April 19, 2005

New Pope Benedict XVI Means the Re-Evangelization of Europe

Does new Pope Benedict XVI Mean the Re-Evangelization of Europe

Alright, I’m not Roman Catholic (Lutheran, thanks!) so the perception by the American media that somehow we all must be interested in the story about the new Pope is a little more true than I’d care to admit… From more of a predictive point of view, what does this bode for the future of the Roman Catholic enterprise?

Most likely it will mean a smaller, “more devout” (or at least, less backsliding) flock and, rather than an abandonment of the growth markets for the church, a re-invigoration – re-EVANGELIZATION, in truth – of its core market – that is, Europe.

In my entirely secular, growth-oriented view, despite overlooking clear advantages to placing a developing-world, “southerner” in the seat of the Papacy, the right choice of a consolidator and evangelist to his countrymen was more appropriate for the goals Rome has in mind. But for those of you who’d like to compare my notes yourself, the newspaper summary below is a good place to start:

    Everybody leads with the new pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, or as he now prefers, Benedict XVI. "After the great Pope John Paul II, the cardinals have elected me, a simple, humble worker in the Lord's vineyard," said Benedict, a 78-year-old German, who was Pope John Paul II's enforcer for ideology.

    Benedict has long inveighed against what he sees as lax standards on morality, doctrine, and the primacy of Catholicism. He's disciplined priests who've pushed for reform, in the 1980s purging liberation theologists; in a letter he issued in 2000, titled Dominus Jesus, he dubbed other faiths "gravely deficient;" and as the Los Angeles Times editorial page details, he wrote that pro-choice politicians should be denied communion.

    As the New York Times puts it, Ratzinger was "briefly and unenthusiastically" a member of the Hitler Youth. Membership was mandatory. He was later drafted into the army and eventually deserted. Meanwhile, Jewish groups praised the new pope, who apparently was at the forefront of the Vatican's recent efforts to make nice with Jewish leaders.

    Ratzinger's views are widely considered to have been shaped by his experience with Nazism and later by the student revolts of the 1960s. As one biography of him, quoted in the NYT, put it: "Having seen fascism in action, Ratzinger today believes that the best antidote to political totalitarianism is ecclesiastical totalitarianism."

    Regarding the priest abuse scandal, Benedict said in 2002: "I am personally convinced that the constant presence in the press of sins of Catholic priests, especially in the United States, is a planned campaign, as the percentage of these offences among priests is not higher than in other categories, and perhaps it is even lower."

    The crowd hanging in the Vatican gave a mixed response once Ratzinger was named. One teacher jumped onto a plastic chair and screamed, "This is the gravest error!" Slate's Jack Miles (excerpted below) has a similar reaction. Meanwhile, Andrew Sullivan did a kind of intellectual history of Ratzinger in 1988, concluding: "His bleakness, while theologically a way in which the extremity of grace can be radically described, is—once in power—a recipe for authoritarianism."

    Despite his hardline positions, many describe Ratzinger as kinda a softie in person. "A simple guy, with almost a simple smile on his face, as if he's scared to hurt anybody," said one priest in the LAT.

    An op-ed in the NYT, by an AEI theologian, argues that Ratzinger has been widely misunderstood: "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." Ratzinger also opposes the death penalty.

Theologian Jack Miles’ analysis in Slate.com is worth reading:

    Today, the election of Ratzinger—a German and a conservative—is a clear answer to two questions asked as John Paul II slowly succumbed to Parkinson's disease. First, would the next pope's election prove comparable in geopolitical boldness to the choice of John Paul II? The news of John Paul II's election echoed with electrifying clarity from Lithuania to Croatia. The election of a Latin American, African, or even a Middle Eastern or Asian cardinal today could have equally electrified regions that are even more important to the church's future. But the cardinals chose instead to elect another European.

    The second question was whether the church would soon take the step of allowing artificial contraceptives—as it came close to doing in the mid-1960s, before Humanae Vitae. The encyclical reaffirmed ultraconservative sexual morality and reversed a trend toward collegiality in church government. Today, condoms have helped to slow the spread of AIDS in Brazil and elsewhere. But in Africa, where the AIDS crisis is worst, the church is identified more than ever with the most adamant opposition to the condom and church governance remains tightly centralized. The election of Joseph Ratzinger announces that the status quo will remain unchanged.

    How will ordinary Catholics greet the election of an elderly, conservative, European pope? I find myself thinking back to 1979. When John Paul II made a typically spectacular visit to Chicago that year, I heard a sad little story from my mother. A cousin of mine, a widow with five children whose life was a long struggle with poverty, had been thrilled to hear that she would be among the lay Eucharistic ministers who would distribute Holy Communion when the pope celebrated an outdoor Mass at Soldier Field, Chicago's football stadium. For years, she had cherished nothing more than her weekly role in the liturgy. Every Sunday morning, reality receded for an hour as she put on a white surplice and assisted the priest in distributing the consecrated bread and wine. Doing this at the papal Mass, she said, would be the greatest moment of her life. But then a heartbreaking message arrived: In deference to the pope's sensibilities, no woman would be allowed to take part.

    Television loves a star and is only too ready to turn the Catholic Church into a star vehicle. Television paid no attention to our cousin or to any of the other excluded women, much less to their children. The media in general blur "the faithful," a phrase they dearly love, into a single, undifferentiated, uniformly loyal mass, brushing aside dissent as a minor irritant. Yet 26 years of such snubs begin to add up. I am reminded, recalling this small episode, of a moment in the Gospel of Luke when Jesus prays: "I bless you, Father, Lord of heaven and of earth, for hiding these things from the learned and the clever and revealing them to little children." The Chicago hierarchy surely had clever and learned reasons why the women of the city could not be permitted to perform the same function in the presence of the pope that they would resume performing as soon as he left. But God may have revealed to those women and their children something about the church and its pope that he concealed from the archdiocesan authorities.

Miles continues later, "by issuing ever more absolute prohibitions that are ever more widely ignored, the pope may consolidate his power over fewer and fewer. Benedict XVI, as we now know, has a lovely singing voice for a man of his years. But the question surely does arise: Is he singing to the choir?"

Vatican vows of secrecy notwithstanding, the NYT, LAT, and Washington Post get a bit of the backstory on the conclave where Benedict gathered lots of early backing, including from a few key Opus Dei men, causing liberal cardinals, who were divided, quickly retreated in the face of his strong initial showing. Then there was the expectations game. "The newspapers were telling us that Cardinal Ratzinger was a favorite," said one cardinal. "The Holy Spirit may even speak through the newspapers."

Then those wild and crazy cardinals proceeded to get down and get the celebration started: "Later Tuesday night, the cardinals joined the new pope for a dinner of soup, veal cordon bleu and ice cream for dessert. They toasted the new pope with glasses of Asti spumante."

Who says this is going to be a conservative Papacy? Those dudes know how to PAR-TAY!

- Arik

Posted by Arik Johnson at April 19, 2005 11:46 AM