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Our Quiet Pope

Winding up an interview with Archbishop William Levada, the American whom Pope Benedict XVI hand-picked to succeed him as prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a reporter remarked on how genuinely comfortable the Pope appeared to be with the public.aspects of his job. Whether circling St. Peter’s Square in the Popemobile or standing at the window of his apartment for the Sunday Angelus with arms upraised to greet the crowd, this reserved, septuagenarian intellectual (he turns seventy-nine on April 17) and lover of the music of Mozart seems to have a genuine zest for what he’s doing. The reporter said he found that a surprise.

Levada agreed. The Pope is enjoying himself, said the former archbishop of San Francisco, who has known Benedict XVI for nearly a quarter of a century. And for people familiar with him, he added, the ease with which the man previously known as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger had adapted to his new job did come as a surprise. “I think it’s a kind of proof of actual grace,” Levada said. “He seems to have received a great gift enabling him to do the incredibly difficult job that was thrust upon him—and in doing it, to radiate serenity and joy.”

The story is something more than just a pious anecdote. Similar comments by other seasoned observers of Benedict underline an important fact. A year into the pontificate, this scholar-turned-pope has settled comfortably into the most exalted—and arguably the most arduous—goldfish bowl in Christendom: the one reserved for Christ’s vicar on earth.

Pope Benedict has said modestly that his pontificate is a continuation of that of his predecessor, the charismatic Pope John Paul II. There’s an important sense in which that is so. The continuity between Benedict and the larger-than-life John Paul—continuity consisting, essentially, of a vision of the Church and of the world shared by both men—is unquestionably very strong. But a year after Benedict’s election on April 19, 2005, it’s also clear that he means to do his job in his own distinctive way. The pontificate we are getting now and will continue to get for as long as God wants bears the distinctive mark of Benedict XVI.

So, what mark is that? In a word, Pope Benedict is quiet.

After John Paul II

After more than a quarter-century of John Paul II, the idea of a quiet pope may strike people accustomed to the Polish Pope’s in-your-face way of doing things as a contradiction in terms. Pope John Paul traveled more widely than any pope in history and produced a larger body of teaching documents than any of his predecessors. He loved playing to the crowd, and he played the media with masterful skill. The splendor of St. Peter’s Basilica was a natural setting for this amateur actor—as were the dais of the United Nations General Assembly and a dizzying number of sports arenas, cathedrals, outdoor altars, parliament chambers, and other venues for his countless Masses, addresses, and public appearances around the globe.

Pope Benedict has not entirely turned his back on all that. He has traveled some and will go on doing so— at least now and then. He speaks to a bewildering variety of groups (nearly 3 million people by the end of last year, according to Vatican figures), though by no means does he speak as often as his predecessor did. The flow of documents goes on, but it has been noticeably reduced. These changes have led to some grumbling among those who would prefer more papal razzle-dazzle. “He’s a lot quieter than John Paul II,” a veteran of the Vatican press office declares. “He says he means to concentrate on spreading John Paul’s teaching instead of publishing a lot of documents of his own. I don’t expect him to say an awful lot.”

Maybe so. Compared with Pope John Paul, that is. But if Benedict has it in mind to be a quiet pope, by no means does it follow he will be a silent pope, much less a do-nothing one, with little or nothing to say. He has a message, and he wants it heard.

The message of his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love), was in fact both complex and forceful. The 16,000-word document, published last January 25, combines theological and scriptural reflection on divine love with a pointed discussion of the need for the Church’s charitable work in an increasingly secularized society.

In part, the encyclical represents an attempt on Benedict’s part not only to clarify the meaning of God’s love but to rehabilitate the idea of human love. Today, the document points out, ” eros, reduced to pure ‘sex,’” has become “a commodity, a mere ‘thing’ to be bought and sold,” and thereby contributes to the debasement of human persons. The remedy, the Pope argues, lies in purifying the concept of eros itself while at the same time putting into operation the Christian ideal of disinterested, self-giving love called agape.

On the socio-political level, the encyclical sounds at times like a pontifical version of George W. Bush making the case for faith-based initiatives in the realm of social services. Where government attempts to “provide everything, absorbing everything into itself,” the Pope cautions, it is likely to end up as “a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing that the suffering person—every person—needs: namely, loving personal concern.”

Reacting to Ratzinger

Around the time the cardinals elected Pope Benedict last April, a professor who teaches theology at an East Coast Catholic university e-mailed an opinion piece he’d written for the campus newspaper to a friend. Poking fun at his liberal Catholic colleagues, he wrote in part:

We all know that the election of Pope Benedict has brought gloom and mourning to the groves of Academe. . . . Some Catholics are now saying that the Holy Spirit was a dismal failure at the conclave. . . . The reaction makes me think of a line from a song that was popular before I had gray hair: ‘And the three men I admire most, / The Father, Son and Holy Ghost, / They caught the last train to the coast / The day the music died.

This, the professor made it clear, was not how he felt about the matter. Since then, many others have come to agree with him that, as he put it, Benedict is “a brilliant theologian, gentle, kind, personable, and . . . an immensely learned and holy man.”

And, it must be added, a quiet one.

For those with eyes to see, the well-publicized personal history of Joseph Ratzinger offered clues to the kind of pope he would become.

His early childhood was spent in the warmth and security of a loving, devout Catholic family, itself living within the warmth and security of Bavarian Catholic culture. The rise of Nazism was probably the first really dangerous threat to the faith and way of life that the Ratzingers cherished, and its fall was hardly something they regretted.

After the trauma of World War II the young man went on to complete his seminary studies, become a priest, and launch a budding career as a theologian and scholar. At the Second Vatican Council (1962–65), Fr. Ratzinger became an important figure as an advisor to Joseph Cardinal Frings of Cologne (one of the movers and shakers of Vatican II) and the German bishops. By the standards of those days, he was numbered among the ranks of the Council’s “progressive” theologians. In the years after Vatican II, though, Ratzinger and a number of his former colleagues—people such as Karl Rahner, S.J., and Hans Kung—moved increasingly apart, with the meaning of the Council itself a key issue dividing them.

A writer on Church affairs once wrote something about Vatican II and got a letter from a man who didn’t like it. “You forgot to mention,” the letter writer said, “that John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger managed to close all the windows that [Pope] John XXIII opened.”

That is a classic statement of the way angry and disappointed liberal Catholics read recent Church history. Pope Benedict clearly does not agree. As he sees it, he and John Paul II are guardians, advocates, and authentic interpreters of the Council, while its reception and carrying-out have been significantly thwarted by liberals who have a different agenda in mind.

Standing Up for the Real Vatican II

Since becoming pope, Benedict XVI has spelled that out in one of his most important speeches since his election: the address he delivered just before Christmas to the members of the Roman Curia. In this weighty address he contrasted two profoundly different ways of understanding Vatican II, styling them respectively the “hermeneutics of discontinuity and rupture” and the “hermeneutics of reform.”

The hermeneutics of discontinuity, he explained, regards the Second Vatican Council as a radical break with the tradition of the Church up to that time and dismisses the documents of Vatican II as unsatisfactory compromises. It is not the Council’s documents that count, they believe, but its “spirit.” Not surprisingly, the hermeneutics of reform takes just the opposite view. According to this school of thought, Vatican II was solidly in continuity with the Catholic tradition; the Council did not break with the tradition but developed it in important ways on the way to making adjustments in response to contemporary needs.

The Pope left no doubt that he considers the hermeneutics of reform to be the correct interpretation of Council. And more than that, he said, “if we read and accept [Vatican II] by a correct interpretation, it can become a great force in the ever-necessary renewal of the Church.”

This ongoing debate about how the Second Vatican Council should be understood is certain to remain a key of fundamental importance to understanding the policy and program of Benedict throughout his pontificate. It is an argument in which Benedict’s own position could hardly be clearer.

It is also important to grasp the lasting impact that the Marxist-tinged German student revolt of the late 1960s had on Joseph Ratzinger, who was a university professor at the time. The raucous upheaval appeared to him to be a threat to stability and good order comparable to that which Nazism posed thirty years earlier. Having come of age in an intellectual environment deeply influenced by Darwinism, Freudianism, and Marxism, together with political movements such as fascism, communism, and Nazism, the cultural revolution of the ‘60s and ‘70s confirmed him in his abhorrence of secular humanist utopianism, ever ready to use coercion and even violence for the good of the cause. “The world is redeemed by the patience of God. It is destroyed by the impatience of man,” he once remarked.

Matters of Style

Patience also marks the administrative style of this quiet Pope. While that can have its drawbacks, it also has its strong points. The appointment of bishops is a case in point.

John Paul was known to be relatively uninterested in the administrative side of the papacy, and that seemed to carry over to the naming of bishops. Despite all the chatter about “John Paul II bishops” who were supposedly pillars of doctrinal orthodoxy, many of his choices for the hierarchy looked very much like the “pastoral” bishops who preceded them in the 1970s—many of them decent, well-meaning men with no stomach for confronting dissent and the problems it led to.

Benedict appears to take a slow, careful approach to his episcopal choices. It is said that in making a decision he takes his time studying the dossiers on candidates that are presented to him by the Congregation for Bishops. This reflects a management style perhaps best described as methodical and notably close to the vest. (By the time this appears in print, nonetheless, he is likely to have named not only a goodly number of bishops but perhaps a dozen or so new cardinals. He may also have made long-awaited major changes at the upper levels of the Curia.)

The same deliberate and comparatively low-profile style can be seen in Benedict’s approach to foreign travel. In contrast with John Paul’s fondness for globe-girdling journeys, which were typically packed with scores of events and often with high drama, Benedict has made comparatively few foreign trips, and the few he has made have been of comparatively short duration.

The tentative papal travel schedule in 2006 calls for him to go to Poland in the spring and to his native Bavaria in September. (On his longest, largest trip in 2005, he went to Cologne for World Youth Day last August.) There is also a good chance he will go to Istanbul to meet with the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I—a trip intended to nurture Catholic-Orthodox relations that he wanted to make in 2005 but the Turkish government would not allow. The big journey next year may be to Brazil for a meeting of the bishops of Latin America.

Reconciliation with the Orthodox is high up on Benedict’s priority list, as it was for John Paul II. Among the many stumbling-blocks in this area, the largest ones immediately at hand reside in the suspicion and hostility to Catholicism traditionally harbored by the Russian Orthodox and Greek Orthodox churches and the chaotic, contested state of Catholic-Orthodox relations in Ukraine. Benedict XVI will keep chipping away at these obstacles in his patient manner. The same is true of his ongoing efforts to work out a modus vivendi with the Chinese government for the sake of the Church in China.

A Preference for Reconciliation

Benedict prefers to reconcile rather than condemn. That may seem unlikely, considering the caricatures of the “Grand Inquisitor” and “Panzer Cardinal” that flared up again in the media around the time of his election. But it happens to be true, as two striking occurrences in 2005 made dramatically clear.

The first of these was his August 29 meeting with Bishop Bernard Fellay, head of the Society of St. Pius X, the chief organization of followers of the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. Lefebvre’s disciples reject most of Vatican II, and the late archbishop was himself excommunicated for ordaining four bishops in defiance of papal orders not to do so. The SSPX claims a few hundred thousand members—in the U.S., France, and a few other places—but the numbers aren’t what count. With four bishops of their own (validly, though illicitly, ordained), the Lefebvrists are capable of perpetuating their schism and even, hypothetically, causing it to spread.

Among issues they covered, Pope Benedict and Bishop Fellay discussed the possibility of providing broader access to the Tridentine Mass—the Mass as it was before Vatican II—which the Lefebvrists continue to use. It is possible, too, that Benedict will encourage more use of Latin in the Mass in general. There is no chance that he will abolish the vernacular liturgy or other liturgical reforms since Vatican II. But the “reform of the reform”—elimination of by-now institutionalized liturgical abuses of the past forty years—is something else. Yet here, as in other areas of Church life, Fellay remarked, Benedict is “stuck between the progressives on one side and us on the other.”

To date, Benedict’s most obvious gesture of reconciliation on the left was his September 24 meeting with Fr. Hans Küng, the Swiss-born theologian who was among his colleagues at the Council and who in the post-Vatican II years became the most visible figure on the ultra-progressive wing of the Church. Needless to say, that self-chosen role included being a bitter critic of John Paul II as well as Joseph Ratzinger.

The September meeting was described as a friendly conversation in which the two men discussed theological issues. But the official statement was careful to note that by mutual agreement they stayed away from questions that led to a declaration by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (in 1979—two years before Ratzinger became its head) that Küng was not, technically speaking, a “Catholic theologian.” Among other things, he had published a polemical attack on papal infallibility that went far beyond legitimate interpretation of the dogma and came down well outside the boundaries of Catholic faith.

Courtesy aside—and Pope Benedict is a highly courteous man—the Fellay and Küng meetings had at least one purpose in common: to signal Benedict’s wish to keep the extremes on the spectrum of contemporary Catholic opinion within the fold to the extent that lies within his power and to do so without sacrificing anything essential to faith.

The same might be said of the Vatican statement on the admission of homosexuals to the seminary released late last year. Despite the semi-hysterical news reports and exaggerated claims about the document made by people with axes of their own to grind, the document had a fairly simple message: The Church asks of homosexuals who wish to be priests what it also asks of heterosexuals—the willingness and demonstrated ability to live chaste celibate lives. Was it really necessary to make this rather obvious point? Apparently it was, in view of clergy sex abuse scandal in the United States, where a staggering 81 percent of 10,667 minors abused by Catholic clerics between 1950 and 2002 were males. “The crisis was characterized by homosexual behavior,” the all-lay National Review Board, established in 2002 to monitor the American bishops’ response to the crisis, dryly remarked.

The statement on homosexuals and the seminary was issued by the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education, but it had the approval of Benedict. His own former congregation, Doctrine of the Faith, is responsible for handling the cases of priests credibly accused of sex abuse in its capacity as a tribunal.

Benedict’s quiet, deliberate style reflects both his upbringing and his temperament. In this way he resembles many other super-intelligent people of a reflective, meditative bent. But in his case it’s likely that it also reflects his own spiritual life and the particular outlook to which it gives rise. Given the complexity of life today, he has said, “Christianity often becomes so complicated for us that we can no longer see the forest for the trees. It is a matter of being led back to the simple heart of it, not to anything else, but to the essentials, to conversion, to faith, hope, and love.”

If our quiet Pope has his way, that almost certainly is what his pontificate will be all about.

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