The real Ratzinger revealedJohn L. Allen
- 14 April 2007
Benedict XVI turns 80 on Monday, and on Thursday celebrates the second anniversary of his election. To date, expectations of a ‘Catholic fundamentalist' papacy have been confounded. As cardinal, he was the man who said ‘no' for 20 years. Now he seems to want to express a deeper ‘yes'
Reporters on the Vatican beat generally seek out the bishops who come to Rome for their ad limina visits, a mandatory five-yearly meeting with the Pope. During their visits the bishops also make the rounds of Vatican offices, so debriefing them provides a sense of what's on the "radar screen", so to speak, of the various dicasteries.
For a number of years, a few reporters had a standing bet that if one of us ever found a bishop who did not say that his best meeting was with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the legendary prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the rest of the group would buy that person dinner. In the end, no one ever claimed the prize.
Normally, bishops would tell us that many ad limina encounters with the heads of Vatican offices were unsatisfying. The cardinal-prefect would enter the room, read a lengthy statement, and leave little time for real conversation. Cardinal Ratzinger, they reported, was different. While he brought careful notes, he allowed the bishops to speak their minds. Almost universally, they found him thoughtful, gracious, and open.
Such impressions framed the great disjunction between the public image of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, and private perceptions of the man. In public, Ratzinger was the Darth Vader of Roman Catholicism; he was seen as draconian, inquisitorial and imperious. Those stereotypes shaped the early line in the media on his election as Pope Benedict XVI. To take one typical example, an Italian editorial cartoon the day after Cardinal Ratzinger's election, in a play on the famous scene of John XXIII telling a moonlit crowd in St Peter's Square in 1962 to give their children a kiss from the Pope, showed the new Pope instructing a similar crowd to give their children not a kiss but a firm spanking.
In private, however, Cardinal Ratzinger had a different profile. Co-workers and brother bishops saw him as strikingly humble and collegial. The conviction of the 115 cardinals who elected him Pope was that they were elevating this "real" Ratzinger.
On 16 April, Pope Benedict XVI turns 80, and on 19 April he marks two years in office. As he passes those milestones, perhaps the most notable storyline about his pontificate is the way the private Ratzinger has, to a considerable extent, become the public Pope. To date, Benedict XVI has proved a more gradual, centrist and collegial figure than his earlier public image would have suggested.
To be sure, Benedict is capable of drawing lines in the sand, as he did by approving a November 2005 Vatican edict barring gay seminarians. He has also reminded the world that diplomacy is not always his strong suit. In September 2006, he triggered a firestorm in the Muslim world with an incendiary fourteenth- century quotation on Muhammad during a lecture in Regensburg. More recently, he disappointed whatever friends the Vatican has left in the EU by accusing Europe of "apostasy" less than 24 hours after the President of the European Parliament, the practising Catholic Hans-Gert Pöttering, extended a hard-won invitation to the Pope to address the Parliament. In that context, Benedict's broadside struck many as ill-tempered; one Catholic who works for the EU said the remark has become "the Regensburg of Europe".
Furthermore, Benedict's listening skills did not stop the Vatican from issuing a critical notification on Jesuit Fr Jon Sobrino, a famed liberation theologian, just two months ahead of the Fifth General Conference of CELAM, the council of bishops' conferences of Latin America and the Caribbean. Senior Latin American clergy had asked the Vatican to delay the notification until after the CELAM meeting in Brazil in May, which Benedict XVI will attend, but to no avail.
Yet, on the whole, expectations that Benedict XVI would be a bruiser-pope have proven off the mark. Two vignettes make the point. First, in July 2006 the Pope visited Valencia, Spain, for the World Congress of Families. He met Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, whose Socialist Government has pursued a liberal agenda bitterly opposed by the Spanish Church, including full gay marriage and adoption rights. Yet when Benedict arrived, there was none of the finger-wagging and apocalyptic language one might have expected. Instead, the Pope struck a consistently positive tone, never even directly engaging gay marriage or other matters of sexual morality. His main concern was to offer a positive Christian vision of the family. Later, a German television reporter asked Benedict why he didn't call down fire and brimstone in Spain. His response is revealing:
Christianity, Catholicism, isn't a collection of prohibitions: it's a positive option. It's very important that we look at it again because this idea has almost completely disappeared today. We've heard so much about what is not allowed that now it's time to say: we have a positive idea to offer ... The human person must always be respected as a human person. But all this is clearer if you say it first in a positive way.
For a Pope with a passion for classical music, this effort to phrase the Christian fundamentals in a positive key has become something of a leitmotif. Having been responsible for expressing the "noes" of the Catholic Church for 20 years, Ratzinger as Pope appears determined to articulate what he sees as its much deeper "yes".
The second such occasion came with Benedict's trip to Turkey late last year, his first to a majority Muslim state, which took place shortly after the Regensburg episode. On the basis of that contretemps, many had enlisted Benedict as chaplain for a new anti-Islamic crusade. Instead, what they saw in Turkey was a "kinder, gentler" Benedict, whose consistent message was reconciliation. That spirit culminated in a remarkable, and thoroughly unexpected, moment of simultaneous prayer with the Grand Mufti of Istanbul inside the city's Blue Mosque.
In Benedict's approach to matters inside the Church, a similar pattern has emerged. His most important appointments, both in the Holy See and in major archdioceses, have revealed a preference for pastoral moderates rather than ideologues. To date, there has been no systematic clampdown on dissidents, no night of the long knives. This gradualism has even generated alarm among some of the most ardent supporters of Benedict's election. Last year, Fr Richard John Neuhaus publicly acknowledged "palpable uneasiness" about the Pope's lack of decisive action. Another American neo-conservative privately groused, "We thought we were electing Ronald Reagan, but we got stuck with Jimmy Carter."
Benedict's commitment to collegiality has been visible in ways large and small. He has repeatedly spoken out about the crisis of Africa, for example, including a strong condemnation of the way Africa has been "plundered and sacked" in his new book, Jesus of Nazareth, and a plea for humanitarian concern with Africa in his Easter homily. That focus does not come out of the blue. In the General Congregation meetings in April 2005 leading up to the conclave, the African cardinals made a plea for the next pope, whomever it might be, to put Africa at the centre of his pastoral concern. Benedict obviously wants to honour that request. His collegiality can also be measured by what hasn't happened, including the delayed release of a motu proprio authorising wider celebration of the Tridentine Mass. If it were entirely a matter of the Pope's personal instincts, the document would have come out long ago, but in light of reservations voiced by several bishops, Benedict has opted to go slow.
Perhaps the best expression of Benedict's emerging persona came in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, released at Christmas 2005. The Pope treats human erotic love in deeply approving terms, deliberately avoiding anathemas. In general, most observers regard the Pope's writings and public addresses to date as impressive. Some have been tempted to style Benedict as "a pope of words", in contrast to his predecessor, John Paul II, as a "pope of images".
Although Benedict at 80 seems remarkably healthy, his advanced age nevertheless beckons thoughts about his legacy.
In the long run of history, John XXIII and Paul VI will be remembered as the popes of the Second Vatican Council, the men who launched that moment of top-to-bottom reform in Catholicism and who brought it to fruition. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, on the other hand, have sought to foster a rebirth of Catholic identity, a transition from a period of internal reform to one of engagement with the wider world. Under John Paul II, evangelisation was the watchword rather than aggiornamento; he was an ad extra pope, far more interested in how the Church can affect the social, cultural and political questions of the day than in reform of its internal structures. Cardinal Ratzinger was key for John Paul, but no one is to Benedict XVI the same trusted lieutenant. The vision of the pontificate is flowing very much from himself for good and for ill, and there have been instances of both.
Benedict XVI's top priority, as stated on 22 March by his Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, during a lecture in Milan, is to complete his reassertion of Christian identity.
If the danger of the John XXIII and Paul VI era was throwing the baby out with the bathwater, the chief risk in today's politics of identity cuts in the opposite direction, towards rigidity and exaggerated defensiveness - a sort of "Taliban Catholicism" that knows only how to excoriate and condemn. To be sure, one can see the stirrings of such a spirit in today's Church. Potentially, Benedict XVI's legacy may lie in pointing a way around these shoals. Given all that he represents, Benedict is in a unique position to illustrate that one can embrace Catholic fundamentals without becoming a fundamentalist, that reason and faith are not opposed but inextricably linked. That, in fact, was the argument he was trying to make in Regensburg, although the uproar over the quotation occluded his effort.
Because Benedict is not the charismatic media figure that John Paul II was, it is unclear how much of this will ever register on the broader cultural radar screen. To date, pundits still seem to be waiting for the "real" Ratzinger to emerge from beneath his thoughtful, pastoral facade. Perhaps, however, the deepest truth is that this facade is the real Ratzinger.