George Weigel has chosen a risky title for his book on the election of Pope Benedict XVI. The claim that Joseph Ratzinger was “God’s choice” for pope is a judgment that needs the long perspective of time to warrant or to test it. In any case, Pope Benedict himself has expressed reservations about attributing papal elections too readily to the direct action of the Holy Spirit—as he has pointed out, dubious or incompetent popes have been elected too often for the process to be considered routinely inspired. And famously, when the late Cardinal Basil Hume of Westminster ventured the opinion that the newly elected John Paul I had been “God’s candidate,” he was to be rudely confounded by the sudden death of that candidate just one month later. Absit omen.
Weigel’s book is in part an exercise in journalistic thrift, the reworking of his weeks in Rome as a commentator for a major American TV network during the obsequies of John Paul II and the election of Benedict XVI. Its first hundred pages or so contain many evocations of those remarkable days last April, when the world’s media set everything else aside to cover the funeral of an octogenarian Polish priest, and religion briefly held center stage in a secular world. This section of the book also presents Weigel’s own assessment of the legacy of Papa Wojtyla. To those who know his indispensable biography of John Paul II (Witness to Hope), and his more recent and rebarbative little manifesto for a uniquely American form of pugnaciously born-again Catholicism, The Courage To Be Catholic, there will be few surprises in this part of the book. John Paul features as “the greatest vocation director in history,” inspiring a new generation of dedicated and militantly orthodox Catholics, lay and clerical, a magnet for youth, the promoter and inspirer of movements for renewal, a beacon of sanctity, but above all the great teacher, and the definitive interpreter of Vatican II. Weigel curiously hypostatizes the late pope’s teaching as “an unprecedented magisterium,” a grandiose Latinism that obscures the ephemerality of most of the material it designates. Stacked together, he tells us, this “magisterium” occupies thirty linear feet of shelving, a “staggering mass of material” that, he believes, “the church and the world will be digesting for centuries.” The bulk is indeed staggering, but that very bulk suggests a fundamental lack of proportion and common sense in Weigel’s confidence about the likely permanence and impact of all these words. John Paul II was a transcendentally great man, certainly the most remarkable pope of the twentieth century, who left the papacy incomparably stronger than he had received it. As the author of fourteen encyclicals, he was indeed a notable teacher. Still, most of what any pope says is written by other people, and the bulk even of what they write for themselves rises from and is addressed to a specific moment. The other copious teaching popes of modern times, Leo XIII and Pius XII, also poured out reams of paper, but only a few key utterances, such as Leo XIII’s social encyclical Rerum novarum (written by someone else), have remained current. Truth is the daughter of time: sic transit gloria mundi.
Not that Weigel is entirely uncritical of John Paul II’s papacy. He recognizes the failures of the pontificate to deliver on the high hopes for ecumenism, especially with the Orthodox, which Wojtyla’s election in 1978 had raised. He regrets that Wojtyla did nothing to reform the curia. And above all, he considers that the episcopal appointments of the Wojtyla years were often deplorable—too many mere managers, and too many “weak, ineffective or...arguably, heterodox bishops.” There is surely an element of doublethink here. The appointment of the world’s bishops is arguably the most awesome and most momentous of all the duties of the pope, shaping the character of the local churches and setting the tone for the future. John Paul II had twenty-six years in which to get it right. Yet Weigel’s striking pessimism about the caliber of the world episcopate at the end of those twenty-six years, and perhaps especially his pessimism about the episcopate of the United States, appears not to have impinged on his admiration of the pope responsible for all those bad appointments.
The second half of Weigel’s book offers an account of the formation of Pope Benedict XVI that is not only uniformly laudatory in the manner of court biography, but also in places seriously misleading. In tracing Joseph Ratzinger’s theological development, Weigel rightly emphasizes the consistency and integrity of his journey from firebrand peritus at Vatican II and companion-in-arms of Karl Rahner, Yves Congar, and Hans Küng to prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). Weigel is anxious to distance even the young Ratzinger from other conciliar reformers who, in his judgment, sought to modernize the church without sufficient respect for its deep traditions, men trapped by a shallow liberalism and “enthralled with modern culture.” This liberalism he identifies with the theologians—Küng, Rahner, and others—associated with the journal Concilium. Authentically Catholic reform, faithful to the church’s traditions, Weigel identifies with those like Karl Lehmann, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Ratzinger himself, who joined to found the journal Communio. Concilium was run, he considers, “within rather narrow ideological boundaries, according to a...party line,” whereas Communio was “genuinely pluralistic, open to all sorts of theological methods and viewpoints.”
This account of the (real and significant) Concilium/Communio split is, however, highly tendentious, on several counts. No one, for example, would guess from Weigel’s account that the young Ratzinger was in fact a member of the editorial board of Concilium, or that in the 1960s, Ratzinger made common cause with the other leading conciliar theologians, including Congar, Rahner, and Küng, in attacking the ossified scholasticism dominant among the “Roman theologians.” Ratzinger argued then that the church had “reins that are far too tight, too many laws, many of which have helped to leave the century of unbelief in the lurch, instead of helping it to redemption.” In his commentaries on the work of the council, Ratzinger was vocal in support of notions such as collegiality, what he called an “ordered pluralism” in the church, and he attached special importance to the work of the local episcopal conferences as expressions of the shared responsibilities of the whole episcopate. Yet as prefect of the CDF he would minimize the significance and competence of these conferences, and they are accordingly one of Weigel’s targets in this book. In 1968 Ratzinger was one of more than thirteen hundred signatories of an outspoken declaration, organized by Concilium, on the right of theologians “to seek and speak the truth, without being hampered by administrative measures and sanctions.” The declaration offered a trenchant critique of the secretive methods of the Holy Office in censuring theologians, calling for greater openness and the right of accused theologians to a proper hearing.
All this looks ironic in the light of Ratzinger’s later trajectory as prefect of the CDF and as the author of official documents designed to limit the autonomy of Catholic theology. Chief among these is the Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian, which Weigel commends but which seemed to many eminent and loyal Catholic theologians to oversimplify the complex and perennially delicate relationship between academic theology and the ordinary magisterium, subordinating necessary intellectual exploration to premature closure of contested issues by the central organs of the church.
To acknowledge these shifts is not of course to impugn the integrity of Pope Benedict’s intellectual journey away from positions he had embraced in his theological prime. A man is entitled to change his mind, and beneath Ratzinger’s changes of position lie deep-seated continuities in attitude and emphasis that make that intellectual journey entirely understandable, if not always equally persuasive. But Weigel’s presentation of the pope’s intellectual formation consistently ignores such complexities and tensions that are a feature not only of Ratzinger’s formation, but of all theology undertaken with integrity. In the process Weigel oversimplifies—and to that extent falsifies—the history of Catholic theology in the conciliar and postconciliar period.
Perhaps the oddest, and to a British Catholic the least appealing feature of this book, is the wish list for action by Pope Benedict XVI with which it concludes. The keynote here is what Weigel calls “adventures in dynamic orthodoxy.” Pope Benedict, he thinks, should encourage a robustly confrontational Catholicism. He should shake up the religious orders, grown soft by accommodation to the modern world; he should remove the bogus “Catholic” accreditation and identity of colleges and universities “hollowed out” by a corrupting liberalism; he should sidestep the timid inverted agism that makes the Vatican appoint only men past fifty to the episcopate (with all the dangers that entails of choosing men contaminated by the ethos and errors of postconciliar secularizing apostasy), and that denies the rising “priests of the John Paul II generation”—the born-again dynamically orthodox—their birthright to lead and govern. What is wanted is not prudence, unity, consensus, but decisive and dynamic action by young, zealous, orthodox, evangelical bishops, men who will not shrink from confronting, admonishing, and disciplining error.
Weigel has his eye on a shakeup well beyond America. Europe is a write-off, sitting on a demographic time-bomb and depopulated by a suicidal refusal to breed, repudiating its Christian heritage. The Latin American church too is in desperate need of a reform that will purge the last remnants of liberation theology and the residually Marxist theological culture that induces the bishops of Latin America to rail against globalization and to blame the poverty of their people on world capitalism, instead of embracing the market and encouraging dynamically orthodox self-help among the Latin American poor. By the same token, the Vatican itself is an Augean stable of outmoded social and political attitudes. The Vatican diplomatic service operates, in Weigel’s view, on “large and dubious” generalities that sound Christian but are fundamentally “incoherent,” fetishizing peace and international consensus at any price, and blaming global capitalism for third-world poverty, instead of laying the blame for that poverty firmly where it belongs, in the internal disorders, corruptions, and inefficiencies of third-world countries themselves. Once again Weigel separates these deplorably soft-headed tendencies in the Vatican from the pope who presided over their implementation for a quarter of a century. Hurrying past the embarrassing fact of Papa Wojtyla’s unwavering opposition to the use of armed force in international affairs, and especially the Iraq war, Weigel blames this pusillanimity on the papal diplomatic corps, and looks to Papa Ratzinger to inaugurate a new “Augustinian” realism in the Vatican, one that will be more understanding of the foreign and economic policy of the (no doubt dynamically orthodox) Bush White House. I fervently hope Weigel will be disappointed, but we must wait and see.
Related: Eamon Duffy reviews Weigel's Witness to Hope
Who Is Benedict XVI? Commonweal writers on the mind of the pope
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