Cover story -- Benedict XVI -- Analysis
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Issue Date:  April 29, 2005

Not a transitional pope: Benedict may surprise


Two days before the opening of the conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago had a conversation with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, about the American sex abuse norms, arguing that the norms should be maintained more or less as is.

George asked if Ratzinger, whose office is charged with processing sex abuse cases, had any questions. Ratzinger, according to George on April 20, showed “a good grasp of the situation.”

Forty-eight hours later, Ratzinger was the pope. As George kissed his hand, Pope Benedict XVI told him in English that he remembered the conversation the two men had, and would attend to it.

The story is a telling example for those seeking to discern the subtleties that could mark potential contrasts between the pontificate of John Paul II and that of Benedict XVI, who was the late pope’s most loyal lieutenant and yet still very much his own man.

That episode captures an important contrast between the two. In a similar situation, John Paul II, whose passion for travel and dialogue and acting as a global moral authority sometimes meant a certain neglect of internal administration, would likely have passed such a detailed matter to an aide. Benedict XVI, on the other hand, said he’d take care of it himself.

More than one cardinal expressed the point this way: The election of Joseph Ratzinger April 19 was a vote for continuity with the papacy of John Paul II, but also a choice for a man who will translate the guiding lines of the Wojtyla pontificate into institutional reality. While some cardinals think that John Paul II was inattentive to the nuts and bolts of ecclesiastical governance, they believe Benedict will be sure that what the church says and what it does are in better alignment.

Benedict XVI is thus seen as a man tough enough to make hard political choices, but profound enough to grasp the deeper theological currents that run underneath the political terrain.

Pope Benedict XVI is a man with a keen vision of the realities facing the Catholic church, especially in the West, along with the courage to proclaim remedies that fly in the face of much conventional wisdom and political correctness. A hero to some and villain to others, the man who will lead the 265th papacy in the history of the Catholic church is likely to surprise and outrage, inspire and provoke sectors of opinion both within the Catholic church and in the wider world.

Behind the scenes

Before anything else, the choice of Joseph Ratzinger as Benedict XVI was an election, and as such, if only in part, a political exercise. Hence, the political question to which everyone wants an answer: How did he win?

One is tempted toward one of two equally banal answers: that the Holy Spirit dictated the outcome or that he got the most votes. Both may well be true, but neither is informative about what went on behind the closed doors of the Sistine Chapel as the 115 cardinals under 80 years of age contemplated the future of Roman Catholicism.

Despite the fact that Ratzinger made virtually everyone’s short list of favored papal candidates, there remained strong doubts even as the conclave opened that he might be in a position to gather two-thirds of the vote. One Italian newspaper confidently predicted the day before the balloting that it was now “excluded” that Ratzinger might exit as pope.

As the first two bursts of smoke on Monday night and Tuesday morning turned black, speculation that the Ratzinger candidacy had run into difficulty intensified. Yet white smoke began to emerge shortly before 6 p.m. Rome time, suggesting a pope had been elected on the fourth ballot -- putting this election in a tie for second place for speed among the conclaves of the last century, only one ballot slower than the 1939 conclave that elected Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli as Pius XII, and identical to the 1978 conclave that elected Cardinal Albino Luciani as John Paul I.

White smoke so soon could suggest the election of a front-runner, though not necessarily. In the first conclave of 1978, Luciani had not figured on most A-lists, and he won on the fourth ballot. In the end, however, it was Ratzinger whose name was pronounced by Chilean Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez, the senior cardinal deacon, following that famous phrase, Habemus papam: “We have a pope.”

Cardinals remained with the new pope in the Casa Santa Marta Tuesday night, and then joined him for Mass in the Sistine Chapel the following morning. In between, some sneaked out to provide comments for the thousands of journalists still milling about Rome; others waited until after the Mass to meet the press. In any event, despite their vows of secrecy, much about the 2005 conclave quickly became clear.

First, Ratzinger had strong support in the early ballots (some wire service accounts had him with as many as 60 votes), a formidable base that did not decline in successive rounds. By Tuesday afternoon, the mind of the group seemed clear, and he was elected.

“You don’t get a pope on the fourth ballot unless the consensus was pretty strong early on,” one cardinal told NCR.

This does not mean the conclave was bereft of debate. A cardinal from the Southern Hemisphere told NCR that there was “something of a horse race” in the conclave, and that a number of names drew votes on the first couple of ballots. By the third, however, it seemed clear that no single candidate was emerging as a serious alternative to Ratzinger, and the deal was done.

Ratzinger was very much a known quantity within the College of Cardinals, and it’s no surprise he had strong support. Yet it’s equally clear that some more progressive-minded cardinals might have balked at his candidacy just a few weeks ago. So what changed?

Several cardinals told NCR that his performance during the interregnum was stellar, and went a long way toward resolving whatever doubts many electors might have had. As dean of the College of Cardinals, for example, Ratzinger presided at the funeral Mass of John Paul, delivering an eloquent homily that was interrupted by applause 12 times, a response that left him visibly emotional -- an uncharacteristic personal flourish from the normally poised Ratzinger.

One African cardinal said that Ratzinger acted at that Mass in a “style like that of John Paul II, maybe more than his own style.” In other words, he sensed Ratzinger growing into a part.

Ratzinger also presided and gave the homily at the concluding Mass for the election of the new pope, on the morning of the day that the conclave began. His blunt caution against cultural currents hostile to the faith -- Marxism, liberalism, radical individualism, secularism and relativism -- was interpreted by some as potentially damaging to his candidacy for its dour tone, but instead it buttressed his reputation as a thinker and someone with a capacity to engage the ills of the secular West.

Off stage, however, Ratzinger’s role from the death of John Paul II to his own election was even more important.

He presided over 13 daily meetings of the General Congregation, the assembly of cardinals that worked through John Paul II’s rules for the transition, and then listened to one another describe the problems in their local churches. By most accounts, Ratzinger did a superb job leading these sessions, allowing each cardinal to have his say and even inviting people who had not yet spoken to do so.

One cardinal said that two things about the way Ratzinger led these sessions impressed him.

First, he said, whenever conversation would bog down among cardinals trained as canon lawyers over what church law might permit, Ratzinger intervened, saying, “We know what canon law says, but what should our pastoral response be?” It was reassuring, the cardinal said, to those who worried that 24 years in Rome and only a couple of years as archbishop of Munich had equipped Ratzinger with little sense of pastoral realities.

Second, whenever Ratzinger called on a cardinal to speak, he did so by name, illustrating that he knew all the members of the College of Cardinals personally -- reflecting decades of conversation with them about their problems and concerns. Whenever a cardinal approached him to speak, he responded in that cardinal’s language, exhibiting his mastery of languages and his cosmopolitan bearing.

A source among the cardinals said that a principal organizer of the pro-Ratzinger camp in the early going was Cardinal Christopher Schönbourn of Vienna, Austria, who studied under Ratzinger during the 1970s.

The experience of this interregnum is a reminder of a bit of conclave wisdom, which is that the camerlengo may govern the church in the absence of a pope, but the largest pre-conclave platform belongs to the dean. Whoever holds that job enjoys a privileged opportunity to set the agenda and present himself to his brother cardinals.

Hence, the politics of the interregnum boiled down to this: Ratzinger entered with strong support, rooted both in his personal charm and his strong doctrinal stands, but needed to win over doubters concerned about his reputation for being aloof and authoritarian. His conduct during the two weeks from the death of the pope to the conclave went a long way to resolving those doubts.

None of this is to say that Ratzinger was actively campaigning to become pope. In fact, at least twice in recent years he had requested permission from John Paul II to leave office and retire to Regensburg, Germany. Yet if he had been running for office, one would say he ran a terrific campaign. He managed to hold onto his base, to put the matter in the terms of secular politics, while still attracting crossover voters.

Moreover, whatever opposition existed never managed to get organized, and melted away when the momentum behind Ratzinger’s election seemed irresistible.

The logic of the election

Aside from the political calculus, one can also pitch the “why” question on substantive grounds. What was it that the College of Cardinals saw in this man, Joseph Ratzinger, that convinced two-thirds of them to make him pope?

His intellectual accomplishment played some role. Ratzinger is among the most accomplished Roman Catholic theologians of his generation, a man widely acknowledged even among his detractors as a first-rate thinker and analyst. His masterpiece is usually considered to be 1968’s Introduction to Christianity, a contemporary presentation of Christian faith. The book was no legalistic manual stuffed with rules and regulations; it was a meditation on faith that reached into the depths of human experience, a book that dared to walk naked before doubt and disbelief in order to discover the truth of what it means to be a modern Christian. Many found it exhilarating.

Despite the fact that the later Ratzinger, some believe, became more cautious and defensive, no one disputes that he has the intellectual acuity to be pope.

Another key point in his favor, one cardinal told NCR, was that among electors Ratzinger was seen as being “in the curia but not of the curia,” meaning that he came to the Vatican as a cardinal and was not tainted by the normal alliances and political connections one normally makes coming up through the curial system. Consequently, he was seen as someone tough enough and who knew the curia well enough that he would be able to get it in hand. During John Paul II’s reign, different curial offices were often seen as speaking too freely on their own and even at odds with one another. Ratzinger was seen as someone who would clean up such discordance.

Ratzinger also has spiritual depth. He has written a number of small books on the spiritual life considered instant classics, and when he celebrates the Mass his reverence is transparent. While detractors may argue that his theological stands are misguided or harmful, few dispute the nobility of his intentions.

Ratzinger also has a personal side that may not always be transparent to the public, but one that’s well known among intimates and collaborators. They say he’s humble, gentle, gracious and even shy. Cardinal Edward Egan of New York, for example, called Benedict XVI “a wonderful human being.”

Cardinal George of Chicago called the new pope “a humble genius.”

These points by themselves, however, do not explain why Ratzinger was seen by the cardinals as the right answer to the problems facing the church at this historical moment.

Perhaps the best explanation on that score came from George.

“In 1978, when Karol Wojtyla was elected as Pope John Paul II, the primary challenge to the church came from the East, in the form of Soviet Communism,” George said. “Today the most difficult challenges come from the West, and Benedict XVI is a man who comes from the West, who understands the history and the culture of the West.”

Ratzinger’s clarion call to resist a Western “dictatorship of relativism” could be likened to John Paul II’s struggle against the Marxist dictatorships of Eastern Europe. If resistance to the Soviets was the defining feature of at least the early stages of the Wojtyla papacy, perhaps resistance to relativism will be the lodestar of Ratzinger’s.

“There was a fault line in the Soviet empire that brought it down, that the concern for social justice was corrupted by the suppression of freedom,” George said. “In the West, there’s also a fault line between concern for personal freedom and the abandonment of objective truth.” George said that both contradictions “are not sustainable in the long run.”

Going into the conclave, many cardinals told NCR that they had identified secular culture, especially the relativistic and post-Christian culture that often dominates Western Europe, as a source of special concern. In that context, many obviously thought that Ratzinger was the man with the right life experience and intellectual and cultural preparation to take on the challenge.

A pope with baggage

Ratzinger is that rare individual among Vatican officials, a celebrity among men who normally move in the shadows. He had a runaway bestseller in 1986 with The Ratzinger Report, a book-length interview with Italian journalist Vittorio Messori. He is probably the lone official of the Roman curia that most Catholics could actually identify, and a man about whom many of them hold strong opinions.

He is a hero to the conservative wing of the Catholic church, a man who had the toughness to articulate the traditional truths of the faith in a time of dissent and doubt. To Catholic liberals, on the other hand, he is something of a Darth Vader figure, someone who looms as a formidable opponent of many of the reforms of which they have long dreamed.

It was Ratzinger, for example, who in the mid-1980s led the Vatican crackdown on liberation theology, a movement in Latin America that sought to align the Roman Catholic church with progressive movements for social change. Ratzinger saw liberation theology as a European export that amounted to Marxism in another guise, and brought the full force of Vatican authority to stopping it in its tracks. He sought to redefine the nature of bishops’ conferences around the world, insisting that they lack teaching authority. That campaign resulted in a 1998 document, Apostolos Suos, that some saw as an attack on powerful conferences such as those in the United States and Germany that to some extent acted as counterweights to the Vatican.

It was Ratzinger who in a famous 1986 document defined homosexuality as “a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil.” In the 1990s, Ratzinger led a campaign against the theology of religious pluralism, insisting that the traditional teaching of Christ as the lone and unique savior of humanity not be compromised. This effort culminated in the 2001 document Dominus Iesus, which asserted that non-Christians are in a “gravely deficient situation” with respect to Christians.

He once called Buddhism an “auto-erotic spirituality,” and inveighed against rock music as a “vehicle of anti-religion.”

Ratzinger has also said on many occasions that the church of the future may have to be smaller to remain faithful, referring to Christianity’s short-term destiny as constituting a “creative minority.” He has also used the image of the “mustard seed,” suggesting a smaller presence that nevertheless carries the capacity for future growth as long as it remains true to itself.

As Benedict XVI he is a pope who begins his ministry with both a strong base of support and a load of baggage, in the sense that a broad swath of watchers will be expecting a hard-line, divisive pontificate.

Yet those who know Ratzinger have always been struck by the contrast between his bruising, polarizing public image and his kind, genteel, generous private side. In person, Ratzinger comes across as refined and almost shy, and bishops who have had dealings with him over the years almost uniformly testify that he is a good listener, genuinely interested in working collegially. Those with trepidations about a Ratzinger papacy will be watching carefully in the days and weeks to come for indications that this kinder, gentler Ratzinger will be the figure who emerges as Pope Benedict XVI.

The Benedict legacy

The very name is perhaps one indication. While the primary reference may be to St. Benedict, the founder of European monasticism, no doubt there are echoes also of Benedict XV, who reigned from 1914 to 1922 and put an end to the conservative antimodernist campaigns of the pontificate of St. Pius X. Benedict XV said that rather than worrying about the least signals of doctrinal error, it was enough for someone to use Catholic as their first name, and Christian as their family name.

Perhaps, therefore, Pope Benedict XVI was sending a subtle signal that he too would like to be a conciliator rather than an authoritarian figure.

Those were certainly the notes struck during a message after his first Mass as pope, held in the Sistine Chapel April 20. Benedict XVI called for collaboration between the bishops and the pope, a reference to collegiality in the church. He committed himself to the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), and committed himself to the untiring quest for full unity among Christians. The pope greeted the followers of other religions, and of all those who simply are looking for an answer to the meaning of human existence and have not yet found it. He committed the church to a continuing search for social justice, especially with respect to systems of development. Benedict XVI also said he would reach out in a special way to the young, much in the style of his predecessor John Paul II. (The Vatican later confirmed that the new pope will travel to Cologne in August for World Youth Day.)

In many ways, those were just-right notes to strike, especially for all those who fear that Benedict XVI’s is destined to be an authoritarian, defensive, exclusively vertical pontificate. He seemed to saying, “You may have a surprise in store.”

In the meantime, there may be one final clue, having to do with the name he chose, in trying to decipher the first tentative indication of what kind of pope Ratzinger intends to be. On this score, George said the new pope offered a kind of exegesis of his choice to the cardinals inside the conclave.

“Benedict,” George recalled Ratzinger explaining, is in the first place a reference to St. Benedict, who founded European monasticism at a time when the Roman empire was collapsing, and the church helped preserve human culture and thought. Second, however, the name is also a reference to Benedict XV, the last pope to hold it, who strove for peace in a time of war.

In an unmistakable parallel for a 78-year-old pope, George said that Ratzinger also pointed out that Benedict had a short papacy, just eight years from 1914 to 1922. Clearly, the new pope is aware that time is short and the challenges facing him are enormous.

It is for that reason, perhaps, that amid all the speculation about where Benedict XVI might take the church, one thing seems certain: This is most definitely not a “transitional” papacy. To put it bluntly, there isn’t a transitional bone in Joseph Ratzinger’s body.

However much time he has as Benedict XVI, he will make his mark.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is

Reaction from joy to dismay

“The election may not portend what many of us hoped for, but we do trust that the Spirit can work in unusual ways. This time calls all of us to engage in deep reflection that seeks insight leading to action.” -- Statement from Network, the Catholic social justice lobby

“We have to allow for the Holy Spirit to work and the possibility that he may change through the different experiences a pope might be exposed to.” -- Bishop Kevin Dowling of Rustenburg, South Africa

“I believe people project their anger that the church won’t change on Joseph Ratzinger.” -- Fr. Joseph Fessio, chancellor of Ave Maria University in Naples, Fla.

[We call] for a new Catholic moment despite signals that the repressive machinery of the previous papacy will grind on unabated.” -- Statement of the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual, a feminist educational center in Washington

“Often Cardinal Ratzinger sharply portrayed a crucial parting of the ways: between modernizing the church, so as to seem to appeal to modern men at the expense of fidelity to the word of Jesus Christ; and being faithful to the word, at the expense of losing numbers. He has been quite fearless about choosing the second alternative.” -- Theologian Michael Novak

“Certainly, there are people who are going to be applauding this new pope because he stands for continuity. But there are also a great many who were looking for change and for a more supple engagement with the problems of the world, and they are crestfallen.” -- James Post, president of Boston-based Voice of the Faithful, a lay reform group that emerged from the abuse scandal

“We rejoice in the choice because he’s going to hold the line and he’s not going to allow the liberal element in the Catholic church to reverse any of those things.” -- Norman Geisler, president of Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, N.C., and coauthor of Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences

“Today, the princes of the Roman Catholic church elected as pope a man whose record has been one of unrelenting, venomous hatred for gay people.” -- Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force

“This will cause a lot of pain for many in Latin America who are knowledgeable about the destruction he caused liberation theology.” -- Maryknoll Fr. Roy Bourgeois, founder of the Washington-based School of the Americas Watch

“Pope Benedict XVI is a polarizing figure to many, who seems to prefer combativeness to compromise and compassion. Still, we wish him well.” -- Mary Grant, western regional director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests

National Catholic Reporter, April 29, 2005

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