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Cardinal Ratzinger: Man for the Job | James Hitchcock |
Following the death of Pope John Paul II, I hoped that, whoever would
be elected pope, it would not be a Western European. Although there are
some outstanding prelates in Western Europe, the state of that culture
seemed to me to make it unwise to make one of them pope.
The sole reason for this is the fact that the Western European Church
is the most troubled of any part of the universal Church, in terms of
a low (and continually declining) rate of Church attendance, religious
vocations, and the acceptance of Catholic teaching. Western Europe, including
the historically Catholic countries, now has the lowest birth rate in
the world, and there is a pervasive secularity about the culture, as manifested
in the refusal to include in the proposed European constitution an acknowledgement
of Christianity as having been even a historical force in Western civilization.
(Ironically, it now looks as though there may not even be a European Union,
following the decisive rejection of that constitution by France and Holland.)
Those who disliked John Paul II, or at least his teachings (which were
merely those of the Church itself), often attributed his "rigidity"
to his being Polish, and it was indeed important that he was from Eastern,
not Western, Europe, since he came from a country that had not been ravaged
by the secularism of the West. Ironically, Communist rule in Poland helped
preserve it from the worst aspects of modern Western culture.
I hoped that the new pope would not be from Western Europe because it
seemed to me that Church leaders there over time accustomed themselves
to presiding over what has to be viewed, in human terms, as a dying Church
and that, perhaps unconsciously, they had imbibed a defeatist attitude
that inhibited any bold proclamation of the faith. It seemed to me that
it would instead be wise to elect an African or a Latin American, dramatic
recognition of the fact that the future of the Church, insofar as we can
see it, lies outside Europe.
But when it was announced that the new pope was a Western European, I,
like many people, was ecstatic, because the man who became Benedict XVI
seemed to me one of the few Western Europeans prepared to lead the Church
at this time and that, paradoxically, his qualifications precisely grew
out of the fact that he is a German intellectual.
Benedicts critics sometimes regard him as a kind of traitor (less
harshly, as someone who lost his nerve), because he is a highly accomplished
theologian from the most theologically sophisticated country in the world
(Germany) and at one time was considered a "liberal."
And that is precisely the point. Because he is a German theologian, Pope
Benedict understands the situation of the Church in the Western world
better than perhaps any other person now alive. The things that made him
at one time seem like a liberal formidable intelligence, high culture,
a vast knowledge of both Christianity and of secular thought equips
him to understand the modern world better than most non-Westerners. It
is crucial to have an intellectual leading the Church at this time, because
the great issues are, as they usually are, battles over ideas.
Put another way, Benedict was inoculated against the disease of secularism,
which is farther advanced in Western Europe then anywhere else. He is
a "traitor" because, while many of his fellow theologians embarked
on the path of endless accommodation to the secular spirit, he understood
quite early that this is a dead end. Thus he is one of the most acute
diagnosticians of the modern spirit and of what is required to achieve
genuine spiritual renewal.
Many pundits, in a spirit of ostensible good will, have been quick to
advise the new pope that he "must" change various Church teachings
(mostly having to do with sex), or lose Church members. No doubt, as the
pope affirms Catholic teaching boldly, some people will indeed depart.
But the pope realizes that the Church in Western Europe is in decline
not because it is too reactionary but, on the contrary, because for decades
it has been the most liberal Church in the world, and such a policy has
had the catastrophic effect of robbing it of its spiritual vitality.
If I had seen an application from an unnamed person identified as a German
theologian, he would have seemed to me the worst possible candidate for
pope. But as it turns out, Joseph Ratzinger was exactly the man for the
Other IgnatiusInsight.com columns and articles by Dr. Hitchcock:
Modern Culture; Asserting the Gospel"
Bishops, Liberal Results"
and the Media"
of the Enlightened Class"
Dr. James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University,
writes and lectures on contemporary Church matters. His column appears in
the diocesan press. He is the author of several books, including The
Recovery of the Sacred, What is Secular Humanism?, and Years of Crisis:
Collected Essays, 1970-1983.
Princeton University Press just published his two-volume history of the
Supreme Court, The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life:
The Odyssey of the Religion Clauses (Vol. 1) and
From "Higher Law" to "Sectarian Scruples"
(Vol. 2). He is also a regular contributor to many Catholic periodicals,
World Report. This colum originally appeared on the Women
for Faith & Family web site and is reproduced by kind permission
of the author.
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