Benedict XVI's pontificate: the possibilities

Benedict XVI's pontificate: the possibilities

Damian Thompson

Damian Thompson is editor-in-chief of Britain's leading Catholic weekly, the 'Catholic Herald'. His article, which was first published in the London 'Spectator', offers a provocative analysis of what could be the distinctive marks of Benedict XVI's pontificate.

Benedict XVI is the first pope in history to have gone about his daily life as a Catholic priest wearing a collar and tie. In some countries, the practice is almost unknown; in Europe, it is the mark of a liberal theologian. But the other day the Catholic Herald printed a photograph of Father Ratzinger dressed like a businessman that dated from 1977, long after his supposed conversion to hard-line conservatism.

Apparently Fr Ratzinger, as a professor at Regensburg, was merely following university convention. Even so, it is a revealing detail, suggesting that, despite shared roots in folk Catholicism, Benedict's intellectual history has little in common with that of John Paul II. The latter spent most of his academic career in a Catholic ghetto; Ratzinger numbered many Lutheran and Reformed colleagues among his friends, and admits that they shaped his own theology.

John Paul was a conservative who employed radical methods - foreign travel and the cult of personality - to enhance the authority of his office; he also produced many solid teaching documents that his clergy invariably described as "wonderful" and always intended to get round to reading some day.

Pope Benedict is a conservative radical who has the potential to shake up the Catholic Church with the vigour that Margaret Thatcher shook up her party (though the analogy should not be pushed too far: he is on record as saying that "democratic socialism" is closer to the Gospel than free- market capitalism).

This could be one of the most successful pontificates in the history of the Church. Then again, it could be a disaster. Everything depends on how long Benedict lives and on whether he has the nerve and skill to push through a program of "purification" - his own word, and one that sends an anticipatory shiver down the spines of liberal Catholics.

They have reason to be worried, since Benedict genuinely dislikes some of their theology and liturgical practices. But the fact that they are steeling themselves for a merciless purge suggests that they have misread Benedict, or read the wrong things.

As Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), Cardinal Ratzinger was indeed Pope John Paul's "doctrinal enforcer" - that is, he was carrying out the instructions of the Pontiff. This is not to say that he dissented from its stern rulings (though he has hinted that, in the case of the gay-friendly theologian Charles Curran, the disciplinary decision was taken out of his hands by John Paul).

But there is a vast gulf between the pedestrian judgments of the CDF and the personal writings of Joseph Ratzinger, which offer a dazzling interpretation of Catholicism that, unlike Vatican II, might actually succeed in reviving it.

Brutal assessment

One of the keys to understanding Benedict is his brutal assessment of the immediate future of the Church. John Paul, with the cheers of crowds of bused-in "young people" ringing in his ears, predicted a "springtime of Christianity". His successor believes that the Church will grow smaller, and that this is by no means a bad thing. (One of the joys of reading Ratzinger is spotting how often he subtly tiptoes away from John Paul's obsessions: it would be surprising if we were to hear any more about Fatima during this pontificate, and there will be no more talk of Mary as "Co-Redemptrix" of humanity.)

Benedict's apparent pessimism should be welcomed by Catholics, since it can only be to their advantage to have a pontiff whose view of the Church corresponds to sociological reality.

The number of practising Catholics in the developed world is shrinking and will continue to shrink. The conventional view of Benedict has him planning to do battle with the diabolical materialism that has caused this decline. In fact, he grasps the complexity and irreversibility of the social forces involved. "The historical hour isn't turning around," he said in an interview in 1996. "It would undoubtedly be false to expect that a sort of historical shift could take place, that the faith will again become a large- scale mass phenomenon that dominates history."

You might imagine that the Pope would be upset by this state of affairs, which his predecessor refused even to acknowledge. He isn't, because he thinks that a smaller Church could be a better Church, offering the world a superior product and therefore eventually increasing its market share. Benedict himself does not employ this commercial analogy, but it works surprisingly well - not just for Roman Catholicism but also for religion in general.

One of the discoveries in the sociology of religion in the last 25 years has been the extent to which, mutatis mutandis, patterns of religious allegiance in a pluralist society resemble those of consumption in the marketplace. People are attracted to strong brands that protect their identity; they enjoy products that suspend the boring reality of everyday life; and they demand near-infallible standards of professionalism.

Judged by these criteria, post- Vatican II Catholicism has failed miserably, and Pope Benedict - unlike certain smug bishops' conferences - is aware of the fact. When the clerical bon viveur Brian Brindley resigned his Anglican orders, he said he felt like a commercial traveller who had been selling vacuum cleaners for 25 years, only to discover that they didn't work.

Benedict would not claim that Catholic vacuum cleaners don't work; but he doesn't think they do their job efficiently, and he wants to strip them of their fancy but useless attachments.

This Pope is a CEO, not a chairman, and as such has two priorities. The first is to make sure that staff and services bearing the label "Catholic" are what they say they are. Benedict is not offended by liberal Catholic theology, and welcomes its insights; but, if it conflicts with the Church's magisterium, he feels no compunction about peeling off the label. To use his own metaphor, "pruning is a condition of fruitfulness".

Liberal American Catholics heard the snip of his secateurs when Fr Thomas Reese was invited to step down as editor of the Jesuit journal America in May; from the fuss they made, you would think there had been an auto-da-fé.

This pruning will continue; we shall have to wait to see whether it has the desired effect, which is to stop the Church getting stuck in the mire of relativism that is swallowing Archbishop Rowan Williams. (Incidentally, Fr Patrick Burke, editor of the conservative magazine Faith and a critic of the lofty British Tablet, has just joined the CDF. That could be fun.)

Writing in 1991, the then Cardinal Ratzinger warned European Churches that they "must not allow themselves to be downgraded to a mere means for making society moral, as the liberal state wishes; still less should they want to justify themselves through the usefulness of their social work".

But that is precisely how the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales and its "agencies" spend their time, issuing self-justifying reports and consultation documents that pathetically try to reconcile Catholic teaching with the latest Islingtonian piety.

Liturgy

This dreary culture could be eradicated instantly if Benedict were to take an axe to the bishops' conferences. Alas, that is a practical impossibility, so he will probably take the slower route of instructing the conferences to dismantle their sillier committees. He will also appoint brighter bishops. (That shouldn't be difficult in England and Wales: sticking a pin in the Catholic Directory would produce a better hierarchy than the present system of consultation.)

Benedict's other priority is to improve the quality of the Church's greatest service, the liturgy of the Eucharist. This is a project far closer to his heart than, say, various sexual prohibitions (about which he thinks "perhaps too much has been said and too often").

Because he is an unusually frank writer and interviewee, we already know the drastic nature of the reforms he has in mind. Whether he can implement them is another question, since they amount to the overturning of the post-conciliar culture of the Church, and the Pope is so old (78) that - as his brother thoughtfully pointed out - he cannot even be sure of waking up in the morning.

Here is a list of the changes Benedict would like to see introduced in dioceses around the world: the lifting of all restrictions on the celebration of the Tridentine rite; the replacement of toe-curling folk hymns by plainchant and polyphony; a return to the congregational rituals of bowing and breast-beating; the occasional Tridentine-style recitation of the Canon of the modern Mass sotto voce; and - where architecturally feasible - a revival of the practice of the priest facing eastwards, away from the people, as he celebrates Mass.

This literal reorientation is crucial because it captures the essence of Benedict's theology. Orthodoxy, he argues in his masterpiece The Spirit of the Liturgy, should recover its older meaning of "the right way to glorify God, the right form of adoration". And this means priest and people facing the risen Lord together, rather than facing each other and talking complacently about "the people of God" (a phrase whose overuse irritates Benedict).

In the conclave following the death of Pius XII, the cardinals elected a 77-year-old pope, John XXIII, who by the time of his death four-and-a- half years later had set in motion an aggiornamento, a turning towards the world. That process produced some positive results, but also led to a widespread acceptance of liberal orthodoxy and church services of such spectacular ugliness that they repelled the very people they were supposed to attract.

John Paul II should have reformed the liturgy, but did not. As a result, too many Masses are as soul- destroyingly banal as they were in the 1970s.

Now the cardinals have elected a pope even older than John XXIII who wants to turn the Church towards ways of thinking and worshipping that transcend rather than accommodate the world. It is a wonderful ambition - but Benedict will have to live a lot longer than John if he is to achieve it.

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