The erudite pope


The Catholic Church: John Feighery rounds up the books on the weighty life and teaching of Pope Benedict.

On September 24th this year, a very improbable four-hour meeting took place at the papal residence of Castel Gandolfo. Hans Küng, the most famous embodiment of liberal Catholicism, was warmly welcomed by Joseph Ratzinger his long-time adversary who five months earlier had been elected Pope Benedict XVI.

The two men, similar in age and in their immense distinction as theologians, had been friends over 35 years earlier both at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and later at the University of Tübingen. In 1979 Küng had his licence to teach at any Catholic university withdrawn by the Vatican whereas Benedict became a cardinal in 1977 and head of the Holy Office in 1981. The bitterness of their divergence is suggested in Küng's memoirs: "Time and again people puzzle over how so gifted, friendly and open a theologian as Joseph Ratzinger could undergo such a change from progressive Tübingen theologian to Roman Grand Inquisitor."

Few popes have come to their office apparently so well-qualified as Benedict. His theological erudition is such that even Pope John Paul II deferred to it. In addition, he had been the most influential cardinal in the Vatican for almost a generation. It is questionable, however, whether running the Holy Office for so long constitutes a valuable preparation for feeding the widely scattered and much troubled "lambs and sheep" of St Peter.

Benedict was fortunate in his birth into a very loving and pious Bavarian family. He remained close to it during his lengthy experience of academic life in Germany and his four years (1977-81) as Archbishop of Munich. A man of profound culture, he has read extensively in secular and sacred literature, including some of the great Protestant theologians.

Benedict's sympathies are classically European. The brash challenges of alien philosophies appear to evoke in him a radically negative and at times almost panic-stricken reaction. This was indeed his response to the student revolts of 1968. So traumatised was he by that Marxist-inspired subversion of authority and tradition that the outspoken, reforming theologian of Vatican II quickly transmuted into the dedicated scourge of "progressive" Catholicism over the next decades. The earlier advocate of collegiality in the church - giving a much enhanced voice to local bishops - became the instrument of a greatly increased Roman centralisation.

In the late 1960s, the Catholic church was also experiencing its own crisis in the wake of the Vatican Council. Ecclesiastical babies were being ejected wholesale along with ecclesiastical bathwater. For Benedict, a lover of the rococo splendours of Bavarian liturgy, the stripping away of the Latin language, of church devotions and decorations and the widespread questioning of doctrine and authority came as a tremendous spiritual shock. He detected within the heart of the church a relativism, self-indulgence and rationalism that needed to be confronted at all costs.

Benedict's cast of mind reflects his beloved St Augustine's pessimism about human nature. From this vantage-point followed surprising consequences, such as his frequent criticism of Vatican II's document on The Church in the Modern World. He is reputed to have disapproved of John Paul II's praying for peace in Assisi (1986) with leaders of all the world's great religions. Nor, it seems, did he share his predecessor's expectation of a marvellous Christian renaissance in the third millennium. And it is pretty clear that he vastly prefers the old Tridentine mass to the folksy celebrations in which John Paul II often delighted.

Benedict's passion for orthodoxy and distaste for novelty shaped his long stewardship of the Holy Office which, let it be said, he never sought. For over two stormy decades, he repressed what he judged to be dangerous in Catholic ideas and movements. At times other cardinals objected but almost always in vain.

Among the many movements that Benedict indicted were liberation theology, changes in sexual morality, the ordination of women and greater recognition for non-Christian religions. His response was more than verbal. Prominent theologians were sacked from Catholic universities. In many countries ultra-conservative bishops were imposed by the Vatican against the outraged opposition of the local clergy and laity and with predictably disastrous results.

Benedict's sincere zeal for the fundamentals of his faith is very evident. But aspects of his language and actions have been severely criticised by commentators within and without the Catholic church. They see occasional signs of exaggeration and even paranoia; signs, too, of a morbid pessimism and at times of a simple lack of common sense.

For example, did the Vatican prohibition of even the discussion of female ordination show common sense or otherwise? And what is one to make of the Holy Office's 1999 statement on the Spanish Inquisition that the Catholic church has no need to repent because it had never been in error, whereas its members should of course repent for their sins of persecution? Composing learned theological statements in Rome can often seem very remote from the "blood, sweat and tears" of the world's poor and from the sexual anguish of people everywhere.

Consider an example close to my own experience - liberation theology. I have no doubt that Benedict was right to condemn those aspects of the movement that, however untypically, favoured violence and Marxist analysis as the key to a more just church and state. But, tragically, there were also many undeserving victims, such as archbishops Helder Camara and Oscar Romero. These men were supreme examples of Christian witness but they were treated with disdain by the Vatican.

Helder Camara was replaced during his lifetime by a canon lawyer who quickly destroyed most of Camara's initiatives on behalf of the poor. Oscar Romero was harassed while alive by the Vatican and not even fittingly honoured when murdered by soldiers in the very act of saying Mass. What sort of Christian "orthodoxy" does this represent? By way of contrast, one has yet to hear of a single bishop or papal diplomat whose career suffered as a result of friendship with dictators as murderous as Augusto Pinochet.

While luminously intelligent, Benedict is perhaps deficient in a sense of irony. Take one of his characteristic expressions - "the dictatorship of relativism". Is "dictatorship" the appropriate word from the leader of a church that at so many levels is profoundly autocratic? Further, how did Benedict fail to apply his very rigorous moral standards to the operations of the Holy Office? Cardinal Frings, his mentor at Vatican II, described the Holy Office's methods as "a cause of scandal to the world". Ladislaus Orsy, the eminent Jesuit canonist, wrote in 1998 that the Holy Office does not distinguish between judge, prosecutor and investigator. The accused is not allowed a fair opportunity to present his or her case. Denunciations are frequently anonymous and the whole process is cloaked in secrecy.

If Vatican "justice" functions with such flagrantly unjust procedures, can we be surprised that bishops throughout the world have handled clerical sex abuse with a calamitous disregard for human rights or even basic decency? The elevation of Cardinal Law from Boston to responsibility for one of Rome's great basilicas is a measure of what the Vatican thinks about episcopal performance: humiliate Oscar Romero; honourBernard Law.

When reading extensively about the weighty life and teaching of Pope Benedict, it is relaxing to come across a book as fabulously silly and self-regarding as Father Andrew Greeley's The Making of the Pope. A professional sociologist, Greeley has also written novels with such fragrant titles as Priestly Sins and The Bishop and the Beggar Girl of St Germain. In the following passage he discovers that fact and fiction lead to a blinding revelation: "I was probably unjust in my early judgments about Cardinal Ratzinger. I could plead that I didn't know him. But somehow I did know him. A man depicted in my novel, An Occasion of Sin . . . was the same man who appeared on the balcony of St Peter's." And so on and on.

Benedict's own In The Beginning, a reflection on the theme of creation, illustrates his genius for writing theology in a way that is accessible to a wide readership. In contrast, Aidan Nichols's analysis of Benedict's theology, The Thought of Benedict XVI, is a rigorously academic work and may not readily be understood by non-specialists. John Pollard's Benedict XV (1914-1922) is a compelling portrait of a Pope who dedicated himself to peace within and without the church.

Regarding the biographies of Benedict XVI, my friendship with Michael Collins does not affect my recommendation of his brief Pope Benedict XVI, which is both lucid and well-balanced. I cannot say the same for Laurence Paul Hemming's book which is bombastic in tone and very badly written. However, for those wishing to learn about Benedict and his wider ecclesiastical context, the outstanding portraits are those by Rupert Shortt and Paul Collins. Both writers cover a huge range of material with admirable clarity and concision. Their analysis is critical but not partisan. Collins's greater length allows him to devote more attention to John Paul II's legacy. Both books are recommended unreservedly.

The generous hospitality Benedict recently extended to the frequently arrogant and acerbic Hans Küng is only one of many current signs that he is once again transforming his public profile. It is as if, aged 78 and now the supreme pastor, he has striven to move beyond all passing conflicts and polemics towards a more serene style of leadership. Asked some months ago about re-admitting the divorced to the Eucharist, said arguments existed for and against and that the question needed further consideration. Hurray at last for some holy agnosticism

One should perhaps leave so articulate a Pope with the last words. At his inaugural mass Benedict defined with customary eloquence his hopes for his papacy: "My real programme for governance is not to do my own will, not to pursue my own ideas, but to listen together with the whole church to the word and will of the Lord; to be guided by him, so that he himself will lead the church at this hour of our history."

John Feighery is a Divine Word Missionary priest. He studied history in UCD and worked in pastoral ministry in Brazil

God's New Man By Paul Collins Continuum, 233pp. £11.87

Benedict XVI By Rupert Shortt Hodder & Stoughton, 150pp. £16.99

Pope Benedict XVI By Michael Collins The Columba Press, 96pp, €8.99

In the Beginning By Benedict XVI Trans. Boniface Ramsey O.P. T&T Clark, 100pp. £8.99

Benedict XVI By Laurence Paul Hemming Burns & Oates, 183pp. £8