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Theological Notebook: Wonderful Fun with Press Coverage in the Times of London

Shock! New Pope a Catholic

April 21, 2005
Gerard Baker
Pinning a conservative label on Benedict XVI is absurd. His mission transcends Left and Right
WHAT HAS been most enjoyable about the stunned reaction of the bulk of the media to the election of Pope Benedict XVI has been the simple incredulousness at the very idea that a man such as Joseph Ratzinger could possibly have become leader of the universal Church.

Journalists and pundits for whom the Catholic Church has long been an object of anthropological curiosity fringed with patronising ridicule have really let themselves go since the new pontiff emerged. Indeed most of the coverage I have seen or read could be neatly summarised as: “Cardinals elect Catholic Pope. World in Shock.”

As headlines, I’ll grant you, it’s hard to beat God’s Rottweiler, The Enforcer, or Cardinal No. They all play beautifully into the anti-Catholic sentiment in intellectual European and American circles that is, in this politically correct era, the only form of religious bigotry legitimised and sanctioned in public life. But I ask you, in all honesty, what were they expecting?

Did the likes of The Guardian, the BBC or The New York Times think there was someone in the Church’s leadership who was going to pop up out on the balcony of St Peter’s and with a cheery wave, tell the faithful that everything they’d heard for the past 26 — no, make that 726 — years was rubbish and that they should all rush out and load up with condoms and abortifacients like teenagers off for a smutty weekend? Or did they think the conclave would go the whole hog and elect Sir Bob Geldof (with Peaches, perhaps, as a co-pope) in an effort to bring back the masses?

It has been fun (and revealing) to watch as the cardinals’ deliberations have been portrayed, with so little imagination or understanding, as a classic left-right battle between conservatives (bad, of course) and progressives (good). But it bears little reality to the way the Church’s leadership really thinks about its future.

The “conservative” label immediately pinned on Pope Benedict is for a start, hardly helpful. He, like the last one, defies easy characterisation in political terms. He was one of the intellectual driving forces behind the reforming Second Vatican Council. He has, like his predecessor, spoken out strongly against the war in Iraq, and indeed against the use of military force in all but the most exceptional of circumstances. He is in the broad church of prelates who, as William Rees-Mogg pointed out in these pages last week, essentially regard modern capitalism with moral disdain.

Sure, he is doctrinally a traditionalist, but this is misunderstood too. If you, as the papacy does, claim direct authority, through your 264 predecessors from the ministry of St Peter, who, the Gospels tell us was inaugurated into that ministry by the Son of God while he was present on earth, is it really possible to take anything other than a bit of a traditionalist view when it comes to doctrinal matters?

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not suggesting, at this sensitive moment, that God is a Tory. But the Church’s mission is to bear witness to the truth. The truth is not something that needs redefining each time a pope dies.

And it’s not really evident that churches that have made the kind of accommodations with modernity that are urged on the Vatican have fared all that well. The Church of England is a mostly genial institution led, in Rowan Williams, by a good and holy man, but I don’t get the sense that the post hoc validation of modern social mores that the C of E has been practising for some time has led to a religious awakening among the British.

Of course I’m being slightly unfair. There were choices on offer to the cardinals. They could have chosen a less challenging, less insistent voice for unwavering orthodoxy. But the idea that there was some radical alternative on offer who would have shifted the direction of the Church is way off the mark.

Two clues tell us what this papal selection truly represents. The first is the speed with which Cardinal Ratzinger was chosen. Four ballots, in less than 24 hours, was all it took for at least two-thirds of the cardinals (and probably many more) to establish a consensus in favour of this man. Why?

The answer lies in the nature of this succession. Though they loved and revered John Paul II, many cardinals still found themselves surprised at their own and the world’s reaction to the late Pope’s death. Only in the mourning did they fully grasp the significance of the historic phenomenon that he represented.

In the days leading up to the conclave the buzzword, if the Holy Spirit can be said to have such a thing, was Continuator. The cardinals wanted to anoint someone who would represent continuity with the dead Pope’s firm restatement of the church’s doctrines and values. There was no one who better offered the prospect of a reaffirmation of that papacy.

The other clue lies in the new Pope’s choice of name. The cardinals think long and hard about the choice of a papal nomen. It is intended as a clear signal of their intent. Much attention has focused on the previous 15 popes called Benedict. But it is worth remembering that the first St Benedict was not a pope, but the founder of the monastic order that bears his name. Benedict is the patron saint of Europe. His principal legacy — the Benedictines — was critical in planting the roots of Christianity throughout Europe in the dark, post-Roman period of the 6th and subsequent centuries. Without Benedict, Europe may not have been the centre of Christianity in the Middle Ages that made it the birthplace of modern civilisation.

The conclave clearly shared the view of John Paul II that Europe confronts another similar challenge — the lure of relativist, materialist secularism that is steadily stifling the Church in its birthplace. In choosing this Benedict, from the heart of Europe, they have demonstrated the Church’s intention to meet this challenge, not with compromise and accommodation, but with the unbending affirmation of the universal, eternal truth.

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