Rome's Radical ConservativeMICHAEL NOVAK
The election of Cardinal Josef Ratzinger as pope was John Paul II's last gift to the Roman Catholic Church.
Cardinal Ratzinger's selection as pope, however, has been less heartily welcomed by many commentators in Europe and the United States, who have quickly characterized him as an "authoritarian," a "watchdog" and, most peculiarly, a "neoconservative."
But this is a severe misreading of the man and shows that his critics paid little attention to that sermon, how he connected with the million or so young people who turned out, led not by enthusiasm, but by a remarkable sense of prayer, devotion and respectful silence.
The new pope will not be a clone of the old. I've spoken to him several times over the last 40 years, and he is a much shyer man, quieter, more like a country pastor or a scholar than like an actor striding across all history as his stage. When one approaches him, he seems to back up an inch or two in diffidence. His voice is much softer than one expects.
Yet his ideas about the changes needed by church institutions are, on the face of it, more radical than those of John Paul II, who was much more focused on the world at large than on the structure of the church. Benedict XVI learned from the Germany of the 1930's that too much care to preserve Catholic institutions, without powerful intellectual commitment in many souls, brings disaster. He may be much more willing to let go of institutions he considers only tepidly Catholic than people expect. And more serious about the life of the soul.
On the other hand, he has written of his joy in those Catholics who may be estranged, but still return at least for Christmas or Easter masses. He is glad that they draw nourishment from the liturgy. He holds that the Catholic church must always be reaching out, far beyond its present ranks, as the first tiny communities of Christians did, caring for the poor and orphans far outside their own small ranks. He does not want a small, closed church, but an expansive, open one and a serious one.
One of the characteristics the new pope much cherishes is "openness to the whole" to the whole of history, to the whole of the human race. He boasts of never having wanted to start his own "school" of theological thought though as a renowned professor in Germany he could well have done so but rather to have opened the minds of his students to whole vast fields of human thought, in all traditions and places and times.
He is praised for just such warmth and openness by Protestant and Jewish leaders with whom he has long been in scholarly conversation. (Again, his behavior is the very opposite of the stereotypes invented by his critics.)
The world will discover the true man behind the stereotypes soon enough, for Cardinal Ratzinger has been one of the senior churchmen of recent times most open to journalists. He has allowed probing interviews lasting several days, all caught on dictating machines and published as best-selling books, organized by fine journalists like Vittorio Messori and Peter Seewald. We should not be surprised to see more publications from him as pope.
Often Cardinal Ratzinger sharply portrayed a crucial parting of the ways: between modernizing the church, so as to seem to appeal to modern men at the expense of fidelity to the word of Jesus Christ; and being faithful to the word, at the expense of losing numbers. He has been quite fearless about choosing the second alternative. But he has also noted, correctly, that the parishes and dioceses that choose "modernization" usually end up losing numbers, while the more serious churches grow mightily. In particular, the churches of Africa and Asia, which have shown the most rapid growth, are the ones most intent on fidelity to the New Testament.
One of Cardinal Ratzinger's central, and most misunderstood, notions is his conception of liberty, and he is very jealous in thinking deeply about it, pointing often to Tocqueville. He is a strong foe of socialism, statism and authoritarianism, but he also worries that democracy, despite its great promise, is exceedingly vulnerable to the tyranny of the majority, to "the new soft despotism" of the all-mothering state, and to the common belief that liberty means doing whatever you please. Following Lord Acton and James Madison, Cardinal Ratzinger has written of the need of humans to practice self-government over their passions in private life.
He also fears that Europe, especially, is abandoning the search for objective truth and sliding into pure subjectivism. That is how the Nazis arose, he believes, and the Leninists. When all opinions are considered subjective, no moral ground remains for protesting against lies and injustices.
Pope John Paul II thought the first issue of his time was the murderous politics that resulted from the separation of Europe into two by the Soviet Union. He saw it as chiefly a political issue, to be defeated by moral means.
Pope Benedict XVI, like several of his namesakes back to St. Benedict himself (the founder of Western monasticism and patron saint of Europe), is more likely to take culture as the central issue of the new millennium: What is the culture necessary to preserve free societies from their own internal dangers and to make them worthy of the sacrifices that brought them into being?
Michael Novak. "Rome's Radical Conservative." New York Times (April 20, 2005).
Reprinted with permission of Michael Novak. First print credit given to the New York Times.
Copyright © 2005 Michael Novak
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