The First Year of Benedict XVI
In this part 1 of a two-part series, in which Allen sets the scene for the report card of the first 10 months of Benedict’s pontificate, he contends that The pope now had to be a global titan who can make the world listen – not with anathemas and interdicts, in the manner of high medieval popes, but by force of carefully reasoned moral argument. Among other things, this means the pope’s own personal holiness must be able to “cash the checks” his lofty rhetoric writes. The pope must be able to stand on the world stage with the Bushes and the Blairs, the Reagans and the Kohls, of his own time, and in some sense tower over them all, in both wisdom and personal moral credibility. Setting the bar that high, of course, narrows a set of candidates quickly, and it did not take long for a strong majority of cardinals to focus on Joseph Ratzinger. There were perhaps five or six others who could have fit the bill, but each had his own electoral problems. Aside from the involvement of the Holy Spirit, therefore, the stunningly simple truth about the conclave of 2005 is that two-thirds of the cardinals regarded Joseph Ratzinger as the best and brightest they had. The text of the first part of his speech follows …
Let me set the scene for what follows. At roughly 6:00 pm Rome time on April 19, 2005, when 78-year-old Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected to the papacy as Benedict XVI, I was on the CNN set atop Rome’s Urban College, charging into battle as a foot soldier in the vast army of pundits deployed to explain what the election meant for the Catholic Church and for the world.
Ironically, this mobilization seemed almost superfluous, since many felt it was an outcome that scarcely required comment. For almost 25 years, the name of Joseph Ratzinger had been linked to every significant controversy in Roman Catholicism, whether liberation theology, sexual ethics, religious pluralism, or the limits of theological dissent. The cardinal had become a lightning rod in Catholic debate, a symbol of courageous defense of the faith for some, of a pessimistic retreat on the promise of the Second Vatican Council for others. With regard to the election of Ratzinger, many felt, res ipsa loquitur … the thing speaks for itself.
In characterizing the new pope, commentators thus fell back on familiar adjectives – tough, authoritarian, archconservative.
Probably the best expression of all this came in an editorial cartoon in L’Unità, the newspaper of the old Communist Party in Italy. To understand the cartoon, you’ll need a bit of background. Still today in Italy, perhaps the most revered pope of modern times is John XXIII, know as il papa buono, “Good Pope John.” One treasured memory of John XXIII is an evening in October 1962, the opening of the Second Vatican Council, when the Catholic Action movement organized a torchlight parade that finished in St. Peter’s Square. The pope was not scheduled to address the crowd, but when it arrived, John XXIII wanted to speak. He finished with a line burned into the consciousness of most Italians, repeated endlessly on television and radio. Smiling down on the crowd, he said: Tornando a casa, troverete i bambini. Date una carezza ai vostri bambini e dite: questa è la carezza del Papa. It means, “When you go home, you’ll find your children. Give them a kiss, and tell them that this kiss comes from the pope.” It summed up the legendary love of the man. Thus the L’Unità cartoon showed Benedict XVI at the same window saying, “Tonight, when you go home, I want you to give your children a spanking, and tell them that this spanking comes from the pope.”
It perfectly crystallized the expectations many had of this allegedly draconian, Darth Vader figure.
I suppose it goes without saying that this was not quite the image of Joseph Ratzinger which led more than two-thirds of the 115 cardinals gathered in the Sistine Chapel to elect him pope. Nor, I would suggest, is it quite what the first year of his pontificate has offered, confirming some expectations but confounding others.
I will briefly review the dynamics that led the College of Cardinals to turn to Joseph Ratzinger – what they saw in him and what they expected. Then we’ll review his first year, to consider to what extent those electors’ hopes have been realized, and what it tells us about where Benedict XVI wants to take the church.
John Paul II brought to a dazzling crescendo the renaissance of the modern papacy. No longer temporal potentates, the popes of the 20th century reinvented themselves as a Prime Minister of the Human Conscience, the most important ethical and religious voice in public affairs. John Paul II exploited this bully pulpit as few have. One would have to go back to the 12th and 13th centuries to find popes as consequential for their own times, and their influence was circumscribed to a handful of emerging kingdoms in Western Europe. John Paul was a lead player on a truly global stage.
His impact can be measured in many ways, but consider just for an instant those stunning events in Rome between April 2 at 9:37 pm local time, when John Paul died, and April 8, the date of his funeral Mass. Rome estimates that five to seven million people washed through the city, most joining those extraordinary rivers of humanity that poured down the Via della Conciliazione and surrounding streets, waiting around the clock in very chilly weather, up to 22 hours, for a few fleeting seconds in front of the body of the late pope. There was also the saturation coverage of John Paul’s death in the global press, representing something akin to a two-week-long infomercial on behalf of Roman Catholicism. There was the diplomatic presence at the funeral Mass, including heads of state or government from more than 70 countries, the largest such gathering ever for a funeral. The Mass itself became the occasion for diplomatic breakthroughs. Israel’s President Moshe Katsav, for example, greeted President Bashar Assad of Syriaand then-President Mohammad Khatami of Iran, the first time leaders from those nations had ever exchanged a handshake; speaking on CNN, Archbishop Wilton Gregory called it John Paul’s “first miracle.” In a fitting tribute, former Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton used the flight over on Air Force One to work out their plans for Tsunami relief.
All this by way of saying that John Paul mattered in a way few popes ever have, and the cardinals electing his successor knew it. They had to find someone who would not be crushed by the weight of comparison. It would no longer be sufficient to elect a quiet, pastoral, kindly man as chief shepherd, a pope in the mold of John Paul I, Albino Luiciani of Venice, a humble and saintly figure who had traveled only once outside Italy, spoke only Italian comfortably, and was a political innocent. The pope now had to be a global titan who can make the world listen – not with anathemas and interdicts, in the manner of high medieval popes, but by force of carefully reasoned moral argument. Among other things, this means the pope’s own personal holiness must be able to “cash the checks” his lofty rhetoric writes. The pope must be able to stand on the world stage with the Bushes and the Blairs, the Reagans and the Kohls, of his own time, and in some sense tower over them all, in both wisdom and personal moral credibility.
Setting the bar that high, of course, narrows a set of candidates quickly, and it did not take long for a strong majority of cardinals to focus on Joseph Ratzinger. There were perhaps five or six others who could have fit the bill, but each had his own electoral problems. Aside from the involvement of the Holy Spirit, therefore, the stunningly simple truth about the conclave of 2005 is that two-thirds of the cardinals regarded Joseph Ratzinger as the best and brightest they had.
In that light, it’s worth asking what exactly the electors expected of their new leader. What “mandate,” so to speak, did Benedict XVI have?
In the days leading up to the conclave I spoke with dozens of cardinals, and in the aftermath I interviewed eight more representing five countries and three continents for my book, The Rise of Benedict XVI. What I say here draws on that reporting.
First, the cardinals had concluded that the most significant crisis facing Roman Catholicism today is in Europe, where secularization is at its zenith: declining Mass attendance rates, declining vocations to the priesthood and religious life, decades of intra-Catholic ideological strife, a startling public silence about the faith, and the specter of looming demographic collapse combined with high rates of Islamic immigration. In Joseph Ratzinger, the cardinals saw someone with the most profound grasp possible of the Western cultural situation, and with the clarity and courage they felt the church requires. His homily opening the conclave, warning against a “dictatorship of relativism,” drove the point home.
Second, many cardinals felt that while John Paul II was a magnificent apostle and evangelist, he was not always an equally gifted manager. The Roman Curia often speaks with more than one voice, and sometimes seems to work at cross-purposes. Moreover, it was not always clear that those making decisions had the proper background, or could distinguish between essential matters requiring intervention and others best left alone. Both the nomination and oversight of bishops seemed at times haphazard, which some critics linked to the bitter sexual abuse crisis in the United States and elsewhere. A serious reform, many cardinals believed, could only be achieved by a man in but not of the Roman Curia, someone who knows the system and who has the wherewithal to change it.
Third, some cardinals wanted a period of “Wojtylaism without Wojtyla,” meaning the substance of John Paul’s papacy without the charismatic razzle-dazzle. A calmer, less frenetic papacy, focused on core challenges, had appeal after the hurricane of the John Paul years. Further, the cardinals wanted a pope who they felt would listen, whose own personal vision would not be so strong as to make collaboration difficult.
Next week: The Report Card
which says, in part …
Indeed, anyone caught off guard by the election of a 78-year-old German to the papacy, tempted to believe the cardinals had found a somnambulant “interim” figure to keep the seat warm, should be thoroughly disabused by this first year. It is true that Benedict is moving according to his own rhythms, too slowly for some and not always in the direction some had hoped. Yet at bottom this is a pope of epic ambition, if not for himself, for the Church in his times. He aims to do nothing less than challenge five centuries of Western cultural and intellectual development, reasserting truth in a Western world often allergic to the very term. This story will not be brought to you blow-by-blow like a car chase on the evening news, and neither will Benedict XVI compete for airtime with Madonna and Kobe Bryant. But it is nevertheless the stuff of high drama, and a great deal is riding on how the story ends.
John Allen Jrn is the Vatican correspondent for the US newspaper, The National Catholic Reporter, and a CNN analyst of Vatican affairs.