TCS Daily


Benedict XVI

By Stephen Bainbridge - April 20, 2005 12:00 AM

What will be the driving concerns of Benedict XVI's pontificate? As I ponder that question, two key facts stick out:

        1. The College of Cardinals chose a European
        2. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger chose the name Benedict

I suspect those two facts are closely connected and tell us a lot about the concerns that drove this conclave.

Consider those with whom former Cardinal Ratzinger will share the name Benedict. St. Benedict of Narisia is the patron saint of Europe. Benedict XV, the last pope to bear that name, was a peacemaker who sought to end World War I. More importantly for present purposes, however, Benedict XV was deeply concerned with protecting and preserving the Church from the strains imposed by modernism and liberalism.

As such, I suspect this will be an inward-looking pontificate far more concerned with tending the flock than with reforming the world outside it. To be sure, Benedict XV continued development of the social teaching of the Church, but if the College of Cardinals had wished to emphasize the social justice legacy of John Paul II with its broad engagement with such issues as the conflict between Marxism and capitalism, the impact of globalization, poverty, and so on, a far more logical choice would have been one of the Latin American candidates.

Instead, the choice of a European who has taken the name of Europe's patron saint tells me that the key issues of this pontificate will be the role of the Church in the West, especially in Europe.

Increasingly, Europe is a post-Christian society. Europeans seem to want the Church to be available for major life events like christenings, marriages, and funerals ("hatched, matched and dispatched"), but almost never otherwise darken the door of a parish church. At the same time, the Islamic population of Europe is burgeoning, not just through immigration but also through conversions of disillusioned Catholics. The choice of Ratzinger tells me that this is the issue the conclave thought is the key issue facing the Church in at least the near term.

Benedict XVI is well-positioned to lead the Church's engagement with Europe and the rest of the post-Christian parts of the West. It is an issue, after all, to which he has given great attention over the years.

In God and the World: A Conversation with Peter Seewald, for example, then-Cardinal Ratzinger predicted that the Western Roman Catholic Church (and indeed all strains of Christianity) were shrinking and essentially would "have to start over again" with a new missionary mission: We will have to be missionaries, above all in the sense that we keep before the eyes of society those values that ought to form its conscience, values that are the basis of its political existence and of a truly human community.

It is the prospect that Benedict XVI in fact will strive to keep the moral teachings of the Church "before the eyes of society" that is driving so much of the hysteria that met his selection. Consider the writer Andrew Sullivan's reaction to the elevation of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger:

        "It would be hard to over-state the radicalism of this decision. It's not simply 
        a continuation of John Paul II. It's a full-scale attack on the reformist 
        wing of the church. ... The space for dissidence, previously tiny, is now 
        extinct. And the attack on individual political freedom is just beginning."

And then there was this comment:

        "[Ratzinger] raised the stakes even further by his extraordinarily bold homily 
        at the beginning of the conclave, where he all but declared a war on modernity, 
        liberalism (meaning modern liberal democracy of all stripes) and freedom of 
        thought and conscience."

One would think that Benedict is going to unveil some of those divisions about which Stalin so famously asked and launch a Blitzkrieg against Western democracy. (The Blitzkrieg reference is especially appropriate given the fraudulent Nazi references that so many of Benedict's old and new critics are retailing.)

In fact, Benedict XVI has "described the American model of church-state relations as more hospitable to religious truth and institutions than European models."

Also consider what then-Cardinal Ratzinger wrote in his Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding The Participation of Catholics in Political Life, which most observers saw as being directed straight at the US 2004 Presidential campaign:

        "It is commendable that in today's democratic societies, in a climate of 
        true freedom, everyone is made a participant in directing the body politic. 
        Such societies call for new and fuller forms of participation in public life 
        by Christian and non-Christian citizens alike. Indeed, all can contribute, 
        by voting in elections for lawmakers and government officials, and in other 
        ways as well, to the development of political solutions and legislative 
        choices which, in their opinion, will benefit the common good. The life of a 
        democracy could not be productive without the active, responsible 
        and generous involvement of everyone, 'albeit in a diversity and 
        complementarity of forms, levels, tasks, and responsibilities.'

        "... The consequence of this fundamental teaching of the Second Vatican 
        Council is that 'the lay faithful are never to relinquish their participation 
        in 'public life', that is, in the many different economic, social, legislative, 
        administrative and cultural areas, which are intended to promote organically 
        and institutionally the common good.' This would include the promotion 
        and defense of goods such as public order and peace, freedom and equality, 
        respect for human life and for the environment, justice and solidarity."

The Note also exposed as canard the claim that Ratzinger would seek to impose a single vision of Catholic participation in society:

        "... the Church's Magisterium does not wish to exercise political power or 
        eliminate the freedom of opinion of Catholics regarding contingent questions."

Does this sound like someone who will, as Sullivan claims, wage "war on" "modern liberal democracy"? Of course not. Granted, the new Pontiff is no fan of extending American-style democracy to the inner workings of the Catholic Church or incorporating American-style moral relativism into the teachings of the Church. Yet, in the political sphere, Benedict XVI demonstrably recognizes that there is legitimate room for disagreement on how one operationalizes all but the most basic Church teachings, such as the gospel of life, and that even there Catholics may in appropriate instances vote for politicians who do not share the Church's view on that central tenet.

Benedict XVI's role is thus likely to more closely resemble the Old Testament Prophets who told truth to power than the Renaissance Popes who sought to establish themselves as temporal powers. Unfortunately, standing for truth will be a message that a lot of American and European moral relativists won't want to hear, which is precisely why Benedict has a lot of missionary work to do.

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