he Pole and the German can’t be compared.
That’s for starters.
This is what the Pole did. Facing an indifferent crowd on a cold night in October 1978, he gave among the most compelling acceptance speeches in modern history. His expansive words and engaging character made it clear that his would be a physical papacy guided by the idea of motion and the motion of ideas.
The German, a longtime friend of the Pole, behaved differently. He met a cheering, friendly throng — one predisposed to honor him after the Pole’s unbearably long infirmity — and told the assembly he was humbled. More was awaited but nothing came. On to the blessing, said the German. And that was all he said.
The rest, it soon became clear, would emerge didactically, from meditation.
His first encyclical, with carnal love and charity underscored, has so far received rave reviews. This is in part because the German had been labeled doctrinaire and intransigent. He was the watchdog, the conservative, the church enforcer — the monikers proliferated faster than anyone’s informed sense of his character.
A church hardhat in the minds of part-time reporters, he now sounds better than his press. But he never wrote his press. Others did, and chose cliché.
What a difference an encyclical makes.
The New York Times spoke of a “flow of clear, rational, often lovely words.” It added, a bit wide-eyed: “In comparison with John Paul, often referred to here in Rome as sort of mystic, Benedict is unfailingly rational, realistic and clear-eyed about the problems in the church.”
The London Observer went further. “A Rottweiler,” it wrote, “[has] changed its bark and bite.” The Guardian spoke of a pope who had “thawed his previously chilly image” with a “warm rumination on the nature of love.”
The Washington Post (and others) described a pontiff who “had returned to basics,” much more like a pope of “medium or distant past,” unlike “the avid voyager and flamboyant John Paul.” The Post quoted a church historian, Alberto Meloni: “It’s clarity he’s after, not stardom.”
Spain’s El Pais, somewhat closer to gravity (and alliteration), called the encyclical “an eminently doctrinal document,” pointing out the German’s remark — deeper into the text — that the church stay out of political battles over social justice.
But the Catholic News Service struck the truest chord. The German was not trying to convert the world, the agency said. His message went out to “the Catholic faithful.”
The German’s words were spoken to the same cheering admirers who hailed him in St. Peter’s Square nearly a year ago, and whom he quickly hushed so he could move ahead to more a more urgent protocol — the papal blessing.
Create a Golden Boy and you’ll be amazed when he snarls — not in the script. Create a Rottweiler and you’ll be surprised when its tone is gentle, sage, and compassionate — also not in the script.
Scripts are useless. Expectation is everything. Context can help inform expectation.
The German, working for the Pole, was asked to guard the faith. This he did diligently. The pope is a general, his orders obeyed. Freed of his less than pleasant encumbrance, the German is now his own man. He has returned to the manners of theology, which is his vocation. The bad dog was never as bad as depicted. The bark and bite are simply no longer part of the job description. The chill was (and remains) reticence. But the German finally knows he’s pope.
The Pole was a high-octaine pastor with a thumping intellect that required constant human engagement; the German is a library thinker, his probity aimed at other thinkers, and teachers.
The Pole lifted a stagnant church by the scruff of its neck and shook it out to his own tough liking, mostly in the view of millions. His accomplishment in those early years transcends Catholicism and the papacy.
No, the Pole and the German cannot be compared, and should not be.
But there’s a chagrining world out there, one that the German — it is clear — can get at only through words, as lovely as they may be. While that might suffice for Catholics, it could fall short among those stiil rapt by the ways of the transcender, his exhortations imbedded in the many nations he called his own.
Christopher P. Winner’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. See