Sunday, January 22, 2006

"The Year of Two Popes"

Paul Elie has written a piece for The Atlantic entitled “The Year of Two Popes,” describing how Cardinal Ratzinger has stepped into the shoes of John Paul and what this new pontificate means for the Church.

He drew most of his inside information about Benedict, and the goings-on inside the Vatican before and after John Paul’s death, from four sources whom he names after the four evangelists:

“Matthew,” a scholar who has known Benedict for 40 years; “Mark,” a ‘man in the public eye’ (whatever that means); “Luke,” who is a monk called to Rome for his ‘literary gifts’ (again, whatever that means); and “John,” someone trained in theology but who was brought into contact with Benedict 'through curial service' (I should probably know what that means but I don’t).

The interesting thing about Elie's piece is his point that Ratzinger has had his sights on the papacy for quite some time.

Elie writes,

“Did Ratzinger want to be pope? Certainly—provided that this was what God and the other cardinals wanted of him. More and more, it seemed, he was wanted. Beginning in 2000 circumstances at the Vatican seemed to call Ratzinger to the papacy—to ‘convert’ him or turn him around to the office, as he would put it. He saw the papacy diminished by the pope’s illness, and the Church weakened by scandals. He was clearly ‘head and shoulders above the rest of the cardinals,’ one of this aides told me, ‘and he knew it’; he at once recognized his mastery of the mechanisms of Vatican power and trusted himself to use them properly. He did not—dared not—wait for John Paul to die; the Church was going off course again. So he prayed for guidance and then stepped in."

And throughout the length of John Paul’s illness, and through all the various disagreements that pitted him against other Vatican officials such as Cardinals Kasper and Cassidy (on the publication of the CDF’s Dominus Iesus), Elie’s piece suggests that Ratzinger, inadvertently or advertently, emerged as a clear possible successor to John Paul.

One is inclined to think however that Ratzinger’s emergence as a possible successor came about not from any calculating maneuvering on the part of the German cardinal, but from his own brilliance and clarity: “he was clearly head and shoulders above the rest of the cardinals,” as one of Elie’s own sources pointed out.

But this hasn’t stopped some folks from suggesting that some maneuvering went on. For instance, some people think that Cardinal Gantin of Benin--described as an ally of Ratzinger-- retired from his post as dean of the College of Cardinals so that the latter could succeed as dean and therefore run the conclave. Speculative in the face of it.

And as Elie pointed out, some people point to the manner in which Ratzinger handled the General Congregations during the last interregnum as another indication of his maneuvering: he allowed each of the cardinals to speak for only 7 minutes, thereby inhibiting any opposition to solidly take root.

Anyway, it was towards the end that I thought Elie made two good points. First, he rightly recognized the place of the American church in the whole panoply of the Church’s history:

“At Subiaco on the eve of John Paul’s death Ratzinger characterized Europe, for so long the cradle of Christianity, as essentially missionary territory, which stands in need of a new evangelization. True of not, it is an insight rich in implications for the United States, for it serves as a reminder that as far as religion is concerned, this country is part of the New World, not the old one. In the history of the Church the United States is not an imperial power but a developing country. Ours is a place where Christianity is still relatively new, and our folkways, so different from those of Europe, have long eluded easy understanding in Rome.”

How’s that for being put in our place.

Secondly, he predicts Benedict as taking on a more limited role in the life of the Church. That seems rather an odd point, but what he means is that compared to the wonderful theatricality of John Paul as globetrotter, Benedict’s “program as pope is a good deal narrower than John Paul’s.” In other words, Benedict’s papal presence wouldn’t loom as large as his predecessor's.

And that is not necessarily a bad thing he claims: “Consider Pope Pius XII....[his] relative indifference to American society left open spaces for American Catholics to shape the Church’s noble form in the United States: building schools and settling neighborhoods; furthering alliances between Church leaders and working people; establishing the Catholic Worker and other movements devoted to the least among us; tending to a flowering of Catholic literature best represented by Thomas Merton and Flannery O’Connor...”

Does this sound “liberating”? Perhaps it does. Perhaps it will pose more difficulties. But one thing that Benedict’s “narrower” and “limited” presence will do is to allow many of us to cast our glance away from the east, away from Rome for a bit, and onto the state of our local churches.

And so on this point, I agree with Elie: “we ought to turn away from the question of what the pope believes and consider just what it is that we believe—turning our attention away from Rome at long last and back to the world in which the real religious dramas of our time are taking place.”

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