You Have to Love A Pope Who Loves St. Augustine
Benedict XVI a "hardliner"? Perhaps. But that's what they called Reagan too.
Friday, April 22, 2005 12:01 a.m. EDT
The Wall Street Journal
Here are two things you need to know this week about Joseph Ratzinger, a k a Benedict XVI:
He fulfilled the first requisite for being Pope: He looks good in white. And in Germany his book "Salz der Erde" (Salt of the Earth) dislodged Harry Potter as Amazon's No. 1 bestseller.
Something's happening here.
This pope thing has held the world's attention for three weeks now. The interest in these events--the life and thought of John Paul II, his funeral with its sea of earnest young faces, the papal conclave--has stirred something in the public beast beyond idle curiosity at a televised event.
I keep thinking of Joseph Ratzinger's most compelling words the past week. Not the widely quoted reference to a "dictatorship of relativism," however apt. No, the next pope's most haunting words were the refrain of his funeral homily for John Paul: "Follow me."
These of course were not Joseph Ratzinger's words but those of Jesus to Peter, the first pope. But as the Cardinal repeated them in his compelling funeral oration, I took them to mean that he wanted us to follow his thought-line on the life of Karol Wotyla. Follow me.
Joseph Ratzinger's thought-line is precisely what is at issue this week as his papacy begins. Media shorthand has reduced the whole of the new pope's mind to two words: "doctrinal hardliner." It is possible that this caricature is a media judgment error similar to the one made about Ronald Reagan.
At the moment, Amazon's U.S. tracking list has 11 Ratzinger books in its top 50 sellers. One of the most interesting explorations of the Ratzinger mind is his memoir "Milestones" from Ignatius Press. It is difficult to obtain it this week, but an excellent summary exists in Rev. Richard John Neuhaus's 1999 review, "Joseph Ratzinger, Christ's Donkey," in his valuable journal First Things at www.firstthings.com/ftissues/ft9901/public.html.
In that book, Joseph Ratzinger describes how he prefers Augustine to Thomas Aquinas, "whose crystal-clear logic seemed to me to be too closed in on itself, too impersonal and ready-made." Anyone familiar with Augustine and Aquinas would at least pause to reflect on this remark from a man characterized in the press as an inquisitor, rottweiler, enforcer.
Augustine is the more mystical personality, closer in some ways to the "new age" impulses of our times. In the writings of Augustine, arguably the most complex mind Christianity has produced, the exercise of deep faith carries with it the possibility of what I would call a "high" experience in one's pursuit of and relationship to God. That was the Church of the 5th century. In our time, religion has become freighted with correct politics (the Left) or correct morality (the Right), rather than the substance of one's relationship with God.
I get the impression that Joseph Ratzinger--who reveres the early, transcendent Church Fathers (its "founding fathers")--is at heart more a vibrant 5th-century Christian than a stale 19th-century dogmatist; as conceivably was John Paul II, who often let himself slip into an Upward-directed reverie in public. In short, Benedict XVI looks to be very different from the stolid, authoritarian German described this week in the public prints.
His memoir also gives a more complete understanding of the real source of Cardinal Ratzinger's disputes with his enemies--a battle again penciled in as the dogma cop, bunkered in some Vatican redoubt, giving thumbs up or down on new ideas, according to his whim. In fact, Ratzinger's beef is mainly with the post-Vatican II academic theologians who thought they should be writing, or rewriting, the Church's rulebook based on whatever new theories spun out of their heads--not the bishops, the Pope or even the church faithful. The way the political game is now played, if John Paul and he had opened the door on one reform, say contraception, the whole gang would have roared in behind.
"The impression grew steadily," he writes, "that nothing was now stable in the Church, that everything was open to revision"--by these scholars. This is not just some arcane dispute over how many angels dance on the head of a pin. It is precisely the fight over intellectual authority and daily application being fought right now in the U.S. Senate over the Bush judges and Constitutional interpretation. As Joseph Ratzinger put it, he opposes a "reality" that someone has "simply thought up." Sounds like a soul-brother of Antonin Scalia to me. Like the U.S., the Catholic Church is a huge, sprawling, complex institution, and there are real issues at stake here that affect long-term life on the streets and in the pews.
Now Joseph Ratzinger has the bully pulpit of the papacy, and it will be impossible to marginalize him as an unthinking dogmatist. He is not that. He is a formidable advocate for his ideas. He argues, for instance, (again in language redolent of Justice Scalia) that the Church's centuries of liturgical tradition were essentially "demolished" in the late 1960s. And he knows why he thinks roll-your-own liturgies were a mistake: "When liturgy is self-made, then it can no longer give us what its proper gift should be: the encounter with the mystery that is not our own product but rather our origin and the source of our life." Disagree if you will, but this is more than simply, "No."
"Follow me." How far the Church faithful, Europe's unchurched, or his many adversaries will follow Benedict XVI remains to be seen. I know more about the very interesting mind of Joseph Ratzinger than I did a week ago. And on the evidence of the past several weeks--millions of young in the streets of Rome, millions more watching daily on television, and constant thoughtful questions about the meaning of it all from non-Catholic friends--it is clear that this new Pope has an audience. Stay tuned.
Mr. Henninger is deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page. His column appears Fridays in the Journal and on OpinionJournal.com.