Ethics & Public Policy Center

A New Pope Must Face Old Problems

Published in The Los Angeles Times on December 30, 2005



Pope Benedict XVI has celebrated his first Christmas as bishop of Rome, giving his blessing “to the city and the world.” His retired brother, a priest and distinguished choir director, came to stay with him; perhaps the Ratzinger brothers played Mozart duets on the Steinway that the piano company recently donated to the papal apartment. And now, the pontiff may be engaged in a little post-Christmas relaxation. Yet for some who were most enthusiastic eight months ago about the choice of Joseph Ratzinger as pope, this Christmas season has continued a period of waiting — some becoming a bit impatient — for Benedict XVI to fulfill more of the promise of his election.

It’s not that the pope has been inactive since April. He has been a luminously clear teacher, the kind who gently compels others to think, even to reconsider.

His sermons are miniature masterpieces of Christian doctrine, the refined reflections of a man who has thoroughly mastered the Bible and 2,000 years of Christian tradition.

Then there was the lengthy free-for-all he had with Italian priests of the Alpine Diocese of Aosta in July; there, he spoke in an intriguing way of Europe as a world weary of its own culture, and he counseled European Christians to be patient as they traveled through what he described as “this tunnel, this underpass of arid secularism.”

The pope’s recently released statement for the World Day of Peace on Jan. 1 was a careful, penetrating analysis of the lethal combination of nihilism and fundamentalism that lies behind so much of modern terrorism. His widely anticipated first encyclical, reported to be ready for publication in mid-January, will likely be a challenging reflection on the false loves that mar 21st century life, viewed through the prism of the Christian gospel of love.

The new pope has also displayed a compelling public personality. He held the attention of more than a million young people at World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany, in August. In September and October, he consistently drew larger crowds to the weekly papal general audience than his great predecessor, John Paul II, had drawn at the height of the Jubilee Year of 2000. Those who worried in April that the shy, scholarly Benedict would not be able to summon the enthusiasm and affection that was showered on John Paul can relax: In his distinctive way, Benedict XVI is also a leader who commands attention.

Yet this is what those who actually knew Joseph Ratzinger — as distinct from the caricature of Joseph Ratzinger — expected last April. No one who knew the man doubted that this would be a pontificate of doctrinal clarity and insightful analysis of contemporary culture.

But something more was anticipated — that the new pope would take in hand, and soon, a reform of the personnel and practice of the Roman Curia, the Catholic Church’s central bureaucracy. More than a few of the cardinals who rallied to support him in one of the shortest conclaves in modern history did so because they believed Ratzinger, having spent more than two decades in the Curia, would know what was broken and would fix it.

That may yet come. The pope is a careful, prudent man, not given to impulsive action or premature decisions. At the same time, it was precisely because he was not a product of the current Curial system, but rather a scholar who had to struggle to get things accomplished within it, that his supporters expected him to bring to the papacy a well-developed sense of where changes, even dramatic ones, need to be made in both structure and personnel. Those supporters are waiting, now a little anxiously, for serious change to be implemented.

Then there is the question of the appointment of bishops — and the volatile but unavoidable question of whether the church ought not devise criteria and processes for removing bishops who are manifestly incapable of leadership. Whether Benedict XVI undertakes a far-reaching reform of the Catholic Church’s Roman bureaucracy or not — and my bet remains that he will, although perhaps slowly — his papacy will be judged in no small part on his shrewdness in choosing bishops and his courage in facing questions of episcopal failure. With half a dozen major appointments coming in the next three years in the United States alone, the stakes are very high.

Pope Benedict XVI has delivered, beautifully, as a papal teacher. Now comes the hard part for this man who wanted nothing more in April than to be spending this Christmas season back home in Bavaria.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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