hen the Spanish psychiatrist got the news, he did not behave as the man of action he was. He needed time, which he took. His speech came out in lucid snippets. His eyes glossed slightly. Occasionally he winced, furrowing cheeks and forehead. “Twenty minutes,” he told assembled media in his Iberian Italian. Venti minuti.
To mint an announcement he had first to compose himself. These were not normal circumstances. Haste was inappropriate.
He recalls his thinking on April 2, 2006 over dinner in an apartment in Rome’s lush Monte Verde neighborhood. His tone is not dramatic but wan. Accepting the news was difficult, he says. Very, molto. He repeats the word, drawing it out: Molto.
After 20 minutes alone, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the papal press spokesman for two decades, finally faced the press.
The pope was dead, he said.
Interpreting the Vatican a year after the death of Pope John Paul II is an complex undertaking. The Roman Catholic Church is an arabesque of doctrine and dogma, theater and commerce, compassion and rigor. It is arcane and operatic, open and closed. It peddles ambiguity and paradox using the beneficent mystery of spirituality to lay down rules of natural order and premeditated enthusiasm.
Grasping the Church’s phonetic loyalty to tradition, how a decade is tantamount to a century, is central to understanding its deliberate progress.
Navarro-Valls, for example, still occupies his post. The most recent papal succession has produced no great upheavals, no sweeping purges; substitutions in administration, met typically with clatter and bombast in parliamentary and presidential systems, have been made quietly, on the sedated fringes of religious bureaucracy.
The new pope, Benedict XVI, the former German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, though hardly as energetic as his predecessor in his prime — Ratzinger turns 79 in April — has won praise simply by sidestepping the orthodoxy that critics preemptively associated with a papacy bearing his name. Instead, the restrained Ratzinger has worked like a museum curator dusting off objects left to idle. From the beginning, his manner has been cheerfully self-effacing in the vein of Pope John Paul I, who ruled for 34 days in 1978.
Embarrassed by the throngs gathered in St. Peter’s Square to applaud his April election, Ratzinger dissipated the thrall. I am humbled, he said. I am unworthy, he added. Let us now move on to the blessing. That was all.
He would not be a feel-good pope.
But the positives, often overlooked, are notable.
Day-to-day continuity within the Rome church, marred by Pope John Paul II’s deepening and debilitating illness, has improved under Ratzinger’s stewardship. The new pope has traveled to Germany, met engagingly with critics (including liberal Swiss theologian Hans Küng, with whom he’s been at odds for decades), conducted an effective Synod, named 15 new cardinals, and explored human sexuality in a graceful first encyclical. His engaging presence at Rome’s Via Crucis ceremony in Rome definitively yanked the Vatican free of a crippling image: the church he ran behind the scenes during John Paul’s protracted twilight he now manages with appreciated firmness.
By all objective measures his first year has been a good one.
What then has the Church gained in Benedict?
Foremost, it has an entrenched, respected and stalwart transitional figure who perceives his job as a paradigm for consolidation. A Vatican careerist who knows the ropes, he rose to prominence in 1981 when the pope named him to head the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He does not proselytize unduly. Aware of the internal drift and distraction caused by John Paul’s public debilitation, he seeks to park and stabilize the Vatican in advance of future movement. He knows such movement does not belong to his essence or his mandate. Notwithstanding the evangelical nature of Christian expansion and the hindering shortfall of new priests, he remains bent more on reassuring than converting.
By his own account, Benedict’s obligation to his times is to reinforce credence, to remind and to teach, not to alter the tone of the teaching or increase the range or intensity of its broadcasting. His audience is what Max Weber, very much a Protestant, once called “a confessional association of believing individuals.” His consideration of the role of national politics is similarly circumspect. He seeks to keep the Church from interfering egregiously, or seeming to. He has no wish to remake the wheel, lest he err and carry the associated blame. “The way I see my essential mission,” he told Polish television last October, “is not to issue countless new documents but to ensure the documents we already have are assimilated.” John Paul, he said in the same interview, “was fatherly with me.”
It is a tone of deference and respect he has maintained unstintingly for a year, all the while expediting efforts to beatify John Paul.
Benedict’s indebtedness to continuity and his careful affection for understatement calls to mind a story told by the late Italian Cardinal Carlo Confalonieri, the commanding dean of the College of Cardinals under Pope Paul VI. Confalonieri was present at the signing of the original 1929 Lateran Pact between Benito Mussolini and Pope Pius XI. The accord stipulated relations between the Vatican and the Italian state. According to Confalonieri, Pius grudgingly respected Mussolini. “He was a Christian. It cannot be denied. He also had great respect for the Church, and although he kept his authoritarian airs, he also had great respect for the pope. So when Hitler announced he was coming to Rome in 1938, the pope decided he would go to [his summer retreat at] Castel Gandolfo a month early. It was May. He told the Apostolic Nuncio to the Italian state that if asked about his absence he could tell Hitler: ‘The air of Castel Gandolfo makes the pope feel better, especially when in Italy a cross is being honored that is not Christ’s.’”
Benedict’s prudent temperament fits into such a story, in which competent indirectness prevails.
But comparisons between the early reign of John Paul and Benedict are largely unworkable.
John Paul’s was a physical pontificate, the first of its kind on a symphonic scale. Vatican caretakers dryly separate the two men: the vigorous, young Karol Wojtyla, the former Archbishop of Krakow, they say, was a pastor and a preacher; Ratzinger, who for years headed the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog body, behaves as tutor and mentor. One is not more adept or better than the other; they’re just not comparable.
But such an approach surrenders John Paul’s zeitgeist to the effacements of coming sainthood, paradoxically injuring the sweep of his papacy. John Paul intuitively regenerated his office. No book, not even the Bible, presaged his sonic accomplishment. For the first time in the modern era the pope was unabashedly male — audacious, ambitious, perspiring, and sonorously true to his gender. He was also charming, vain, and irrepressibly demanding of due deference. He made himself at home in slums and skyscrapers. “Absolute authority,” he said soon after his election, “… is sweet and gentle. It never speaks the language of force.” Sweet or not, the authority was evident.
That is not the case with Benedict, who has been largely (and unfairly) diminished by the news media since his election, making Navarro-Valls’ job simpler but narrower in scope. Benedict fails to covet the lens. He has also made it clear he disparages loud or audacious news. Also, his age falls on the wrong side of secular celebrity. Early on, television deemed him interesting but marginal, a response that no doubt appeals to his self-effacing side.
In fairness, Benedict’s ecclesiastical behavior, which returns the papacy to the mellow formality of the 1950s and 60s, is a more typical interpretation of the office than the one taken by his willful predecessor. John Paul’s swift ascent into larger-than-life status was both extraordinary and extraordinarily fortuitous. He was helped by his nationality and the Cold War. No foreign pope had been elected since the 15th century and a communist country with an enduring inferiority complex seemed an unlikely candidate to provide one. Moreover, Europe of 1978 hosted a social drama pitting Christian democrats against Socialist atheists. With its Communist leadership, Catholic majority, and incipient labor reform movement led by Lech Walesa, communist Poland was a laboratory for the fate of Europe. Mieczyslaw F. Rakowski, Poland’s last Communist prime minister, explained the response to Wojtyla’s election in terms of “collective national intoxication.” This was plausible at a time when Soviet paranoia controlled Eastern national identity.
In June 1979, Pope John Paul II visited Poland for the first time. His Warsaw arrival drew 10 million people, more than a quarter of the country’s population. People craved to behold him. Such obsessive consensus made it hard to tell pastor from politician, populist from priest. The pope was a demonstrably passionate world leader and a conduit for poor and disenfranchised communities that channeled their otherwise unfocused hopes into his abstract promise. His tireless travels were the closest thing to Catholicism on the march — albeit benignly — since the Middle Ages. He bent to kiss the tarmac of the lands he arrived in, a contagious gesture of humility and belonging; he held infants and stroked faces. A Church composed for millennia of aloof wise men and warriors finally harbored a protagonist who articulated visible joy. Seldom had politics and religion, the secular and spiritual tenets, been so gladly difficult to differentiate.
The pope’s scorn could be just as cutting. Most dissenters (including followers of Liberation Theology in Latin America and renegade Latin Mass Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in France) were disdained, censured or left without recourse. The bulk of the punishing was left to Ratzinger, whose job it was to hold the line. Not deferring to John Paul in Church matters was usually an unwise strategy; he could be harsh and abrupt. Notre Dame theologian and priest Richard P. McBride recalled a 1984 meeting in which replacements for the late Cardinal Terence Cooke of New York and Humberto Medieros of Boston, both moderates, were discussed at length in Rome. As the pontiff acknowledged suggestions, his face reddened. “At that point,” said McBride, “the pope rose, took off his papal ring, laid it on the table, and barked: ‘No more weaklings!’” In 1989, John Paul met Mikhail Gorbachev, an epochal encounter in its own right. John Paul’s first decade, including the trips to Poland and the fall of the Berlin Wall, mesmerized backers and critics alike, a truth Navarro-Valls no doubt considered in his 20 minutes of solitude.
That Benedict emerges from Germany, which bore Luther and warred with Rome, puts his cultural roots in territories generally unsympathetic to the Catholic Church. Unlike John Paul, he has no national religious enthusiasm from which to siphon. He asks the same fundamental question asked by John Paul — Have we not made a fetish of material security without delving into human and spiritual security? — but fails to wake the unconverted from their stupor. He has an unofficial Internet fan club — ratzingerfanclub.com — that sorts out his writings and pronoucements over the years (an “I heart my German Shepherd” bumper sticker is available, as are caps with the word “Papist.”) Sensitive to pop culture, the webmaster gingerly explains it’s unclear whether Ratzinger actually dislikes the Harry Potter series. Three years ago, while still a cardinal, he wrote to a German author mentioning that the books contained “subtle seductions” that “deeply distort Christianity in the soul.” Overall, Benedict’s standing is strongest among believers who applaud his personal reputation for protecting the rigorous grammar of faith.
Sensitive to relativism of all kinds, Benedict always eschewed comparison with John Paul. He told Polish television his job was to apply and affirm what was already written. John Paul wrote his first encyclical five months after his election, addressing social justice and human rights. Benedict waited nine months before delivering his first, selecting the nature of sexual and spiritual love as a theme. Even in this poetic choice of subject matter, Benedict appeared to accept the role of marriage counselor to John Paul’s emergency room surgeon.
Yet Benedict’s prose was tender and candid. Love between man and woman he described as a state “where body and soul are inseparably joined, and human beings glimpse an apparently irresistible promise of happiness.” And later: “Eros, reduced to pure ‘sex,’ has become a commodity, a mere ‘thing’ to be bought and sold, or rather man himself becomes a commodity.” Finally, and poignantly: “There is no escape from the dilemma of being a man.” The essay won over much of the press (which had lost interest since his summer trip to Germany) and suppressed lingering doubt that his goal was to encourage inquisitional tactics within a Church already struggling to win converts outside the Third World. Here was a police chief who had been elected president, said one Jesuit, adopting a secular analogy. Why should he hew to old rules when his new job conferred a far wider array of choices?
Since cardinals probe leadership styles in their selection of a pope, the shift from John Paul to Benedict seemed natural enough, and safe. Pope John XXIII, a diplomat of peasant stock, was gregarious; the intellectual, Paul VI, like Pius XII, preferred the shade.
John Paul’s illness had gradually tired out the Church — though decency prevented such an admission. Engendering another long reign (a natural impulse after John Paul I’s 34-day papacy) no longer seemed unappealing. From what’s known of the April conclave the final candidates were Ratzinger and Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a diffident Jesuit. Rewarding an aging and confident warden such as Ratzinger — on the outer edges of papal eligibility — made common sense.
The logic suffers only when juxtaposed with the inflamed state of the world, where Christianity and Islam are increasingly at odds. It is interesting to contemplate how a healthy John Paul, early in his reign, might have responded to Islamic militancy.
Part of the answer lies in the pope’s numerous trips to Africa and south Asian nations, many of them predominantly Muslim. In these visits, he was part missionary, part broker. His risk-taking disarmed many non-Christians. He mingled among “have-not” populations, a humbling exercise few major religious or secular leaders now undertake systematically. He controversially supported the lay order Opus Dei because many of its members were astute and infuential. His spiritual stature neutered secular need to resist his charms or associate them with Western or Northern bias. The absence of such an ethically dominant figure in the 21st century is revealing, particularly because the Rome Church was the last to provide one. Benedict’s call for religious tolerance during the row over the publishing of images of the Prophet Mohammed barely made it into most news reports on the crisis. His words lacked the viceral ballast of the previous papacy.
Benedict’s position on European multiculturalism, extrapolated from his writings, falls on the rigid side of natural law. “Europe needs a new — certainly skeptical and humble — acceptance of itself, if it wants to survive,” he wrote in “Values in a Time of Upheaval,” published two years ago. “The ever more passionately demanded multiculturalism is often above all a renunciation of what is one’s own, a fleeing from what is one’s own.”
It is a Christian Europe to which Benedict refers. In fulfilling its wish to see a borderless Europe rid of atheistic, totalitarian communism, the Church has unwittingly opened itself to more complex religious challenges in the form of the entrenchment of immigrant Muslims. Benedict’s Vatican — while pledging pan-religious ecumenism — has no pilgrim to navigate through contemporary rifts.
Very possibly the post-September 11 rift between the Christian and Muslim worlds and the inner divide that further separates their extreme fringes, not to mention the juxtaposed role of Judaism, would be too much for any pope to bridge without incident. It remains a fact that between 1979 and 2000, when the pope’s health declined precipitously, the Vatican offered the world a moral authority figure largely removed from the self-interested prejudices of national and foreign policy.
So what lies ahead for Benedict, who repeatedly credits his predecessor but refuses to do much more than ensure his legacy? His first year — quiet, efficient, workmanlike — is probably a clue to the tone of those that remain. His travels, when undertaken, will be official, not pastoral. His appeals, when fervent, will be circumspect. He will not betray his sophisticated sense of administration, which second to theology is what he knows best.
A bit of history helps in this regard.
In 1972, Ratzinger was dean of the University of Regensburg and advised German bishops. In March, Pope Paul VI named him Archbishop of Munich. The appointment, he wrote, “seemed to be the connection between my previous task as teacher and my new mission. Despite all the differences in modality, what is involved was and remains the same: to follow truth, to be at its service.”
Benedict’s papacy is a thinker’s task, a carpenter’s job, and a true custodianship. He has no wish to build a thousand new houses; only to ensure the one he lives in is no worse for wear when he leaves it.