The Right Coast

April 19, 2005
Pope Benedict XVI
By Tom Smith

So it is Ratzinger. That is very interesting. Expect to hear much bloviating in the American and British press about "missed opportunities" from reporters and commentators who don't know when to stand up and when to kneel, and don't know many Catholics, but got drunk with one once. Well, everyone is entitled to their opinion. But only cardinals get to vote.

Why Benedict I wonder? Benedict XV established the Code of Canon Law in 1917, but also relaxed discipline against liberal and modernist theologians thought to have been taken too far by his predecessor. Is the new pope's name a signal that discipline of dissenting voices will not go any or much further? Sort of "Don't worry!"? Benedict XV also had a special concern for the Eastern Churches. Is this a reaching out to the East? But B XV is not considered one of the "great popes." Also he was an Italian aristocrat, and not a particular scholar, while Ratzinger is from modest background and has written many books.

Or is it this Benedict after whom Cardinal Ratzinger names himself? More likely, I think. Benedict XIV was a saint, and a highly cultured, scholarly and intellectual man, as is Ratzinger. Perhaps the most cultured and intellectual pope in the last few centuries, other than JP II. Also, Benedict XIV took office at a time (mid18th century) when Europe was turning against the Church and worked on the role of the Church in the modern world, also a concern of Ratzinger's.

Not choosing John Paul III, and instead choosing Benedict (I'm betting XIV is the patron) suggests the new Pope Benedict does not see himself as a merely transitional figure, 78 years old or not. It signals ambition. Not a John Paul, or a Paul, a John, or a Pius. But a Benedict. Already, he has the press and critics off balance. A good thing in a pope, to be smarter than the average reporter and op-ed writer. A minimal standard to be sure, but helpful nonetheless.

Ratzinger is no shrinking violet. This will be interesting. Read some of his stuff. It has the lucidity of the way smart.

The wisdom of the choice? Far be it from me to second guess the Holy Spirit. But personally, I don't see that the Church has much to gain by departing from orthodoxy to welcome new breezes and all that. It's a formula mainline Protestant churches have tried, resulting in endless controversy and embarassment, not to mention precipitous decline. Ratzinger has referred to the "dictatorship of relativism." Now that's an apt phrase. And it's a dictator that's never satisfied anyway. So if you were holding your breath for an encyclical "Killing Babies: Just Another Value Judgment," you can stop now. My deep cultural insight suggests anyway that we are past the "We must be free, free, free to be you and me!" stage and well into the "uh, so, who exactly are you and me?" stage. If Roman Catholicism has anything to say to that question, it is not by being Unitarianism in fancy dress.

And I'm telling you, read Salt of the Earth. This is an interesting, very intelligent man who has thought deeply about such topics as post-Christian culture and other stuff intellectualoids somehow think the Church doesn't ponder. Here's a quotation:

"The danger of a dictatorship of opinion is growing, and anyone who doesn't share the prevailing opinion is excluded, so that even good people no longer dare to stand by such nonconformists [i.e. Christians]. Any future anti-Christian dictatorship would probably be much more subtle than anything we have known until now. It will appear to be friendly to religion, but on the condition that its own models of behavior and thinking not be called into question."

Sound familiar? If you have spent any time around American universities, it sure as hell does.

IT LOOKS it was B15 not 14 that B16 in naming itself after. On the other hand . . .