Unlikely centre of attraction


Pope Benedict XVI has a mysterious but very genuine appeal for Gen Y. A woman who is one of Australia's leading theologians explains why.

The celebration of World Youth Day, which must be the largest gathering of young people on the planet, begins next week in Sydney. It is expected to draw 500,000 people from Australia and around the world. At its centre is Pope Benedict XVI.

To understand why an 81-year-old cleric has such pulling power with the younger set, MercatorNet interviewed Dr Tracey Rowland, whose book Ratzinger's Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI, has just been published by Oxford University Press. According to Sydney's Cardinal George Pell, "It is a sign of the times and a portent of the future that this excellent volume was written by a young married woman" well on her way to "becoming Australia's leading theologian".

MercatorNet: Benedict XVI is 81 and doesn't have the charisma of his predecessor as Pope, John Paul II. But it is said that he draws bigger crowds and that people respond warmly to him? Why is that, do you think?

Rowland: In Rome it is said that the young people came to see John Paul II but that they come to listen to Benedict. The two pontiffs are definitely different personalities. John Paul II wanted to be an actor before he became a priest, but Benedict only ever wanted to be a priest. One was very much at home on the stage, the other is more at home in a university common room but both in their own way have been great communicators.

Benedict has had years of experience of university teaching and I think that he treats a lot of his public appearances like a tutorial. He tries to meet the faithful at a particular level of understanding and then draws them into a deeper understanding of the topic. Often he does this by taking his audience on a history tour through some intellectual debate. He explains the various positions and ties positions to the thinkers who promoted them, and then explains what the Church has taught and why. He is like a professor with a bunch of favourite students.

MercatorNet: In his Regensberg address, the Pope spoke so frankly about the Muslim approach to God that there were widespread protests. Is he the best Pope to have in an era when relations between religions are so fragile?

Rowland: The Regensburg address was a university lecture on the topic of the relationship between faith and reason. His criticism of Islam for not engaging with the heritage of the Greeks, that is, with reason and philosophy, was a reasonable comment in the context of an academic paper, it was not a provocative sound bite. He doesn't walk around making gaffes.

He is highly respected by Lutherans with whom he worked on the document on justification and he is particularly keen on improving relations with the Eastern Orthodox. Often in homilies he will refer to the ideas of some obscure saint of the Eastern Church and in so doing sends a message that he acknowledges and values the contributions of the Eastern branch of Christianity. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, also treats him as a respected intellectual peer. So, notwithstanding his comparison of the Church of England to a gentleman's debating club, I don't think he has done any damage there either.

His basic position is that no one gets anywhere by fudging the truth. It is best to say precisely what the Church teaches without any equivocation. People respect him for this, and they know that if he says something he really means it. They know that they are not getting spin or being schmoozed.

MercatorNet: I noticed that Benedict's first encyclical contained a joke -- not a great joke, to my mind, but it must have been a Papal first. You get the sense that Benedict wants to present Christianity as a joyful way of life. How is he doing that?

Rowland: Yes, this is true. When he was a young priest he was astonished to run across so many people who thought of Christianity as a set of rules and regulations which had to be followed in order to avoid eternal damnation. The word he uses for this is ‘moralism'. He often reminds people that Christianity is not primarily an ethical system, it is participation in the life of the Trinity, and in particular, an encounter with the Person of Christ. It is meant to be enriching and joyful. He doesn't deny the possibility that some people might end up in hell, but he thinks it is rather neurotic to think of Christianity as an insurance policy against eternal damnation. He regards the various prohibitions in Jewish and Christian teaching as merely the flipside of the actualisation of a great 'yes'.

He therefore tries to focus on the positives, on what an authentic Christian spirituality can be. He often appeals to beautiful works of art and music as epiphanies of God's glory and illustrations of what can be created by those who have faith. He wants people to fall in love with the beauty and truth and goodness of Christian Revelation, rather than living in fear of it. It's as though proponents of moralism have confused Aslan with the White Witch. His focus on the works of Christian art and the beauty of the lives of Christian saints is his antidote to the moralist mentality.

I think this relates back to his interest in overcoming moralism and presenting Christianity as a personal encounter with Christ. Unless people have some idea of who Christ is, they are unlikely to have much of a relationship with Him.

MercatorNet: "The dictatorship of relativism" is a phrase coined by Benedict which has been widely repeated. But if you unpack it, it's not that clear. Relativism sounds anarchic, not tyrannical. What does he mean?

Rowland: When people hear the word ‘relativism' they often think that it is a synonym for tolerance. They think that there is no dominant paradigm of anything and that it is a good thing that people tend to disagree about the truth and believe many different things. Contemporary cultural diversity, and in particular the diversity of moral frameworks, is regarded as a post-modern virtue.

However Benedict tries to demonstrate that when Christianity is rejected, social practices and the cultures which they foster are not theologically neutral. They carry within them an atheistic logic. The more pervasive this logic becomes the more our social life resembles a jungle with its survival of the fittest principles. In such cultures the weak and the poor are systematically hurt. Adolf Hitler understood this. He described Christianity and Judaism as religions designed to protect the weak from the strong. He thought this was a bad thing. Benedict thinks it is a really great thing. He is interested in the relationships between truth and love and what happens when truth is replaced by ideology and love is reduced to emotional drives.

MercatorNet: I'm intrigued by the fact that Benedict published a book of theology after being elected. That must be another first. The topic was "Jesus of Nazareth", not one of the things normally associated with him, like liturgy, or relativism, or Catholic discipline. What's your reading of that?

Rowland: I think this relates back to his interest in overcoming moralism and presenting Christianity as a personal encounter with Christ. Unless people have some idea of who Christ is, they are unlikely to have much of a relationship with Him. Our primary source of knowledge of Him comes from scripture but a problem here has been the tendency of some scholars to forge a division between the Christ of faith and the Christ of history.

Often people leave theology institutes believing that they can know next to nothing about Christ after He has been deconstructed through various hermeneutical lenses. He is like a Russian doll, layer after layer has been peeled away leaving nothing but air in the centre. The introductory section of Jesus of Nazareth therefore makes a number of valuable observations about biblical hermeneutics as preparatory material to his presentation of the Christ of scriptures. This work is also quite personal. It is Benedict's way of saying, well, this is what or rather who He is to me, and these are my reasons for understanding Him this way.

MercatorNet: I don't know if bookies take bets on this sort of thing, but what are the odds that Benedict will kickstart a new springtime for the Christian message at World Youth Day?

Rowland: I think Benedict has been kicking quite a few goals, even though as a boy he preferred hiking and fishing to soccer. Youth respond well to the fact that he is a genuine person and they can tell he is bright. They refer to him affectionately as "Benny" or "Big Benny" and make jokes about German shepherds. I think that Catholic youth are rather proud of him and that he will inject a sense of joy and confidence in the Christian message.

I recently met an Oxford educated girl in her late 20s. She had just finished reading an interview with Hans Kung in which he said that people need to remember that Benedict grew up in a police station. She just looked at me and said, so what's his problem?

Precisely because Generation Y is intimately acquainted with the dictatorship of relativism the youth are open to Benedict's analysis and antidotes. They have been the guinea-pigs in the social experiments of the generation of '68. They have an inside understanding of his concerns.



Tracey Rowland. " Unlikely centre of attraction." MercatorNet (July 8, 2008).

Reprinted with permission of the Tracey Rowland and MercatorNet.com.

MercatorNet is an innovative internet magazine analysing current affairs and key international news and trends which touch its readers' daily lives.


Tracey Rowland is Dean of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Melbourne. She holds a Masters degree in political philosophy from Melbourne University, a doctorate from the Divinity School of Cambridge University and a Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome. She is the author of Ratzinger's Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI.

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