The Real Ratzinger

By Wilson, A. N. | Newsweek, February 15, 2013 | Go to article overview

The Real Ratzinger


Wilson, A. N., Newsweek


Byline: A.N. Wilson

Forget the Prada loafers and the conservative vestments, 'God's Rottweiler' wasn't that bad.

My wife exclaimed, when she heard of the pope's surprise announcement to retire: "It's bad enough having one old man thinking he's infallible--now there'll be two of them!" Our conversation went on to imagine the election of yet another octogenarian, who might well in turn resign before the demise of Benedict. Pretty soon, the Vatican could fill up with retired infallible old men, most of them Italian, all nodding in front of the daytime television in the geriatric wing, and all--all--infallible.

My guess is that this time, they won't go for yet another ancient European, and they will plump for a cardinal either from Africa or South America. Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana would be good. Another possibility is Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria--an arch-conservative who makes Ratzinger seem like a wishy-washy Anglican. (Which in many ways he is!)

But my money is on Cardinal Leonardo Sandri of Argentina. At 70, he is the ideal age--with 10 years, at least, before he joins the other infallibles in the dayroom. Additionally, he has the great advantage of being, at present, in charge of the Vatican's relationship with the Eastern churches--and it is surely the moment in history to reunite Rome with the Orthodox. And he is also a voice of South America--and that must be heard. Europe and North America have grown deaf to the faith, and the church needs someone from elsewhere to nourish the flame once more.

Whatever happens, for a pope who was elected on the traditionalist ticket, it was a curious thing to retire. Popes just don't retire. And then he did. Ever since his moment of truth in 1968, when the rioting students of Tubingen converted the liberal-minded Joseph Ratzinger into the Enemy of the Enlightenment and Defender of Catholic Reaction, this has been a man--surely--who wanted to revert to the way things were in the good old days, back in ... er ... when exactly?

That has always been the problem for "traditionalists" or "conservatives" in any sphere of life--church, politics, family life. How far do you want to go back? At what point, exactly, did things begin to go wrong?

Appointed as John Paul II's righthand man, Ratzinger was the Nasty Cop, engaged to wage war on the liberals. But in point of fact, he was always a much subtler figure than his enemies--or, more dangerously--his fans believed. Almost the first thing he said to the English Archbishop Cormac Murphy-O'Connor was: "When are we going to make Newman a saint?"

John Henry Newman, the 19th-century convert from Anglicanism, in 1845 wrote a world-changing book--literally--called The Development of Christian Doctrine. In it, he posited that nothing stays the same; everything is in a state of flux and development. He popularized the Hegelian view of the world for English speakers, and thereby prepared the world for Darwin and modern political democracy. But it took a while for the church--in the Second Vatican Council--to catch up. Ratzinger, behind the old-fashioned vestments, and the occasional sharp message to American or German liberal theologians, has always in fact been a Newman Catholic, aware that the church, for all its historic roots in the world of late classical antiquity, is ever changing, ever new.

Dante Alighieri, not a poet who minced his words about popes, had no hesitation in sending to hell the only pope who had resigned in his lifetime. True, he did not put the resigning pope in the very pits of hell with those who sell political office, or who betray their country or their friends. But there he is, cowering on the borders of hell at the very beginning of the Inferno. "And then I saw--and knew beyond all doubt--the shadow of the one who made, from cowardice, the great refusal"--che fece per viltade il gran rifiuto.

They are tough words, especially if we take them to refer to a man whom the Catholic Church venerates not merely as a holy pope but as a saint: Saint Celestine V. …

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