Six Surprising Things About Benedict XVI, 'The Puzzling Pope'
David Gibson offers a handy guide for getting to know Pope Benedict XVI.
BY: David Gibson
So as we all stood there in St. Peter's Square three years ago, watching the white smoke on a chilly April evening, we knew, just knew, that the College of Cardinals gathered in a conclave was about to make a historic turn and choose a Latin American as pope, a historic first, or maybe even an African. And out walks an elderly German theologian as our next pope. Benedict's friends and fans said give him a chance, he'll surprise you. And in some respects he has. (The Catholic right is actually somewhat disappointed that he hasn't been tougher; the Catholic left is happy not to get a bull of excommunication in the mail.) But at the end of the day, Benedict is who he was—a thoroughgoing European who believes it was no coincidence that Christianity flourished in the West. "Europe is the faith, and the faith is Europe," Hilaire Belloc wrote a century ago. Restoring that legacy is Benedict’s
priority, and the mass secularization of the Continent is the lens through which he sees the rest of the West.
FIVE: America is a foreign country
A corollary to the previous point is that Benedict doesn't know much about the United States, or Catholicism in America. He visited five times as cardinal, but always to give lectures or meet with bishops or talk doctrine. That's not to say Benedict doesn't appreciate the nation's religious spirit and dedication to faith. But he also believes that Americans are too consumed by materialism, too fixated on individualism at the expense of the greater good, and too often heedless of the rights of the unborn and the international community. (He opposed the Iraq war.) As Ratzinger once told a summit of American bishops meeting at the Vatican, they not be overly tolerant: "For pastoral activity consists in placing man at the point of decision, confronting him with the authority of truth." He’s also not crazy about the cultural vulgarity that diverts the country’s focus from deeper matters of the soul. So what will he make of "American idol" winner Kelly Clarkson singing the "Ave
Maria" (a true fact) at one of the New York events? Benedict is too gracious to make like Simon Cowell, and thankfully too mature to make like Paula Abdul. Maybe Randy?
SIX: Pontifex Minimus
The church does not believe in cloning, even when it comes to the papacy. And all the talk about Benedict being another John Paul doesn't hold up. Yes, they both hew to the same conservative views on the church. But Benedict was always uncomfortable with the "rock star" papacy of John Paul, all the globe-trotting evangelism and sports stadium liturgies. A cardinal once called John Paul a "pontifex massmediaticus." Not Benedict. Even though Benedict once told reporters he is "learning to be pope," he remains far more restrained than his predecessor, as a matter of personality and policy. He doesn’t want to draw attention to himself, but to Christ, to the faith, to the church. Or, as a priest-friend of Benedict’s put it, the pope believes that "once the tradition is exhibited like a great painting or work of art, it doesn't need explanation. Once it's presented, people see it and love it." In the aftermath of Ratzinger's election as pope, it was said that John Paul filled the squares but Benedict will fill the churches. During this inaugural American tour, Benedict may show he can do both.
A final thought: The great thing about being pope is that you can do whatever you want. Within strict limits, of course. But in 1959 the unassuming "transitional" pope, John XXIII, rocked the church with "a little holy madness" that inspired the Second Vatican Council and formed the church we have today.
So who knows what Benedict will say or do? Perhaps something to make the above list as obsolete as, well, the Latin Mass.