Papal elections can take weeks and picking a successor to John Paul II was surely no mean feat. But despite the rapid elevation of Josef Cardinal Ratzinger to the Papacy took me, and many of my Catholic friends, by surprise. I have (rather depressingly) never seen my boyfriend so happy, and I can guess from one of my good friend’s proud ownership of a Cardinal Ratzinger fan club mug (“putting the smackdown on heresy since 1981”) that he’s pretty chuffed.
My non-Catholic friends were generally less thrilled with the decision of the College of Cardinals to make the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith the next Pope, although I do not suppose any of them were planning an instant conversion should their candidate of choice have come out top. “The world’s gone mad” one of them plaintively whimpered at me. Perhaps to him it has, but then he is an Anglican because he cherishes his right to “believe strongly in not very much at all”. So I don’t think he was going to be particularly overjoyed with whatever selection the Cardinals made.
For days now I have been listening to various commentators extolling the virtues of various African and South American Cardinals and I think they have somewhat missed the point. If anyone imagined that a Pope from the developing world would suddenly decide to alter centuries of church teaching (on abortion, contraception and the ordination of women) they were bound to be disappointed. The Church in Africa is more strict on Catholic doctrine than in the materialist West, and its representatives would argue that the answer to human suffering on earthis not to forsake moral truth because it seems expedient to do so and difficult not to.
Besides, there is a limit to what any Pope could feasibly do. Not only are all Popes bound to the teaching of their predecessor, they are also bound to unalterable Church doctrine. That does not mean that there can be no debate or developments of any kind. Indeed, Cardinal Ratzinger was one of the key supporters of the Second Vatican Council, which shaped the Church into the institution that young Catholics have grown up with. The Church is not without problems: falling vocations to religious life in the West and worrying instances of abuse must and, doubtless will be, tackled firmly. No Supreme Pontiff fears a challenge but the job is unpredictable. He will have to address these issues but we should not attempt to anticipate the methods of Benedict XVI too hastily.
On Monday before the Cardinals began their conclave Ratzinger gave a homily warning against the dangers of a “dictatorship of relativism”. If the Church failed to uphold the belief in moral absolutes then it would cease to be the one true Catholic Church in which all Catholics declare their belief. This Pope knows as well as the last one the potential dangers of secular culture and extreme political ideology. As John Paul II was struggling under communist oppression in Poland, Benedict XVI was shocked to see it sweeping in its intellectual form through German universities, having already lived through the horror of Nazi rule. As a man aware of the nature of modern society, he will fight for the purity of truth, even though it may not always be a popular move.
As Benedict VXI promises in his first sermon as Pope to work to unite all Catholics, a BBC commentator is telling me that he has, in the past, referred to other religions as “deficient”. Well, I don’t have to struggle very hard to contain my surprise on that count. In calling myself a Catholic, I assert the belief that it is the one true faith, as with followers of most religions. It might sound arrogant to those of a secular persuasion but it is not unusual. That does not mean that I and other Catholics don’t like people of other faiths, or that I don’t respect their right to hold their beliefs, I just don’t share them. Despite holding such views Benedict XVI has been encouraging dialogue with other religions and will doubtless continue to do so.
There is reason to believe that the new Pope is not entirely as he has been portrayed. A theologian to John Paul II’s philosopher, his job as a latter day chief inquisitor didn’t give the public much opportunity to catch a glimpse of his warm and fluffy side. Stamping out heresy within the Church isn’t always a popularity-winning exercise.
However, it might be worth considering the name he has chosen for himself. To those who were expecting ‘John Paul III’ and more of the same, the choice of Benedict is an interesting shift. Perhaps Cardinal Ratzinger was considering the heroic efforts of the last Pope Benedict who struggled in vain to discourage the outbreak of war in 1914. Or perhaps he was moved by the legacy of St Benedict, founder of Western monasticism in the sixth century, a holy man dedicated to peace. We might all be in for a surprise. Those expecting a war on heresy could instead be confronted with a call for peace through unity in truth.
ARCHIVE: 0th week TT 2005