Perspective: The Real Benedict

Published April 25, 2005



<msoNormal$3>Judging from the hysteria in some quarters after his election, you might have thought Pope Benedict XVI was ordering boxes of freshly polished thumbscrews to be brought to the papal apartments from the bowels of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (“… formerly known as the Inquisition…”)—while concurrently issuing orders for the rusty guillotine that served the 19th-century Papal States to be hauled out of storage and reassembled in the Cortile San Damaso of the Apostolic Palace. All of which, of course, fits the regnant caricature of Joseph Ratzinger as “God’s Rottweiler.” To which those who know him can only say, “Rot.”

I’ve had the privilege of being in conversation with the new pope for 17 years. He is one of only two men I know who, in answering a question, pauses, reflects—and then speaks in complete paragraphs (in his fourth language). Like his great papal predecessor, he has a searching curiosity about ideas, arguments, books and personalities. African, Asian and Latin American cardinals—who may have formed a substantial part of the coalition that elected him—describe him as having been the best listener in the Roman Curia, an environment that too often treats senior churchmen from south of the equator as children.

The new pope has a nicely self-deprecating and intellectually fine-edged sense of humor. I once kidded him about having just seen a photograph of young Professor Ratzinger in a wide, ’60s-style tie rather than the usual clerical collar. The cardinal, dressed as always in a simple black cassock, laughed and said, “You see, it’s like the Holy Father taught in ‘Veritatis Splendor’ [John Paul’s encyclical on the moral life]: situations change, but the ‘substance’ stays the same.”

Joseph Ratzinger is also remarkably self-effacing. No senior churchman gave up more of himself to serve John Paul II. Abandoning any hope of pursuing his major theological projects, he stayed in Rome for more than 20 years, serving a pope who refused his resignation on at least two occasions. As I said to a colleague after John Paul’s funeral, “Next month, Ratzinger will either be back in Bavaria, happily retired and working in his library, or he’ll be pope.” I haven’t the slightest doubt which future he would have preferred. Neither should anyone else. Still, his acceptance of the humanly crushing burden of the See of Peter tells us something important about the man: like John Paul II, this is a Christian radical who long ago handed his life over to the will of God, manifest through the call of the Church. Which is another reason why the conventional “liberal/conservative” taxonomy doesn’t apply here.

In my experience, the new pope—a man who loves his priesthood and who believes deeply in the bishop’s office as an office of paternity—is strikingly unclerical: indeed, far less clerical than some mediagenic cardinals who seem to think of theirs as a splendidly exclusive men’s club. On Thursday mornings during his Roman years, Joseph Ratzinger could be found celebrating mass in the chapel of the Collegio Teutonico in Vatican City for a variegated congregation of seminarians, tourists, pilgrims and the curious, usually from the German-speaking world. After mass, Ratzinger would meet-and-greet for as long as time permitted before repairing upstairs to a breakfast of rolls, coffee, and conversation with the theology students in residence there. One quickly got the sense that this was a man who badly missed the classroom, the exchange of ideas, the debate—and even the chaffing—that make intellectual life come alive.

His older brother, Georg, also a priest, was the longtime director of the noted Regensburg Cathedral Choir; music, and the passion of his father’s anti-Nazi convictions, are recurring themes in the new pope’s memories of childhood and adolescence. Yet here is another surprise for cartoonists of the dour Ratzinger: he’s a Mozart man, which I take to be an infallible sign of someone who is, at heart, a joyful person.

His papal name, Benedict, reflects his devotion to the founder of Western monasticism and his conviction that Benedict’s heirs, the Christian monks of what are conventionally called the “Dark Ages,” preserved classical culture when the Roman world was imploding. Then, by marrying classical culture to Biblical culture, those dedicated Christian scholar-workers helped create what we know as “Europe”—or, more broadly, “the West.” As I’ve talked with him, it’s not pessimism (another cartoon category), but a sturdy, Augustinian, Christian realism that has led Benedict XVI to caution the 21st century that it risks becoming a new kind of Dark Age: one in which radical moral relativism makes public debate about public goods impossible; one in which human genius in the life sciences (which could produce great advances in healing) in fact produces a calamitous descent into Huxley’s brave new world. That same Christian realism is the prism through which he absorbed the lessons of the second world war—a moment of colossal human wickedness driven by the misbegotten marriage of pagan ideology and modern technology.

Rather than his building monastic enclaves against the barbarians, though, I expect Pope Benedict XVI to challenge his fellow Christians to convert their cultures and to rebuild the moral foundations of the free society. He will, then, be a different kind of “Benedict.” But, as he once joked with me, the “substance” will remain the same—the conviction that, because of God’s mercy and grace, sanctity is the highest of human adventures.

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


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