Cardinals literally locked in conclave to elect the next pope swear not to reveal any details of the process. But more than one of them has said in general terms that when they got together five years ago to choose a successor to John Paul II, it was clear that only one man could do the job the times required: Joseph Ratzinger. They were right.
But in several ways not immediately obvious. The media-fueled firestorms of the past few months have obscured his real character and achievements for the general public. That smoke will subside and, to any far-minded observer, leave him essentially untouched. He is simply not one of those Church leaders who believe that you help the Church by refusing to face hard questions or challenges. If you doubt this, take a look at the first pages of his Introduction to Christianity or almost anything he has written or said or done in a lifetime of patient integrity.
It’s true that a lot of the time he’s playing Mozart, so to speak, for the world—while the world’s tastes have turned to rap music or lost a musical sense altogether. The cardinals in 2005 seemed to have thought that he had the deepest grasp on the intellectual problems confronting the Church, as deep a grasp as JPII had of the large public questions that he so brilliantly engaged. His intellect ranks among the greatest in the world, but Benedict also has palpable personal charm and pastoral gifts—as all his old students and those who know him attest. There is no greater proof of this than the way he quietly disarmed an American press waiting to attack during his visit here in 2008.
The media’s attention span is short, however, and the demand for gripping headlines that will stand out in the ever-growing sea of information has led more than one journalist into temptation. Benedict’s longer-term contribution, however, is what will remain of importance, and it’s no exaggeration to say that beyond general anti-Catholicism, those efforts have been the real target of the attacks over alleged culpability in not removing abusive priests quickly enough.
Benedict’s overarching goal for his papacy was announced in a homily he gave the day after being elected, at a small Mass prior to his first full-scale public Mass as pope. He repeated something that has guided him even in the days when he was thought to be one of the young theological liberals at the Second Vatican Council: he welcomed the reforms and pastoral renewal set in motion by the Council, but insisted they must be interpreted in “continuity” with everything that went before, since the Catholic Church is the single, undivided Body of Christ. This signifies neither a return to the past or a simple reading of the present in well-worn channels. Instead, it looks to a dynamic and creative engagement with our time using the timeless Catholic sources of thought and inspiration.
That is the way to understand his engagement with European thinkers on the place of religion in public life. In his now famous lecture at the University of Regensburg (where he once taught), in his conversations with Marcello Pera in Italy and Jurgen Habermas in Germany, Pope Benedict has taken the Catholic case to unbelievers who sense the impending crisis in Europe and in any society that tries to base itself radically on secular rationality. This may seem an esoteric question. In fact, how it is answered will have the most far-reaching practical consequences for whether countries like those in Europe will be able to survive in ways that respect the human person and to resist external threats like those of radical Islam.
Within the Church, Benedict has not only called for a recognition of continuity, he has tried to heal breaches with traditionalists and the Orthodox, and invited Anglo-Catholics to full communion. Observers who only think of human relations in terms of power regard these steps, of course, as power grabs. In fact, they are attempts by a father to gather the family together again. As he reminds us in Caritas in Veritate: “Reason, by itself, is capable of grasping the equality between men and of giving stability to their civic coexistence, but it cannot establish fraternity. This originates in a transcendent vocation from God the Father, who loved us first, teaching us through the Son what fraternal charity is.” Someday, that paternal side of Benedict, the one that encourages us all to be true brothers and sisters to one another, will be evident again.
Has his papacy, in a now almost hallowed Vatican tradition, suffered much from clumsy PR? Yes. Will his final years be taken up largely in dealing with an abuse crisis he has done more than any other Catholic leader to clean up? Yes. Will the press unfairly accuse and revile him and blame him for many things he has given his whole life to combating? Yes.
But as the first pope elected in the third Christian millennium he has been a strong witness to what a real Christian must do and suffer in the times to which we have all been called. And for that, dear Papa Benedict, many thanks.