19 April 2005

Habemus Papam... Benedictum XVI!

Well, it was Ratzinger after all. Benedict XVI. I really didn't see that one coming.
I wonder how long it'll take before people start calling him Der Panzerpabst. I'm sure the phrase 'God's Rottweiler' will be heard a lot over the next while - though maybe there's a chance for 'The German Shepherd'. And I imagine those who used to call him 'The Pope's Enforcer' will simply call him 'The Enforcer Pope'. 'Cardinal No' could easily become 'Pope No'. 'Papa Ratzi' is almost too obvious.
More creatively, it seems some are already calling him Palpatine I. In fact, over at Wikipedia, where there ought to be a picture of the Holy Father, instead there's a picture of the smiling Supreme Chancellor of the Republic. This is what you get when you've an encyclopedia that anyone can edit. One day a few weeks back, I looked up 'Ireland', only to find the word 'penis'. And 'see vagina'.
I suspect Wikipedia will sort that out, so just in case I've taken a screenshot.
I was out when Ratzinger's election was announced, and only found out over dinner, for which I'd barely made it back in time. 'In case you haven't heard, we have a Pope,' said the Warden.
'Oh?', I said, amazed since I'd expected another couple of days with the cardinals in conclave*. 'Who?'
'Ratzinger,' she said, flatly. 'Benedict the Sixteenth.'
To say I was astounded would be to understate, somewhat. I was convinced he didn't stand a chance, fifty guaranteed cardinals or not. He was too controversial, too polarising a figure, and it seemed obvious that the fifty or so cardinals who'd have backed him in the first ballot would have shifted to a more central candidate pretty swiftly. There must have been an impressive shift towards him over the second, third, and fourth ballots.
Don't Panic
So, what can we expect? After all, the nicknames given to the Holy Father when he was in charge of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith aren't the most flattering. Benedict has been a controversial figure, even more divisive that his predecessor in the Papacy - people regularly deem him 'conservative', 'hardline', 'authoritarian', 'dogmatic', and 'polarising'. Well, there's some truth in all those claims, but things are nowhere near as bad as might be made out.
It's well worth reading anything John Allen has to say on the matter. Benedict's biographer, it'd be hard to think of a better judge of what to expect of the new Pope.
'If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you...'
Fortuitously, I finished reading John Allen's biography of Benedict, Cardinal Ratzinger: The Vatican's Enforcer of the Faith, this morning. Vatican correspondent for America's National Catholic Reporter, Allen is highly regarded by George Weigel but viewed with suspicion by many of his country's more conservative Catholics, as far as I can discern. He takes, in the main, a highly critical view of Benedict, as chapter after chapter of the book dismantles Ratzinger's statements and actions over time. However, his final chapters, though still critical, present his subject in a rather more positive light.
One passage, entitled 'Listening to Ratzinger', strikes me as very important, especially considering how nuanced and precise - and concise! - his statements tend to be, and the fact that he has written and spoken so much:
'Because Ratzinger is a polarising figure, reaction to him is often uncritical, driven more by emotion and instinct than sober reflection. Progressives do not read his books, they disregard his public statements, and they assume every position he takes is based on power politics; conservatives revere most of what he says as holy writ, often spouting it mindlessly without penetrating to the principle or value he sees at stake. Neither response takes Ratzinger seriously.'
Allen thinks if people wish to challenge Ratzinger seriously, they first need to get a handle on what Allen considers his legitimate insights. Four main ones stand out, and I'm summarising here, so bear with me and don't dive in to attack if I oversimplify or misrepresent Ratzinger.
  • Ratzinger believes that we need to recover our belief in an objective truth, in a standard beyond ourselves - admittedly people have abused such beliefs in the past, but that doesn't necessarily make the point invalid.
  • Further, he believes that when we consider the faith of the wider church, we must consider it not merely in a geographic sense, but in a diachronic one - in other words we can't just go by what Catholics today supposedly believe, based on polls and such, but must also consider the beliefs of those who have gone before us, with whom we have a sacramental link.
  • On top of that, the fact that we belong to a global family has implications, notably, Ratzinger believes, that we can't always make the Church what we'd like it to be. Catholics in San Francisco, Sao Paulo, Beijing, Berlin, London, and Lagos are all likely to have rather different views of the what the Church should teach. Remember that, and then bear in mind what happened in 1054. Is schism really so desirable?
  • Finally, Ratzinger is concerned that we in the West run a risk of being too much in thrall to our culture, a culture where we're bombarded with hundreds of commercial messages a day, where we live in comfort and hardly give a thought to the thousands of children who die each day from simple hunger. Though talk of ours as a less moral age than, say, thirty years ago is mere cant, we must recognise that our world is far from perfect, and we're often far too cosy within it.
Some hints of what's to come...
JCecil has posted a couple of interesting links on his blog - it seems that while liberal Catholics tend to see Ratzinger as some kind of Darth Vader, the reformers' great hope who turned to the dark side, ultra-conservatives hate him too! And that, surely, is cause for people to calm down, at least a bit. Hell, even Hans Küng, who has said in the past that Ratzinger 'sold his soul for power in the Church,' thinks we should give him a chance - you know, 100 days of grace in which to prove himself.
In terms of what we can broadly expect from Benedict, it's worthwhile considering the Church's most famous Benedicts. Benedict of Nursia, the father of Western monasticism, is perhaps the most famour bearer of that name - he left Rome, which he considered corrupt, to found a monastery at Subiaco, and from there a monastic movement spread, crucial to the evangelisation of the Roman Empire's successor kingdoms. The monastic movement in all its forms was crucial to the preservation and the development of Western tradition. Giacomo della Chiesa was the last Pope to bear the name of Benedict; Sepreme Pontiff during the Great War, which he called 'the suicide of Europe', in 1917 he issued a seven-point Peace Proposal. This was largely ignored by most of the combatants, though several of the ideas within the proposal were echoed in Woodrow Wilson's subsequent peace plan. (Wilson rejected Benedict's own plan as he said there could be no peace until the Kaiser, who he called 'the ruthless master of the German people', abdicated. Cue unstable Weimar state, and the rise of Nazism. Hmmm.)
You can read into that what you wish.
More directly, it'd be helpful to consider his recent homilies and statements. Take a look at his meditations for the Way of the Cross on Good Friday, a conference speech at the Benedictine monastery of St. Scholastica at Subiaco, his homily at the funeral of John Paul II, his homily at the Mass for the Election of the Roman Pontiff and his brief first address as successor to Peter.
Can 'a simple, humble worker' cleanse these stables?
The meditation on the ninth station is encouraging, especially for those who want a purer and more humble church, notably when he said:
'Should we not also think of how much Christ suffers in his own Church? How often is the holy sacrament of his Presence abused, how often must he enter empty and evil hearts! How often do we celebrate only ourselves, without even realizing that he is there! How often is his Word twisted and misused! What little faith is present behind so many theories, so many empty words! How much filth there is in the Church, and even among those who, in the priesthood, ought to belong entirely to him!'
I imagine there have been few occasions in history when a cardinal has spoken so harshly of the Church, only to be appointed to head that church only a few weeks later. The question there is what he'll do about it, and one thing his biographer is sure of is that despite Ratzinger's lack of pastoral experience, he'll be likely to appoint better bishops, in the main, than his predecessor. Decades of service on the Vatican's Congregation for Bishops has given him a vast amount of first-hand experience of those best qualified to be raised to the episcopacy, and, Allen reckons, even though his appointees will almost certainly be solidly conservative - even reactionary at times - they'll all be intelligent and capable administrators. Considering the clerical abuse scandals that have come to light over the last decade, and how badly so many dioceses have handled them, this can only be a good thing. For what it's worth, he's thought to have persuaded John Paul, some years back, against appointing the disastrous Kurt Krenn as Archbishop of Vienna. And that, I'm sure you'll agree, was a good thing.
For what it's worth, there's long been a rumour that Ratzinger, as John Paul's doctrinal watchdog, persuaded John Paul against formally declaring the Church's teachings on birth control infallible. It's impossible to tell if there's any truth to this, but it certainly seems the case that he has some doubts about Humanae Vitae. In a 1992 interview, when asked about birth control, Ratzinger admitted that the Church hadn't come up with anything helpful on the issue of global population, and said that distinctions between natural and artificial methods of birth control were confusing, and tended to obscure the 'real problems'. He concedes that there will have to be a development in Church thinking on this topic. So, some hope for progressives there, perhaps. Mind you, expect another generation to pass before anything is done! The Church is huge and slow, and takes a very long time to turn. Rushing it might achieve nothing bar its disintegration.
And finally...
I'm rather glad that I've just finished Allen's biography of the Pope, as I've a gloomy feeling that I'll be correcting a depressing amount of misconceptions for at least the next few weeks, but quite possibly for the duration of this Papacy. The most obvious one is the claim that he's a Nazi, something swiftly dismissed by John Allen is this article, where he says:
'When Ratzinger was in the equivalent of high school, membership in the Hitler Youth was made compulsory and he was briefly enrolled, though he asked to be removed and never attended any activities. He was later conscripted into the Germany army and served briefly in an anti-aircraft battalion before deserting. His family was anti-Nazi, and Ratzinger never demonstrated the least affinity for National Socialism.'
That's easily dealt with, as is the claim that he's anti-Semitic. More difficult to refute are accusations of homophobia. Me, I suspect he finds the idea of homsexuality distasteful, yes, and that he thinks homosexual acts are, simply, wrong. Sounds bad? Maybe, but hardly surprising considering scriptural references along with the combination of human attitudes and Church teaching over the centuries. But then, he's adamant that homosexual people are entitled to the protection of the law just as much as anyone else, and that, 'It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the Church's pastors wherever it occurs. It reveals a kind of disregard for others which endangers the most fundamental principles of a healthy society. The intrinsic dignity of each person must always be respected in word, in action and in law.'

He's not saying homosexual people should get special protection because of their sexuality rather that they should not be treated with prejudice because of that sexuality, and must be protected and loved - yes, loved - for their humanity. In other words, that they should be treated exactly the same as everybody else.
I made the mistake of throwing my hat into the latter ring in a debate on that point on Making Light, Teresa Nielsen Hayden's warm, clever, funny, and humane blog, but unfortunately it's been rather shouted down. But then, that's what John Allen reckons is the normal reaction to Ratzinger, and what he says - he evokes such strong reactions that people rarely listen carefully to what he has to say, and either lap up his every word or just shout in his face.
What's that about bigotry being an inability - or a refusal - to imagine that what you believe might possible be wrong?
I dunno, I have hopes on this one. I think Ratzinger - or Benedict now, I suppose, though it'll be hard to get into the habit of calling him that - could be a fine pope. The question is whether people will listen to him or not. After all, despite all the adulation, they didn't listen to John Paul.
* There was just one ballot last night, and two in this morning's round of voting. I have no idea whether there were two this afternoon, or just one. Either way, this was a very speedy result. The average length of time for a Twentieth Century conclave was 3.2 days - this one took scarcely more than 24 hours. It's a pretty efficient system, as though it can generate the odd marathon, it's way better than the older electoral system - following the death of Clement IV in 1268 the cardinals took two days and nine months to pick a successor, and even then managed it only under duress. Gregory X, the eventual choice, who wasn't even a priest - he was an archdeacon, and was on pilgrimage to the Holy Land at the time, accompanying England's future Edward I - overhauled the system into, more or less, the form we have today.
Part of me thinks it'd be more fun if they ran the conclave like 'Big Brother', with cardinals being proposed for eviction, and the rest of the Church getting to vote on them. Needless to say, the last one left would become the next Pope. Imagine the ratings. Whether there's be a diary room, or just a confessional box I don't know.
We could call it 'Pope Idol'.
Don't pretend you wouldn't watch it.

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