f, as an adjunct of muddled modernism, you’re the totality of your own hype, then Pope Benedict XVI can know this of himself: He’s an avuncular intellectual, a “hardliner with a soft touch,” someone who is “gentle and reassuring.” He represents the power of ideas. He is not, word-merchants concede, an equal to his thespian predecessor (“a very spiritual showman,” says The New York Times, who established an “emotional connection” with his audience). But little Benedict, America-bound, can take solace in being called smart and detail-oriented, in being labeled kind, lucid and polite.
While pigeonholing is neither vice nor flaw (Times and Time magazine among others have produced hubbubs of words ahead of the pope’s East Coast frolic), the Benedict-praising platitudes miss the point.
Above all other things — and bear the paradox for a moment — Benedict is a Catholic pope. His impact, gentle or less so, is limited to his people. He is interesting only to the converted.
The global medusa that is the distracted world pays no heed to the musings of an aging German intellectual who dresses in flowing white but rarely ventures outside his realm. Pedophilia, in the form of Catholic priests who abuse boys, titillates and offends. But that’s voyeurism and indignation, not faith.
Which spins the wheel back to… what was the phrase? The “very spiritual showman.”
A more nuanced remembrance of Pope John Paul II — shrewder than a saint, and stronger — suggests a less flighty image, particularly in the early years, which I watched closely.
Wojtyla reinterpreted spiritual zeitgeist. He sensed that the most involving way of disseminating doctrine was to broadcast himself, and his club-of-a-billion.
The effortless superstardom of his early years (in which he visited dozens of countries and influenced events in Communist Poland by sheer force of presence) joined mystic ardor and supra-Catholic self-confidence.
He hadn’t traveled so he traveled. He liked crowds so he sought them out and reveled in them. He sensed media’s appetite for movement and fed it. Catholicism, crisis-stricken in a post-superstitious age, seemed to need antediluvian knight who could be white or black. To Africa and Asia, the continents most starved for illusions of hope, he incarnated a white one.
Transcendent, narcissistic, visionary, he gave the papacy first-person relevance outside the limiting confines of creed. Everyone in the world knew the pope. No one seemed indifferent to his Eastern European stubbornness. Many raged at his support for birth control while mingling with the starving African poor. A Roman Catholic Church semi-somnolent since the days of Pope John XXIII (he of Vatican II and the anti-nuclear “Peace on Earth” encyclical) was shocked awake.
Of the two nutrients supplied by the young John Paul, the Catholic Church is left with Benedict’s one: Intellect. He is all that is said about him: Astute, capable, intelligent and engaging. But his Vatican that belongs to believers, not the world.
According to Time (addressing American readers in the infantile second-person), Benedict likes “our pluralistic piety and even our wrangles.” Understanding how Americans reconcile religiosity with modernity might “help define his papacy.”
His papacy is already defined. Like many before it, it implicitly seeks the re-entwining of natural and secular law. It can pressure governments (foremost the Italian) accordingly while continuing to denounce the twin plagues of violence and conspicuous consumption. It can also continue its uneasy (and unconvincing) conversation with competing Islam.
In many respects, Benedict is his namesake’s successor. Pope Benedict XV, Giacomo Dalla Chiesa, presided eloquently but helplessly over World War I and its aftermath, unable to affect the course of events. “Social union, to be reasonable,” he said in a 1918 homily, “must be based on natural goodness.” World War I killed 20 million soldiers and civilians. Goodness was elusive. Dalla Chiesa, the 15th Benedict, is now a forgotten figure.
What the “very spiritual showman” knew intrinsically was that showmanship was the new reality, one which the church couldn’t ignore. Modernity, he sensed, was infected with distraction. Religious celebrity was an insidious antidote to despair. It suited his needs and those of an irrelevant, flagging church.
“Benedict’s manner is mild and humble,” wrote The Times, “his often brilliantly crafted words delivered in a soft voice (and a strong German accent in English, one of his 10 languages).”
Three years into Benedict’s papacy such pablum prose, explicatory but childlike, is necessary to make sense of a man no one cares to know well.
Consider by contrast the The Times bold first paragraph recounting Pope John Paul II’s arrival in the United States, 29 years ago in Boston.
“Pope John Paul II, exhorting Americans to ‘fulfill completely your noble destiny of service to the world,’ came to the United States today, beaming at large and affectionate crowds in the streets and urging the nation’s youth to accept discipline in place of materialism.”
Preambles were unnecessary. The pope’s song of himself was global. And a thing of the past.
— Christopher P. Winner is editor of The American.