By Fr. George Welzbacher
February 11, 2007
History is full of surprises. When, for example, the Cardinal Archbishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtila, was elected to succeed Pope John Paul the First, the brevity of whose pontificate had itself come as a shock, many in the West had never heard of the youthful churchman from Poland. And few of those outside of Poland who had taken note of his career would have had an inkling of the astonishing difference his pontificate would make both in restoring morale within the Church and in bringing down the Soviet empire.
Pope John Paul's successor, Pope Benedict XVI, has provided his critics with a surprise of his own, disconcerting the secular pundits who at the time of his election wrote him off as an out-of-touch crank, as one who, far from reversing Western Europe's disengagement from religion, would by his negativity reinforce it. In its issue of February 2, 2007 the mass-circulation German magazine Der Spiegel (The Mirror) described a startling about-face in German public opinion, particularly among those of the intelligentsia who had shown themselves conspicuously unimpressed by Pope John Paul. Indeed the derisive reception given to John Paul the Great on the occasion of his visit to Berlin in June of 1996 was rivaled only by an earlier massive display of contempt before and during his visit to Holland. Who knows? Perhaps the turnabout in German public opinion will have an impact next door.
One of our parishioners who knows his way around the Internet gave me a copy of an English translation of the Spiegel essay, courtesy of the Rene Henry blog. I reprint it here, extensively abridged. The translator was not identified.
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A Pope for the Melancholy Modern Age
By Alexander Smoitczyk
Why is a reactionary Bavarian anti-modernist in white robes so fascinating to the enlightened intellectuals among us? The riddle that is Joseph "Sepp " Ratzinger, a. k. a Benedict XVI.
The man has everything needed to induce weeping and gnashing of teeth in the most hardened left-wing liberal. He has put an end to liberation theology. He despises rock and pop music, even if people pray along with it. He has ruled out ecumenical services and stubbornly refuses to allow divorcees to take communion. He fratemizes with the anti-modemist LeFebvre disciples and pro-lifers, but gay priests are banished from the seminaries. And to top it off, all this power is expressed in ... an old man's high-pitched voice: "Cari fratelli e sorelle... "
Pope Benedict XVI is a thorn in the side of every enlightened intellectual.... "Atheists should welcome the election of Pope Benedict XVI. For this aged, scholarly, conservative, uncharismatic Bavarian theologian will surely hasten precisely the de-Christianization of Europe he aims to reverse, " predicted the British political writer Timothy Garton Ash immediately after the conclave. He was way off base.
The man from Marktl am Inn may not have packed the churches in Bavaria. But for some reason, during the 18 months following his investiture, the Roman Catholic Leader has drawn greater numbers of the curious to St. Peter's Square than did his predecessor. He is feted in Cologne and Bavaria like the German national soccer squad. And following his speech in Regensburg, he put his personal stamp on intellectual discourse urbe et orbe likefew popes before him.
What is it about Benedict? Or could it just be that the times have changed? German feature journalism, in particular, has undergone a seismic shift. Columnists are yearning blithely for the good old Latin liturgy and meeting with approval. The editor-in-chief of a new intellectual magazine has composed a "creed": "Why the return of religion is a good thing." Highbrow newspapers like Die Zeit and Frankfurter Aligemeine carefully analyze every utterance from the Apostolic Palace. All the German pundits worth their snuff are hanging on the pontiff's every word.
Intellectual interest in papal pronouncements has long been a tradition in Italy, and Joseph Ratzinger maintained an ongoing dialogue with the agnostics there. In Germany, this intellectual involvement marks a new departure. Something has happened: The country of... Marx and Nietzsche has lost faith in godlessness.
Germans in many parts of the country... may still believe that a rosary has something to do with flowers. But they are no longer indifferent to faith. Unlike just a few years ago, they take a real interest in tidings from Rome, even in a thoroughly politicized city like Berlin. The secular intelligentsia's curiosity is piqued; it is flirting with the una sancta, the "One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. "
Benedict XVI is the ideal partner for this tango ... He says: Enlightenment must be enlightened. He is an intellectual who does not replace reason with mysticism, but instead deploys it in the service of God.
For him the truth lies not in Mystical self-immersion, but right here on Earth, at his desk. For Ratzinger, action driven by reason is the trademark of true religion. Benedict is the the right pope for an age in which people have straved from the path of faith but still yearn to arrive at a destination - even if that destination is ultimately faith. He is the right popefor a melancholy, modern age.
Benedict's surprising charisma is due in part to the differentiated attitude this German has brought to the papacy in particular and to Roman Catholicism in general. Broadly held assumptions notwithstanding, Joseph Ratzinger did not want this job .... what he wanted was to go home to Bavaria and write the three fundamental treatises that only he could write, along with a study of Jesus Christ
The address he delivered as cardinal deacon to open the conclave... was intended as a [farewell]. "How many winds of doctrine have we known in recent decades, how many ideological currents, how many ways of thinking?" he lamented in the style of Cato the elder. "The small boat of thought of many Christians has often been tossed about by these waves - thrown from one extreme to the other: from Marxism to liberalism, even to libertinism; from collectivism to radical individualism; from atheism to a vague religious mysticism; from agnosticism to syncretism, and so forth."...
"Having a clear faith " was being perceived as fundamentalism, he proclaimed, "as hopelessly passe under a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as certain and which has, as its highest goal, one's own ego and one's own desires...... The popemakers in Italy elected the German professor - despite his advanced age. They believed he alone was capable of lending the truth-seeking Church an audible voice in a Europe cacophonized by transcendental illiteracy ...
The professor pope pens page after page: letters, sermons, speeches, epistles, books. Several hundred theological works already make him the most published pontiff in church history. He seizes every opportunity to put systematic theology into practice and into print. Benedict XVI is even capable of working a reference to fundamental theology into a letter of accreditation to the Andorran ambassador.
But the man can be stubborn, too, stubborn as only a German professor can be. [Vet]a speech for [political correctness]? Never. Even if it criticizes the prophet Mohammed. Ratzinger's appointment as head of the church has not really interrupted his lifelong mission He toils away at his basic conflict, pitting "truth" against the "relativism" of the modern age: The focus must hb on the human being as God's creature, not as a substitutefor God.
Worldly promises of salvation have always led people to their doom, be they the promises of the Nazis at home in Traunstein and elsewhere - or those of the Marxists and their disciples with their liberation theology .... "within this history of mankind which is ours, " Ratinzger wrote, "there will never be the absolute, ideal condition." Which more or less means: Salvation is not of this world, let's not fool ourselves, but instead let's try to live truthfully. "Many of those who are responsible for proclaiming [the truth] fear that people might recoil from excessively clear words. However, general experience proves that the opposite occurs." Benedict XVI exhorted bihops whose road had led to Rome for an ad limina visit.
It was at Auschwitz, in May, 2006, that he said, "We believe in a God of reason, not a kind of cold mathematics of the universe, but in a God who is one with love and goodness." That is an extended definition of reason, in which technological, scientific rationality harks back to the human as godly. Faith, he wrote in his first encyclical, "helps reason to better.fulfill itself to become every more fully itself ......
Ratzinger has mulled all his life over these unequal siblings, faith and reason, which explains the leniency and interest with which German cultural critics have received this pope. He is one of us....
He is a thinker, with a theology that has not changed significantly since his 1959 inaugural lecture in Bonn.... In the beginning is the Word, Logos, not blind faith. And certainly not mystical experience. Man encounters the self at the level of thought. That is why believers can communicate with non-believers. That is why the Frankfurt philosopher Juergen Habermas and Joseph Ratzinger harmonized so perfectly when they discussed the "Dialectics of Secularization" at the Catholic Academy in Munich. If the Word is a gift from God, then the theorist who champions communicative action can but nod agreement...
Benedict knows that his days on Peter's throne are numbered, and one of his closest associates is certain that this pope will not stay on until his dying breath: "Being a thinker, he will know when he is no longer capable of adequately performing the duties of his office." Time is running out. Ratzinger has been planning three reforms in the spirit of veritas, none of which is political in the true sense of the word. These are ecclesiastical reforms which radicalize the organization, penetrating to its liturgical structural and ecumenical roots.
"Beauty of the Liturgy"
The core project of Benedict's pontificate is his counter-reform of the liturgy. Even at his first World Synod of Bishops, debate centered on the... chronology, form and sequence of the Eucharist. For Ratzinger, the church crisis is a crisis of the liturgy as well.
Ratzinger is convinced that the churches have already [up-dated] themselves too much - at the expense of the sacred. As a child, he himself had found faith in the "beauty of the liturgy," back when people still prayed on their knees and the children mindlessly rattled off responses in a foreign tongue they could not understand.
If the Latin Mass (which was never formally prohibited) is resurrected, this should not be done solely to win back the traditionalists. The dramatization of the sacred- Gregorian chants, billowing incense, ritual formulas murmured in Latin, the whole marvelous mystery play with a soupcon of Dan Brown - is a unique selling point" on the faith market, and should not be thoughtlessly cast aside.
The second reform concerns ostpolitik [rapprochement with the East] in its ecumenical guise. A dialogue with the Eastern Orthodox Christians isfar more important to Pope Benedict than debating with the Anglicans or the Protestants ..
Lastly, the perestroika process inside the Vatican must continue. The number of congregations and working groups has been reduced and a non-member of the Curia - Tarcisio Cardinal Bertome of Genoa has been appointed secretary of state. The College of cardinals has been further globalized by the appointment of three new Asian members. As his own successor as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger chose the Archbishop of San Francisco, William Cardinal Levada, who is anything but a dogmatic rottweiler. Ratzinger does not need additional bite. Notwithstanding the smiles....Ratzinger has not backed away one inch from his rigid stance on socio-political issues. Marriage is forever; abortion is a crime; women are not entitled to follow the Apostles [as priests and bishops]. Modern society must abide by God's word. Period.
Ratzinger has not changed his tune; he has simply modulated his tone. As pope, he no longer has to be "Mr. No." The Catholic Church, he often notes, is not a steel body of rules, regulations and bans. Or at least, not just that. It is also a community of the loving ....
Deus caritas est, Benedict's first encyclical in January 2006, was a meditation on love.
The encyclical was a eulogy, extolling love, eroticism in marriage, and social work. He simply switched the level of abstraction and made himself more unassailable. This pope doesn't talk about condoms; he talks about exploiting people (even if it's only for a one- night stand). This pope gets to the bottom of things....
In October 2006, a star-studded colloquium at the University of Muenster discussed "The Return of the Religious" - and identified an "ego weariness" in Germany, a post- modernist upward valuation of the concept of truth: "Man cannot survive on doubt, irony and deconstruction alone, "What is left for us to believe in, if everything is open to discussion? And who is going to take us seriously?" This is the fundamental question addressed in Germany by numerous bestsellers and talk-show debates on "values," "the new Kulturkampf," "the parenting challenge"and so on.
In the post-modern age, everything was somehow OK; values were relative, and we believed that was a good thing. By September 2001[i.e., 9/11] at the latest, this belief was called into question.
There was no more room for irony.
How can truth exist in a pluralist society? Joseph Ratzinger has pondered this question all his life. And it has never been more relative than today.... And in that context, the man in the Papal Palace is right for his role. Benedict XVI ... can communicate eye-to-eye with the secular world. He already sees eye-to-eye with the spiritual one.