Recently, Vatican postage stamps, adorned from time immemorial with the papal triple crown, conveyed a different note: “Episcopus Romae,” Bishop of Rome. An ecumenist in the curia explained to Zenit News Service that it was a nod to the Orthodox, who prefer that title. Maybe it was and maybe it wasn’t. Yet a year and a half after his election, Papa Benedetto remains an enigma. Who is he really? After the generally hostile reaction to his election in the European and American media, he does not seem to fit their initial fears. Nor does he fit the happy dreams of observers like Richard John Neuhaus or George Weigel who waited eagerly for the purges that have not happened. Instead, the pope suspended the founder of the Legionaries of Christ because of sexual-abuse charges, and replaced Joaquin Navarro-Valls, head of the Vatican Press Office, with a Jesuit, Frederico Lombardi of Vatican Radio, a change, one hears, stoutly resisted by Opus Dei.
Is Benedict the liberal conciliar adviser to Cologne’s Cardinal Joseph Frings? Or the disciple of St. Augustine who was horrified at the Vatican II document The Church in the Modern World because he believed modern secularism constituted the greatest threat to the church? Is he the frightened scholar who fled Tübingen and its unruly students in 1968, convinced of the need for order in the church? Or the zealous hammer of heretics who presided over the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), née the Inquisition? Or the theologian who argued that the council did not really represent drastic change in the church? Does the new pope really want a “smaller and purer church”? Or is he the author of the first half of the extraordinary encyclical Deus caritas est? Will the real Benedetto please raise his hand? When is the other Prada slipper going to drop?
David Gibson, author and onetime reporter for Vatican Radio, wrestles with these questions in The Rule of Benedict, a sympathetic yet not uncritical examination of the pope’s career. Gibson traces Joseph Ratzinger’s life through the Hitler years in Germany (Ratzinger was five when the Nazis took power), his seminary training, his choice of Augustine’s pessimism over Aquinas’s optimism as a theological paradigm, his disillusion following the council, his brief term at Munich, and then the long years at the CDF. Augustinianism, Gibson contends, resonates with Raztinger’s pessimistic personality and his deep skepticism about modernity.
I don’t doubt this, yet it would be a mistake to overlook the grief in Germany in the decades after the war. In Jazz Age Catholicism, Stephen Schloesser, SJ, reminds us that the great Catholic writers (literary and musical) in France during the 1920s lived and worked in an atmosphere of profound sorrow over the terrible losses of the Great War. Yet they retained a spirit of engagement with their times and a sense of Christian hope. A sensitive young man who grew up in the much deeper pain in Germany after 1945 might have found it difficult to be optimistic about the modern world. (Is Mozart part of the modern world? The Magic Flute, it seems to me, is an Enlightenment opera, and Benedict is known to be a Mozart aficionado.) Benedict, Gibson suggests, sees the modern world as a dark, dangerous place for the church and for Catholics.
Gibson also seems to understand Cardinal Ratzinger’s dislike of liberation theology, but is unsympathetic toward his attack on it. Still, Marxism and Christianity don’t blend well, and by now it seems clear that Marxism doesn’t work. The romance with Marxism in South America and among some political theologians in Europe, one might argue, was a perilous fad. Social Democracy may be a difficult course, but the only one that has even a remote chance of working.
The cardinal’s suspicion about dialogue with Eastern religions seems to reveal the same fear of contamination. Doubtless, there were some shallow faddists in that field, though Jacques Dupuis was not one of them. The persecution of Dupuis by the CDF was hardly one of Ratzinger’s finest hours, even if Dupuis was cleared, more or less.
The most interesting chapter in the book—“Pontifex Maximus, Pontifex Minimus”—compares the papal styles of John Paul II and Benedict, the latter far more low-key than the former. There will be no cult of personality during the present incumbency, and many will think this an improvement. Benedict seems to understand his role as that of telling the truth, not, as he says, his personal opinions, but the agreed Catholic truth. He sees himself preaching as a pastoral minister rather than as a theologian, a task that would require tact and self-discipline of any theologian who was also pope.
It would also appear that Benedict’s vision of a smaller church is not a prediction, much less something he will create by a purge, but rather something that he fears as possibly an inevitable development. After his election, as I pondered in Rome the hit lists that Weigel and Neuhaus were probably preparing, I read on the net Hans Küng’s remarkable plea that we give the new pope a chance, especially to produce his first encyclical. Since Küng knew him well as a friend, colleague, rival, and adversary, I figured that we too ought to give Benedict a chance. Two events since then have confirmed that inclination: Benedict’s reconciliation with Küng, a remarkably gracious event; and Deus caritas est, Benedict’s astonishing first encyclical.
The latter, which Gibson dismisses as not new and not pertinent to reform and renewal, astonishes especially as perhaps a theme-setting document for Benedict’s time in office. In the erotic love of husband and wife, the pope sees an image of the love between God and humankind, a hint of the presence of grace in the dark and threatening modern world. Given St. Augustine’s disgust with sexual love, this hopeful view of the human condition can hardly be described as Augustinian pessimism. It could provide a perspective through which, over the long run, Benedict and his successors could charm Europe back to the faith. The idea does not originate with Benedict. St. Paul clearly understood it. Moreover John Paul II in his early audience talks developed a similar theme. But the clear and lapidary style of Deus caritas est made it a document for the modern world.
Nor does Gibson consider Fr. Neuhaus’s cri de coeur in First Things against Benedict’s failure to be more vigorous in ridding the church of homosexual priests and seminarians, especially if they are Jesuits. If First Things and even more conservative groups like the Remnant are disappointed in the pope, there are grounds yet to suspend judgment.
The Rule of Benedict is a more sophisticated and nuanced analysis of the new pope than many others. Unfortunately, it does not leave room for the possibility that the papacy changes the man who occupies it, a prospect that Küng suggested a year and a half ago. Room should be left to consider that the data might fit such a model. For example, Benedict’s mix of discretion and firmness during his visit to Spain, where the government behaves as if the Loyalists had won the civil war, suggests that the pope is not one who looks for fights (though his remarks about Islam at Regensburg—pulled out of context as they were—might better have been left unsaid). The returns, it seems, are not in yet. Perhaps they never will be. Benedict may always be an enigma. That wouldn’t be all bad.
Gibson’s least successful chapter is about the church in America. He subscribes to the media analysis that sees the church in this country as deeply polarized with only a small center remaining. But the polarization model fits neither the American nation as a whole nor the church in particular. The center still holds, and strongly. American Catholics are not divided between, say, First Things and Commonweal. (Alas, most U.S. Catholics have heard of neither.) While there have been some losses to the church in the last several decades, it seems impossible to drive out most of the laity, no matter how much the leadership tries. At every level—pope, curia, diocese, parish—the leadership does not understand the faith and the spiritual depth of its people. Hence the laity become an inkblot onto which those in power can project their personal opinions and biases. Social research might be a help, but who needs social research?
In a similar vein of empiricism, I would hope (perhaps foolishly) that as the pope and his colleagues ponder a long-term strategy for winning Europe back to the faith—a contest for which the church has enormous resources, if it would only recognize them—they might postpone faulting the laity for the decline of faith and reifying abstractions such as secularism, materialism, relativism, Marxism. Instead, they might begin, in prayerful and humble examinations of conscience, to wonder how they themselves or their predecessors might have contributed to the loss of Europe (should it really be lost). They might even ask quietly, “What have we done wrong?”
To read more of Commonweal's coverage of Benedict XVI, click here.