Thursday, 9 September 2010

Understanding Pope Benedict XVI

I'm posting Rupert Shortt's interesting review of Tracey Rowland's book on Benedict XVI. It offers excellent insights as to how we might understand more about this enigmatic churchman as we await his arrival in Britain.


September 8, 2010

A layman's guide to the Pope

Help and hindrance to understanding Benedict XVI on his visit to Britain

~Rupert Shortt
Joseph Ratzinger was born in 1927, the son of a policeman stationed in rural Bavaria. A priestly calling took root in him before he was out of short trousers: Catholicism ministered to the boy’s intellect and emotions in equal measure. The other core impulse that shaped Ratzinger during his childhood was a horror of extremism. Press-ganged into the Hitler Youth, he later joined the Wehrmacht on reaching call-up age in 1944. But both the reluctant conscript and other members of his family had long feared that the Nazis were taking Germany over a precipice.
The story is engagingly told by the future Pope in his memoir Milestones (2000), an account of the first five decades of his life that ends with his appointment as Archbishop of Munich in 1977. This book leaves a sour taste in the mouth all the same, because it fails to mention either the Jews or the Holocaust a single time. Given an ideal chance to deplore a catastrophe in which he had been a blameless bystander, the then Cardinal chose instead to emphasize Hitler’s persecution of Catholics. Ratzinger compounded his error in at least two respects. In the first place, his discussion ignored the largely supine response to the Nazis of both clergy and laity. Secondly, he drew the highly contentious lesson that the Church can only resist dictatorships effectively when run as a very tight ship. Alert reviewers of Milestones pointed out that on the contrary, German Catholics were hamstrung by a tradition of docile obedience to authority during the 1930s, and that only Protestant Denmark provided a largely unsullied record of anti-Nazi resistance.
The unintended impression given by Milestones is that its author, though urbane and intelligent, still lacks common sense. The book also tells us much about Benedict XVI’s agenda. He was elected to the most influential post on earth three days after his seventy-eighth birthday. No one of his age (or perhaps of any age) in their right mind could welcome the colossal burdens of papal office. In that sense the man who emerged victorious from the conclave of 2005 was not personally ambitious. But he is nevertheless a very ambitious promoter of his own model for church government. Milestones goes on to give a partisan reading of Catholic history during the second half of the twentieth century, and draws a veil over the dissenting impulses that the author displayed as a reform-minded young theologian. His attempt to present his thinking as a seamless garment probably constitutes the greatest piece of legerdemain in the memoir. It also forms the background against which Tracey Rowland’s portrait of the Pope should be judged – and found wanting.
Benedict XVI: A guide for the perplexed does not include a detailed discussion of Milestones. Rowland, a conservative Melbourne-based theologian, also subscribes to the fantasy that her subject has been fully consistent. This feeds the impression that she is more cheerleader than analyst. Not that she is a lightweight: it is her erudition that makes her project a missed opportunity.
The author’s knowledge of intellectual history gives her book – the latest in T&T Clark’s series on individual figures and major religious themes – at least one solid foundation. The same could be said for Ratzinger’s Faith (2008), Rowland’s other study of the Pope’s thought, which covers similar ground. Anyone who has advanced beyond the hackneyed view of Benedict XVI as a latter-day Grand Inquisitor will know that he is the first pope in centuries to be a thinker of the first rank. A summary of his intellectual importance might begin with the age-old question encapsulating the tension between philosophy and theology – “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” – cited as much by Christians protective of their faith-based turf as by unbelievers who see religion as a matter of wish fulfilment or worse.
Ratzinger would query the terms in which the question is usually framed. Significant parts of his large oeuvre are premissed on a sense that ancient Athens and Jerusalem were different zones within an intellectual ellipse, and thus that reason and faith are complementary strands in our mental make-ups. He would justify this claim by arguing that secular reason is not wholly reasonable, because it fails to reckon with the fundamental and inclusive context of meaning that only religion supplies. He would add that no naturalistic framework of explanation can do justice to the full range of our experience as beings motivated by conscience, intuition and a vision of the good, as well as by analytic reason. Ratzinger’s bestselling Introduction to Christianity (1969), written in his intellectual prime, is studded with gnomic insights into what might be termed the phenomenology of faith. We are told that belief in God has much in common with love: if you never give yourself to it, you will never understand it. If we do embrace the Christian creed, though, then we shall encounter a new dimension of reality not available to others. Ratzinger moves from an efficient attack on the invalidity of crude scientism (“knowledge of the functional aspect of the world, as procured for us so splendidly by present-day . . . scientific thinking, brings with it no understanding of the world and of being. Understanding grows only out of belief”) to insist on the unavoidable character of spiritual questing: “Anyone who makes up his mind to evade the uncertainty of belief will have to experience the uncertainty of unbelief, which can never finally eliminate for certain the possibility that belief may after all be the truth. It is not until belief is rejected that its unrejectability becomes evident”.
Elsewhere, the book presents a detailed genealogy chronicling the birth of empiricism – Giambattista Vico (1668–1744) is named as chief midwife – and a resulting contraction of intellectually acceptable fields of discourse during the Enlightenment. Rowland is a reliable guide to Ratzinger’s work in this field, as well as to his theories about the false theological turns during the late Renaissance and early modern periods which he holds to have sown some of modern atheism’s most fertile seeds. In our own time, the attenuated character of much analytic philosophy suggests that the greater gulf lies between Athens and Oxford. There is no shortage of other scholars sharing Ratzinger’s conviction that Plato and the authors of the Bible were advancing along parallel tracks after all, even if, from a Christian standpoint, the former was guided by the moon rather than by full sunlight.
As a student of outstanding ability, Ratzinger showed a strong interest in ancient Greek philosophy, Plato especially, but his first loyalty was to St Augustine, who transposed Platonic ideas into a Christian key by insisting on the beauty and goodness of creation, and on the Church’s role in making available to all such Platonic goals as the purification of the soul. Rowland also locates Ratzinger in the context of the Romantic reaction against the Enlightenment, a strategy with much to commend it. Tübingen University in Swabia (where Ratzinger went on to teach in the late 1960s) formed one of the foremost centres of Catholic engagement with Romanticism. The main figures in this loose school of thought rejected Kant’s bid to strip Christianity of its very concrete historical claims, and present the faith instead as a timeless matter of reason and ethics. To Romantically minded Catholics, Kant and his armies of nineteenth-century followers peddled far too arid a conception of the human person. German theologians such as Johann Sebastian Drey, Johann Adam Möhler and Johannes Evangelist von Kuhn drew inspiration from across the Channel – from Blake, Wordsworth and especially from John Henry Newman.
Ratzinger would be among the first to argue that “Romantic” Catholicism was no nineteenth-century innovation, but simply a local tributary of theology’s largest river. This was always clear to those with a sure grasp of history. Coleridge, for example, was not only speaking as a Romantic, but also echoing Augustine, when he declared that Christianity is “the substantiating principle of all true wisdom, the satisfactory solution of all the contradictions of human nature, of the whole riddle of the world. This alone belongs to and speaks intelligibly to all alike, the learned and the ignorant, if but the heart listens”.
The key point, though, is that those ignorant of the classical Christian tradition included many senior nineteenth- and early twentieth-century clerics. It is well known that the Catholic Church pulled up its drawbridge on the world for 200 years after the Enlightenment, condemning democracy, feminism, biblical scholarship and scientific developments. (This contrasted with the much greater levels of intellectual openness often displayed by Catholic leaders of earlier eras.) A less familiar calamity unfolded internally, with the imposition of tight boundaries on theological study. Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Aeterni Patris (1879) designated the work of St Thomas Aquinas, read in one tight-reined way, as the chief intellectual weapon in the battle against the Church’s enemies. As Rowland explains, Enlightenment rationalism was now to be answered with a Catholic counter-rationalism.
This was the world that Joseph Ratzinger entered as he embarked on priestly training in 1945, and it turned him into a rebel. The first version of his Habilitationsschrift, or post-doctoral thesis, a word Rowland has misspelt in more than one way, was a study of St Bonaventure’s ecclesiology. Alarmed by the supposedly novel, “French” influence in this dissertation, the examiners failed it. Had they not later accepted a revised script, Ratzinger’s academic career would have been killed off at birth. And his rebellion was far from being purely intellectual. As a budding scholar, he famously complained that “what the Church needs today as always are not adulators to extol the status quo, but men whose humility and obedience are not less than their passion for the truth”. Instead, he went on, a monolithic institution was “entrenching herself behind exterior safeguards”.
These words reflect a thirst for structural reform. Ratzigner’s dream was realized at the Second Vatican Council (1962–5), the event at which the Catholic Church opened itself to the modern world, among other things acknowledging for the first time the sovereignty of conscience, the need for a more hospitable attitude to other Christians, and, on paper, a view of the Church as a community of pilgrims, rather than a pyramid dominated by the clerical establishment. Though still in his mid-thirties, Ratzinger played an important part in helping galvanize the forces of reform against the wrecking tactics of certain Vatican officials, because he served as aide and adviser to the Archbishop of Cologne, Cardinal Josef Frings.
Why, then, has Benedict XVI long been a prime exhibit in the liberal Chamber of Horrors? The short answer is that although there are many continuities in his thought across the decades, he still changed his spots to a remarkable extent in mid-career. During the late 1960s, he decided that the Church had opened up to the world just as the world was heading in a very different direction. Outside Catholic ranks, les événements and other cases of student unrest were apparently demonstrating that Marxism now posed a chronic threat to Western civilization; while inside the Church, disagreement over official teaching on faith and morals was proving hugely divisive. His conclusion was that the liberal genie needed returning to the bottle. The faithful must pull together, shun the luxury of free thinking, and never forget that authentic Christianity is supposed to entail costly witness against what John’s Gospel terms the standards of “this world”.
Professor Ratzinger’s volte-face was matched by what struck many observers as a shift in his character. An earlier openness was supplanted by intolerance and gloom. The psychological element, wholly overlooked by Rowland, is revealing. While researching my biography of the Pope, I interviewed a Tübingen theologian who described the change that came about Ratzinger as follows:
"A young, friendly, communicative scholar turned in on himself and became very dogmatic. Some people, of course, continued to see him as a model of courtesy. This is because he seems to be the kind of person who will really open up to others if he feels they are on his wavelength, but finds it harder to get on with a larger range of characters."
Elements of Ratzinger’s new outlook were shared by Archbishop Karol Wojtyla, the future John Paul II. Shortly after his own election in 1978, John Paul asked his ally to become Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome, and thus to join his inner circle of advisers. Ratzinger rarely if ever behaved like the “God’s Rottweiler” of popular mythology after his move to the Vatican. On the contrary, he often displayed patience, charm and a sense of humour while investigating the work of theologians suspected of not toeing the line. Yet the Cardinal was high-handed on enough occasions to give ammunition to his critics. Fair-minded fellow clerics concluded that he was torn between two versions of himself. As Prefect, he should have exercised a quasi-judicial role, but more often acted like a player than a referee. Theologians supporting greater democracy in the Church, or a relaxation of teaching on sexual morality, faced especially tight curbs. Good men were denied preferment, and episcopal candidates often selected for their loyalty to the centre, rather than their pastoral and intellectual records.
The infamous conflict over liberation theology during the 1980s is harder to assess. Some leading members of this school of thought such as the Brazilian ex-Franciscan Leonardo Boff, over-indebted to Marxism and far more privileged than he cared to admit, were skilled at creating the impression that scarlet-clad prelates in Rome were stamping on innocent servants of the poor. Many such accusations were unfair, yet saintly figures like Archbishop Hélder Câmara of Recife, who lived in a slum and was guilty of nothing more than taking the gospel seriously, were certainly treated with disdain. Ratzinger bears heavy responsibility for this.
Other developments for which the Cardinal was directly or indirectly responsible included a hardline, plainly hypocritical attitude towards gay Catholics, and a tendency by Rome to micro-manage the delicate business of liturgical translation. Bishops in the anglophone world faced a particularly high level of interference by officials who rejected the use of inclusive language in principle, and did not understand the distinctive challenges of rendering Latin into idiomatic English. Benedict’s motu proprio (a special kind of papal document) of 2007, which authorized a greater use of the Tridentine rite, is symptomatic of his broader impulse to return Catholics to preconciliar times. The Church he leads is growing strongly in Asia and Africa, where it is a massive source of social capital, but has suffered steep decline in Europe, and a particularly heavy blow to its credibility in North America. Debate persists on Ratzinger’s role during the child abuse scandals of recent decades. Whatever the truth of this, it seems clear that the Vatican today still fails to address the subject with a due sense of contrition and urgency.
Supporters of the status quo regularly complain that the church authorities are portrayed in the worst possible light by a hostile media. The comment is not groundless, but it also reflects epic levels of self-deception. As recently as July of this year, the Vatican left “its goalmouth wide open, with its goalkeeper nowhere to be seen”, as one commentator put it, by issuing a statement detailing some changes in canon law that managed to connect in the public mind clerical paedophilia and the ordination of women as priests. This sort of example could be multiplied a hundredfold, and points towards an underlying malaise. The Church is damaged by rickety structures in general, and by its leader’s lack of savvy in particular. German-speaking observers have long complained that Ratzinger lacks Menschenkenntnis – the capacity to size people up.
Tracey Rowland ignores this sort of argument, because she lacks critical distance between herself and her subject. The unevenness of her prose also gives proof of carelessness or hurry: sometimes the book reads as though badly translated from German. Insofar as exposition leads to evaluation in her discussion, her verdicts are always positive, and further seasoned with idiosyncratic comments of her own. Early on, for instance, she writes that
"The emergence of a wealthy Catholic middle class in the US and the countries of the British Commonwealth, desperate for acceptance by Protestant elites and wanting to accommodate its faith to the culture of modernity, including the adoption of a decidedly modern attitude to sexuality, created numerous intellectual and pastoral challenges which were simply beyond the capacities of many of the clergy to address."
These comments deserve serious attention. Christians do often lack the fibre to swim against the tide. The Church teaches that real freedom is based on the education of desire. Liberalism, on this view, should not be based on the ability to do what you want, but on the right to do what you ought. In that sense the thoughtful believer will always be counter-cultural. One has only to look at corners of the Church of England, where the trendy vicar has long been a figure of fun and church attendance has declined in parallel with the sapping of Catholic congregations, to see that it is self-defeating to offer secular society less and less in which to disbelieve. Add together convictions about the truth of Christianity and the concealment of this truth by sin, and it is not hard to see the inference many might draw: that discipleship is more about duties than rights, and a global Church must be subject to strong central controls. Benedict’s views are buttressed by his longstanding worries about a cocktail of ills, including relativism, family breakdown, over-consumption and violence, which he sees as assorted manifestations of “neo-paganism”. The vocabulary may be different from that of secular political parties, but the sentiment is of course familiar. David Cameron’s Big Society idea, for example, owes a clear debt to Catholic Social Teaching.
The problem with the Pope’s one-sided condemnations is that they beg the question. A century ago, most women did not have the vote. Two centuries ago, four-fifths of humanity lived in dire poverty. There is no sense in denying that great material and moral strides have been made, or that many goods in the contemporary world derive from the Enlightenment, as well as from Judaeo-Christianity.
The irony, as we have seen, is that the Pope once saw things rather differently. Rowland rightly tells us that Catholic Romantics – including the younger Ratzinger – were fighting against a world-denying strand in their own tradition that was particularly evident in Ireland and the Irish diaspora during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and which derives from Jansenism. The French have a phrase (as they often do) for this cast of mind and its effects: la maladie Catholique. Benedict now suffers from the disease he once sought to cure.
His sombre outlook bodes ill for various forms of bridge-building – intellectual, social and above all interfaith, at a time when relations between Christians and Muslims look pivotal to world stability. Some of the Pope’s pronouncements (he once declared that non-Christians and even non-Catholics are in grave spiritual peril) feed the impulse to remind him of what the Bible itself teaches: that all – including, by implication, Muslims, Hindus and atheists – are made in the image of God.
Battles among Christians, or between Christians and others, on topics ranging from interreligious dialogue to gay marriage ultimately hinge on the status of conscience and of those outside the visible Church, which is in turn a variation on the Athens–Jerusalem conundrum. Most people have never heard the Christian message, and many who have done so cannot accept it for well-considered reasons. Religious exclusivists have little to offer those outside their own loop. Christians with a more open sense of the Holy Spirit’s mission will see the subject in a broader light. Like their more conservative fellow believers, they believe that God not only made us, but has “spoken” to us as well. They are simply warier about spelling out what is Christian in the lives and attitudes of those who do not bear the name of Christ.
In her purplest passage of all, Rowland salutes Benedict and his predecessor for representing “a double act of Divine Providence, with a Pole being chosen to see off European Communism and a German succeeding him to begin healing the fractures of the sixteenth century and offer a sustained intellectual response to the nihilist wing of nineteenth-century Romanticism which reached its extreme in the Nazi death camps”.
Benedict rarely endears himself to Protestants, but he has certainly done much to see off the ghost of Nietzsche. His response to the father of contemporary atheism is easily summed up. Nietzsche’s descriptions of the human condition are basically right, but the inferences he draws from his data are fundamentally wrong. Either everything means something or nothing means anything. It is the first of these propositions that is correct.
The substance of this argument will seem convincing to many; the tone in which Benedict delivers it is too often rebarbative. A recent comment from a journalist with far less theology than Tracey Rowland, but a much clearer eye, brings us back down to earth. “Joseph Ratzinger may be behind his times or ahead of his times, but he is certainly not of them.” I don’t suppose the Pope could imagine a higher compliment. That is the problem shirked by this “guide for the perplexed”.
Tracey Rowland
A guide for the perplexed
202pp. T&T Clark. £14.99 (US $19.95).
978 0 567 03437 3

Rupert Shortt is Religion editor of the TLS. His books include Benedict XVI: Commander of the faith, 2005, and Rowan’s Rule: The biography of the Archbishop, 2008.


  1. What happened at the celibacy debate you attended?

  2. Just checked. I see Celibacy debate is next week. Can we have a full report please for out-of-towners.

  3. Tina, Thanks for this.It is a really useful summary and analysis.I have also found Hans Kung's memoirs useful as he throws some light on the transformation that took place in Joseph Ratzinger's views in the late 60's.
    Kung finds it odd that in Ratzinger's own memoirs he leaves out any account of his work for the 24 years when he was the " second most powerful man in the Catholic church as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, years in which dozens of theologians and countless men and women at the grass roots suffered under his regime."

  4. @AnonymousYes, I'll write it up here afterwards. I'm also putting a link and information on the blog (see above).


  5. If the mass is like being aware of the overflowing beauty of nature, why go to mass at all? why can't we just give thanks to the creator every time we are able to be aware of such wonders?

  6. @Anonymous Must it be either/or? Can't we learn to see nature in the Mass and the Mass in nature - as Teilhard de Chardin did?

  7. Daphne Hampson, Beverley Clack, Karen Armstrong, Grace Jantzen gave up on Christianity. Are you able to compensate for the patriachal interpretation because of your insights into the Marian tradition? Its lonely without the Mass and a spiritual home but less painful than continuing to observe the refusal of the authorities to accept that all are one in Christ.

  8. @Anonymous Not just the Marian presence but the presence of Christ in the eucharist, the community to which I belong, and the cosmos of which I am a part, all amount to so much more than the posturings of male authority figures. We are all one in Christ, and no human institution or authority can deny that. I won't let them take that away from me!

  9. Thank you
    Maybe I'll try again.

  10. Any Anglicans coming to Rome because of the issue of women's ordination are not wanted.

  11. Dear Tina,

    If you have such a beef with the Catholic Church, why don't you become a Protestant? You are always moaning about the Church, and you just don't seem to get it, the Church is not a democracy but a theocracy. You will never have women priests in the Church, it just wont happen. You can keep waffling on all you want in your Tablet newspaper (which incidentally is read mainly by people in their middle ages onwards, who will die off soon)but young people don't want your 60s flower power vision of the Church and when your ilk die off,the young people who replace you, will by God's grace bring the Church bag to its glory.

    People like have done so much to injure God's people and on judgment day you will be held to account for not submitting to the Church that our Lord Jesus founded.

    May God have mercy on you,



Comments and contributions are welcome so long as they respect the rules of courtesy and respect, which is not to inhibit robust disagreement.