2016-06-30

There are many paradoxes about Benedict XVI, but this may be the biggest: For a generation, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he was one of the most prominent and controversial men in Roman Catholicism. And now he is the Supreme Pontiff, arguably the most visible and influential religious leader in the world. Yet on the eve of his first visit to the United States as pope, American Catholics—and everyone else—know little about him. In fact, Andrew Greeley’s review of my biography of Benedict, in Commonweal magazine, was titled, "The Puzzling Pope."

Given that context, and the curiosity that is growing as the April 15-20 visit to Washington and New York approaches, here are six keys to reading between the many lines that Benedict will deliver.

  1. "He’s not conservative—he’s old-fashioned!"
  2. He is a theologian
  3. He is not the "Panzerpapst"
  4. He is a European
  5. America is a foreign country
  6. Pontifex Minimus
ONE: "He’s not conservative—he’s old-fashioned!"
A Vatican aide to the pope delivered that protest to a friend of mine, and it strikes me as one of the best one-liners about Benedict. In reality, of course, Benedict is conservative, in the classic sense of the word—preserving tradition, preferring personal virtue over systemic change, doing more with less. And yes, Benedict will turn 81 on April 16, the day after he arrives. But his outlook is not about his age or philosophy. It’s his style. He loves the Fathers of the early church—St. Augustine is his hero—and he models his vestments on the Medicis of the Renaissance papacy. His Latin is better than his English—and his English ain't too bad—and he plays Mozart to relax. Benedict yearns for the good old days. That's his character, it's his destiny—and, for the foreseeable future, the church's destiny, too. On the other hand, for Catholics "on the ground" who are seeing a return to Latin in the Mass and maybe communion on the tongue (while kneeling at an altar rail, no less), calling Benedict "old-fashioned" rather than conservative may be a distinction without a difference.

TWO: He is a theologian
A popular quip (well, in certain circles) is that philosophy asks questions that cannot be answered, and theology gives answers that cannot be questioned. The gibe isn't really fair to theology—or philosophy, for that matter. But it does get at the heart of Benedict's approach to ministry. He has been immersed in theology all his life, and his entire priesthood was spent in academia or the Vatican bureaucracy. (His only parish work was a stressful year he spent at a parish after his 1951 ordination.) If the charismatic John Paul II spoke to the soul by touching the heart, the cerebral Benedict XVI goes to the soul through the head. His many books are his "friends," and his former spokesman, Joaquin Navarro Valls, described Benedict’s approach as the "pastoral care of the intelligence." He is the Catechist-in-Chief, a brilliant intellect who can distill decades worth of study into learned sermons delivered so eloquently you never even know when he’s speaking off-the-cuff.

THREE: He is not the "Panzerpapst"
Whatever Benedict's pastoral abilities, don't expect Cardinal Ratzinger to step off "Shepherd One" (the name of his chartered plane) on April 15. For most of John Paul's 26-year reign, Ratzinger was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—onetime home of the Roman (not Spanish) Inquisition, as we inevitably note—and the designated "bad cop" of Christendom. The head of the CDF has to draw lines, level punishments and basically talk tough, a role that Ratzinger seemed to relish, but one that won him epithets like God's Rottweiller and the old standby, the Panzerkardinal. But now that Cardinal Ratzinger is Pope Benedict, he knows better than anyone that he is also the chief pastor of the church. There can be no "Panzerpope." His job is to be the good cop, a symbol of unity who tries to encourage people to live their faith more deeply. As he told a dinner companion about his new role: "It was easy to know the doctrine. It’s much harder to help a billion people live it."

FOUR: He is a European
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.
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