No one knows exactly where Pope Benedict XVI will lead the church, to what extent his ecclesiastical style will mirror that of John Paul II’s, or in what ways, theologically or administratively, he may deviate from the legacy of his charismatic predecessor. Just as it would have been hard to predict Joseph Ratzinger’s actions as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) by looking at his earlier academic career, one should be cautious in making assumptions about what sort of pope he will be by looking at his record at the CDF. The pastoral dimension of the papacy alone will demand a different set of talents and skills.

Few doubt either Ratzinger’s stature as a theologian or his deep piety and devotion to the church. Personally, he appears to be a man of gentleness and humility. Even some who have been the subject of ecclesiastical sanction at his hand attest to his personal warmth. Of course, as a prolific author and head of the CDF for a quarter century, Ratzinger is a known quantity, a churchman whose record is both impressive and troubling. The list of theologians silenced or disciplined during his tenure at the CDF, including some of the church’s most loyal and distinguished thinkers, is a long and sad one.

Few would minimize the responsibility the pope and the bishops have for safeguarding the faith entrusted to them. It is far from clear, however, that the investigations and actions of the CDF are the best way in which to secure the church’s doctrinal integrity and patrimony, or to encourage responsible theological responses to new realities. Commonweal has long called for a less secretive process for the evaluation of doctrinal orthodoxy, one that at a minimum affords those accused a fair hearing open to public scrutiny. Rome’s legitimate concern over the public presentation of church teaching is ill served by a disciplinary process that, even when theologically persuasive, is seen by the wider world, and by most Catholics, as foreclosing open debate and undermining academic freedom. The silencing of Catholic theologians does not end the public discussion of disputed doctrine but instead makes that discussion more shrill and less responsible. Neither does it help the church to honestly come to grips with its own failings, or to avoid the sort of hypocrisy that forbids theologians from questioning church teaching on birth control, for example, while encouraging maximum flexibility on the issue when it comes to pastoral practice. Perhaps, having seen first-hand the unnecessarily destructive impact the CDF has had on the church and the lives of those who have been censured, Benedict will rethink its methods and mission. He would certainly have the credibility needed to move the church in a different, less punitive direction.

Much has been written about the evolution of Benedict’s theological and ecclesiological thinking, from his precocious emergence as one of the leading lights for reform at the Second Vatican Council to his doubts about the implementation of the council’s documents and eventual appointment as John Paul II’s “enforcer” of orthodoxy. Like many of his neoconservative supporters, Ratzinger reacted strongly to the excesses of the 1960s. There was much worth rejecting in the violence and moral anarchy of that era, but Ratzinger’s extension of that critique to include modern culture as a whole has an all-too-familiar and unpersuasive ring, especially when he describes liberal democracy as a “dictatorship of relativism.” In his theological writing, Ratzinger is a careful and nuanced thinker. His criticism of secular culture, however, tends toward the hyperbolic and undiscriminating. It has been suggested that Ratzinger’s election, and his choice of the name Benedict, herald a new engagement with secular Europe. If that is the case, Benedict will have to show a willingness to engage modern thinkers and concerns rather than just denouncing them. If the church wants the larger culture to hear what it has to say about Christ, the church in turn must be willing to listen to what those enmeshed in modern culture have to say about their lives and moral aspirations. The dialogue cannot be a one-way street—in either direction. As the philosopher Charles Taylor has written, “There is so much we need in the past, so many spiritual forms, modes of prayer, devotion, of common life, that could help us revivify the love and service of God in the present. But they will help us only if we ‘lift them from the crushing weight of being the right answer’ which somewhere got lost and whose existence condemns whatever came after.”

Benedict has shown that he understands the point Taylor is making. In a conversation with the journalist Peter Seewald (God and the World, 2002), then Cardinal Ratzinger conceded that the church’s message “seems to be coming from the past” and “from a quite different kind of life that no longer seems to exist in our day.” He further conceded that “the church has not yet quite achieved the leap forward into the present day. The great task before us is so to fill with living experience the old, truly valid and great sayings that they become intelligible for people. We have a great deal to do there.”

It is also intriguing, as Timothy Schilling points out in this issue, that among Benedict’s first remarks as pope was an endorsement of the principle of episcopal collegiality. Going into the conclave, it was widely speculated that even among conservative cardinals there was a desire for more shared decision making rather than a continuing concentration of authority in Rome. On the surface, Ratzinger’s election appeared to be a vote for the status quo, and further evidence of the timidity and dearth of leadership among the bishops. Moreover, Benedict has been outspoken in his belief that change should be initiated from the top down. Still, as pope he may recognize the seriousness of the problem on the ground. It was encouraging to hear Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, one of Ratzinger’s supporters, say as much. Rejuvenating the church “cannot be done by decree,” Lustiger told the New York Times. “We must be rooted in the faith and use a lot of imagination and creativity. It’s not the pope who can do this work. He can only support and promote it.”

This kind of modesty, coupled with a willingness to delegate authority, is much needed in a church that is often tempted by the glamour and exaggerated certainties of a kind of papalotry. At seventy-eight years of age, Joseph Ratzinger presumably knows the church cannot be carried on the shoulders of one man. He must also know that the church, and not just the secular culture, has a great deal more work to do. Pope Benedict XVI has asked for our prayers in that work, and he has them.


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Published in the 2005-05-06 issue: View Contents
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