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Pope Benedict XVI

by James Hitchcock
April 20, 2005

The election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as pope, although often predicted, came as a surprise, particularly because of the speed with which the cardinals reached their decision. Conventional wisdom considered him "controversial," which was thought sufficient to prevent his election.

The address that Cardinal Ratzinger gave to the cardinals at the beginning of the Conclave, if it was a campaign speech, was a highly unusual one, in that it offered no concessions, did not hint at compromise, merely proclaimed in effect, "If you see the situation facing the church in the way I do, then perhaps I am suitable to be pope." He did not seek, and certainly did not want, the papacy on any other terms.

In the public discussions of the papacy, in a culture where even many church-members are religiously illiterate, it seems almost impossible to get beyond the "bottom lines" -- will the new pope agree to ordain women, rescind the teaching on birth control, accept homosexuality? Advice on as to what the new pope "must" do is often proffered by people who have scarcely an elementary knowledge of Catholic doctrine, and who in fact cannot understand why we should have a pope at all. Critics of the new pope (as well as of the previous one) in effect demand that he simply conform the church to modern culture.

Cardinal Ratzinger, one of the most important Catholic theologians of the late twentieth century, was intellectually the best qualified man to be pope, and he defines his role in a way exactly opposite to that of his critics -- a confrontation with modern culture in order to assert the primacy of the Gospel in all aspects of human affairs. Such a confrontation need not be abrasive, although it may often have to be, but it does recognize that the values of the world are in many ways in fundamental conflict with the Gospel and that the world always needs redemption.

Many modern intellectuals are in various ways antithetical to enduring truths. They are predominantly men of the left, in the broadest sense of that term. But at this moment in history the needs of the time require that the leader of the church precisely be a kind of intellectual, because only an intellectual is likely to see the whole cultural pattern, the way in which the various manifestations of modern civilization are deeply rooted and systemic.

Many people who reject Benedict XVI's judgments about modern civilization simply have not thought about it nearly as deeply as he has. For forty years it has been customary in the media to equate "thinking Catholics" with dissenters, and the new pope annoys his critics in part because they cannot dismiss him as intellectually deficient -- not only he is more learned and intelligent than practically all of his critics, he also understands modernity better than they do.

I met the new pope about thirty years ago, before he was a bishop, at an editorial meeting in Munich of the international journal Communio. I recall a modest and friendly man, for all his formidable intellect. Communio was founded by the Swiss theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar, probably the single most important Catholic theologian of the twentieth century, and it is significant that now two popes in succession have been men who in some sense could be considered Balthasar's intellectual colleagues, even in important ways his disciples.

Also see: Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger -- Man for the Job -- June 2, 2005

James Hitchcock,
professor of history at St. Louis University, writes and lectures on contemporary Church matters. His column appears in the diocesan press. Dr. Hitchcock's two volume work, The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life, Vol. 1 The Odyssey of the Religion Clauses
and Vol. II From 'Higher Law' to 'Sectarian Scruples', was released by Princeton University Press September 2, 2004.

E-Mail: Dr. James Hitchcock

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