The Pope of Surprises
After being elected 8 years ago, Pope Benedict had a tough act to follow. John Paul II had won people over by his charisma and integrity. Joseph Ratzinger was a quiet man, an academic theologian. His job in Rome had been to call other theologians to account for potential deviation from official Catholic teaching – hence his nick-name ‘God’s Rottweiler’. There was an expectation that he would lead an effort to make Catholicism more ‘like it used to be’ – at least in the minds of some.
Pope Benedict, the ‘German Shepherd’ has indeed led, or at least supported, a movement towards more old-fashioned styles of liturgy – the new translation is a product of that movement. However, precisely because he had the reputation of a conservative intellectual, committed to defending the integrity of the Catholic tradition, he has also been able to do or say surprising things as Pope, that are liberating for the Church.
His resignation is an example. If a ‘liberal’ Pope had resigned, conservatives could treat this as an accident, never to be repeated. But when someone who has such a deep knowledge and love of the tradition does so for the sake of the good government of the modern Church, it is much easier to see this as a proper part of the Church’s history and a natural development of the tradition.
When John Paul II talked about love, you could generally guess where it was going. The still new Pope Benedict produced his first encyclical on ‘God is love’. The world’s media was waiting to criticize yet another text about Catholic teaching on artificial contraception. There was a sense of shock and awe as commentators realized that they were reading a profound meditation on the nature of love, human and divine, which condemned no-one but invited to a dialogue of shared experience. And this dialogue was reinforced by his decision to quote not just from Scripture and the Saints but also from Marx and Descartes. In this and later writings, he ‘officially’ took seriously thinkers considered hostile to religion and endorsed the methods of modern Biblical criticism. In so doing, he ‘officially’ shows how the Church can learn new things from people outside the Church.
Before he visited the UK the media portrayed him as a highly controversial figure, an enemy of the modern state who would be widely rejected by his own flock. When he arrived, we saw a mild-mannered, sensitive pastor, gladly welcomed by thousands of people. His finely judged, thoughtful speech to the two houses of parliament recognized and appreciated the values of his hosts’ democratic institutions. We saw a man of personal prayer and conviction who genuinely wanted to meet the rest of the world in dialogue, rather than lay down the law.
People anxious about tradition often get very worried about ‘modern thought’ or the ‘modern state’. Such fear can have a devastating effect on the intellectual and political life of the Church. But Benedict, as Pope, has taught that it is not just allowed, but vital for the Church to develop its tradition through a respectful dialogue with the people of our times. This is an important legacy for the coming decades.