A recent flurry of speculation in Europe suggests that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the controversial prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has emerged as “an important late entry for the papacy” (London Daily Telegraph) in the event of the death of John Paul II. Ratziner has long been thought to be too combative and, at seventy-seven, too old, but the Barvarian cardinal’s age is now seen as a possible advantage. The conventional wisdom is that few cardinals, regardless of their ideological allegiances, want to install another young pope who might serve for twenty or more years. John Paul II’s reign has been heroic, even epoch-making, but as Cardinal Newman remarked, even a good pope shouldn’t rule for too long.

Ratzinger made headlines in November when, in the aftermath of the European Union’s rejection of the inclusion of any reference to Christianity in its constitution, he expressed forcefully his views that an “aggressive secularism” had become a threat to religious freedom in Western Europe. In an interview in La Repubblica, he went on to reiterate the church’s opposition to the legalization of same-sex marriage, and more generally to allege that modern secularism “is imposed through politics and does not give public space to the Catholic or Christian vision.”

After the recent presidential election, Americans may find it hard to credit the idea that religion can be excluded from secular politics. Still, it is also true that Europe’s practice of secularism has always been a good deal more anticlerical and contentious than our relatively benign separation of church and state. It will be interesting to see how the European Union’s newer member states, especially those like Poland that are more sympathetic to Christianity’s influence, will change the debate about secularism on the continent.

As the National Catholic Reporter’s Rome correspondent John Allen has written, “Anyone with personal experience of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger is usually struck by the contrast between his public image as stern and authoritarian, and his personal demeanor, which is always gracious, humble, and open.” Possibly. Still, choosing the pope’s right-hand man as his successor would seem to betray an unhealthy degree of insularity, even by Roman standards. To the surprise of some, when asked about the alienation from the church that has followed Humanae vitae, Ratzinger conceded the complexity of the problem and said that “it is clear we must continue to reflect.”

A shrewd, very Roman answer? Or something more? In any event, the complexity of the problem reminds us that the church’s struggles with modernity are as often self-inflicted as they are imposed.


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Published in the 2004-12-17 issue: View Contents
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