widely diverse backgrounds and political outlooks, deepened the cardinals’ realization that they must look for a pope with gravitas, who could command the attention and respect not only of Catholics but of the world at large.
Meanwhile, at their daily meetings (general congregations), the cardinals experienced their dean, presiding and speaking in a way that reassured them. He knew them all. When a cardinal raised his hand to speak, Ratzinger called on him by name and addressed him in his own languageor at least in the European language most familiar to that cardinal. He insisted that all voices be heard, sometimes asking European cardinals to limit their remarks so that colleagues from Africa and Asia could speak. He insisted, despite the time this required, that decisions be genuinely collegial. It also helped that, as one cardinal told Allen, Ratzinger is in the Curia but not of the Curia. He came in as a cardinal, and doesn’t have the same sense of loyalties and careerist logic that some others do. One European cardinal said after the election: I think he’ll really listen to us. Based on what I saw in this period, I think he will be a surprisingly collegial pope.
It is no secret that even cardinals who greatly admired John Paul were unhappy with his neglect of church governance. It was this above all that led to the marked increase in curial control on the late pope’s watch. Combined with his poor judgment of people (evident already in Krakow), this produced what Allen calls, tactfully: the occasionally low quality of episcopal appointments over the last twenty-six years. (Some, in Europe, were disasters.)
The Belgian Cardinal Godfried Daneels told Allen shortly before the conclave: The bishops appointed by John Paul II are generally good pastors with good hearts, but they lack intellectual depth.... The intellectual standard for bishops has declined. Allen believes that Benedict will look not so much for safe candidates (the current criterion), but for men of creativity, imagination and learning. If he does so, he will be taking seriously the teaching of Vatican II: Among the more important duties of bishops that of preaching the Gospel has pride of place (Lumen Gentium, No. 25; Christus Dominus, No. 12).
There is also reason to expect that Benedict will continue his predecessor’s emphasis on social justice. An American cardinal who breakfasted with Ratzinger the second day of the conclave told Allen that the man who within hours would become pope talked about the situation in Asia and Africa...he brought it up himself. He said that he had been moved listening to bishops from the South. The C.D.F. condemnation of liberation theology in 1984 was a rejection of its dependence on Marxism. But it included this caveat: This warning should in no way be interpreted as a disavowal of all those who want to respond generously and with an authentic evangelical spirit to the preferential option for the poor’.... [The church] intends to struggle, by her own means, for the defense and advancement of the rights of mankind, especially of the poor.
Clearly Benedict faces major challenges. A Jesuit theologian told Allen before the conclave that the prospect of Ratzinger’s election filled him with dread. Allen writes: There are two groups that he will need to reassure: theologians in the developed world, and progressive Catholic women. Both felt themselves under hostile scrutiny during Ratzinger’s 24 years as prefect of the C.D.F.
Benedict, however, has now assumed a new role. He is no longer faith’s policeman. He must now encourage and inspire faith. He took up this task in the homily at his installation Mass on April 24. Repeating John Paul II’s words on the same occasion in October 1978, Do not be afraid! Open wide the doors for Christ! he said, The church is alive! and twice over, The church is young. He concluded: And so today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. This is not the voice we heard from the prefect of the C.D.F. Is it not clear that the papacy, despite its crushing burdens, has also been a liberation for Joseph Ratzinger?
Benedict can be counted on, however, to continue the rejection of relativism he articulated in his homily the morning the conclave opened. Having a clear faith, based on the Creed of the Church, he told the cardinals, is often labeled today as a fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, which is letting oneself be tossed and swept along by every wind of teaching,’ looks like the only attitude acceptable to today’s standards. We are moving towards a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires. The word dictatorship reflects Benedict’s life experience. It was the abandonment of clear faith, he believes, that led to the great tyrannies of the 20th century: Fascism, Nazism and Communism.
Is what Benedict calls relativism so different from what John Henry Newman called liberalism? On being made a cardinal on April 27, 1879, Newman said: For thirty, forty, fifty years I have resisted...the spirit of liberalism in religion...the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion but that one creed is as good as another...that all are to be tolerated, for all are matters of opinion.
Much has been made of Pope Benedict’s pessimism. Underneath, however, is soaring optimism. Let God’s Light Shine Forth quotes some sentences from Ratzinger in 1971 that were prescient. It seems certain to me that very hard times await the Church. But after the purifications...a great strength will emanate from a spiritualized and simplified Church. And in 1993 Ratzinger told Robert Moynihan: I am still certain that the Lord prevails and that the Church survives, not only survives, but lives with strength through all these crises. I am in this sense optimistic, because I am one who has the hope of faith.
Both of these new books manifest signs of the haste in which they were put together. Both contain repetitions. Neither has an index. Both authors show clearly, however, that the public image of Joseph Ratzinger as the Enforcer and the Panzer cardinal is a caricature. Those who know him best speak of his willingness to listen, his modesty and kindness, his shy reserveand an impish humor. Asked at the launch of his memoirs in 1997 why the extensive account of his youth mentioned no girlfriends, the cardinal replied: I had to keep the manuscript to 100 pages.
The pope, Allen writes, realizes that people are not convinced of the Christian message on the basis of doctrinal debates. They want to see that Christianity is a joyful thing, a source of life and hope, that it lights fires of love and self-sacrifice. And in the 1985 interview which became The Ratzinger Report he said: The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely: the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb. Need we look further for an explanation of the optimism that pervades both of these modest books?
The Rise of Benedict XVI
Doubleday. 249p $19.95
The Spiritual Vision of Pope Benedict XVI
Doubleday. 215p $17.95