Four Myths About Pope Benedict XVI
by Brian Saint-Paul
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger is now Pope Benedict XVI. Can there be any
question that the Holy Spirit guides the conclave? From John Paul II
to Benedict XVI... oh, this is a good time to be Catholic.
Of course, not everyone agrees.
Mere moments after the announcement, the criticism began. If all you
knew about the new pope was what you've heard from mainstream media
outlets, you'd think the cardinals just elected a cold, calculating
hard-liner with a Nazi past who just can't wait to reinstitute the
Spanish Inquisition to take care of liberals, gays, and women. (I
suppose liberal gay women would have it particularly hard.)
That's not to say that there haven't been notable exceptions in the
media. One of the positive things throughout this whole period is
that some journalists have actually been quite fair in their
reporting on the new pope.
But unfortunately, at this stage, they stand as the exceptions. On
the whole, we've heard a string of inaccuracies and inanities. So, to
help you answer them, I've compiled a list of the four most common
myths about the new pope, along with responses to them.
"Benedict XVI 'campaigned' for the papacy, outmaneuvering the
liberal faction to win the job."
Unfortunately, it's a tendency of the American media to project the
styles and categories of U.S. politics onto every other kind of
election. Such is the case here. Following this model, the former
Cardinal Ratzinger is said to have maneuvered his way into the
papacy, through behind-the-scenes campaigning and deft use of his
prominence as the Dean of the College of Cardinals. His magnificent
homily at John Paul II's funeral and his no-nonsense criticism of
moral relativism preceding the conclave are offered as evidence.
But this is simple nonsense, and it ignores several well-established
First, in the modern era at least, the vast majority of cardinals do
not want to be elevated to the papacy, and the few who do are not
elected. The life of the Supreme Pontiff is a difficult one. His life
is no longer his own. Gone is his privacy, his freedom, his leisure,
and his regular contact with friends and family.
Second, it's well known that Benedict XVI did NOT want to be pope.
By his own admission, he was never completely comfortable in his role
as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and
tried to resign several times (John Paul II would have none of it).
Furthermore, it was Benedict's dream to leave the Vatican to return
to the slow-paced world of teaching. In an interview with Matthew
Schofield of Knight Ridder, the pope's brother, Father Georg
Ratzinger, recalled a conversation with him over Christmas where they
discussed his retiring to a quite life back in Germany.
But what about his strong homily taking on moral relativism at the
opening of the conclave? Much of the secular media has described it
as though it were a kind of campaign event (one particularly clueless
journalist referred to the homily as a "stump speech").
The truth is quite the opposite. Most informed Vatican observers
recognized the homily as Benedict XVI's last attempt to avoid
election to the papacy. After all, if he were actually campaigning,
he would have delivered something softer that appealled to the
moderates within the College of Cardinals... not the no-holds-barred
assault on secularism that he delivered instead.
Even Fr. Richard McBrien recognized this, managing to get it both
right and wrong at the same time. Just after the conclave opened, he
noted: "If Cardinal Ratzinger were really campaigning for pope, he
would have given a far more conciliatory homily designed to appeal to
the moderates as well as to the hard-liners among the cardinals. I
think this homily shows he realizes he's not going to be elected.
He's too much of a polarizing figure."
In short, a homily is not a stump speech, a conclave is not a
polling station, and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger had no ambitions to
become Benedict XVI.
"Pope Benedict XVI was chosen as a transitional pope."
To a partial degree, this is true. After all, at 78 years of age,
the Holy Father won't have the same lengthy reign as his predecessor.
Nevertheless, there's an important difference between a transitional
papacy and a short papacy. Blessed John XXIII had a short papacy,
after all, but it was hardly the slow-paced transition his electors
might have been expecting. His decision to convene the Second Vatican
Council, after all, forever changed the face of the Catholic Church.
Make no mistake -- none of the cardinal electors at this conclave
had any notion that Benedict XVI would sit around the Vatican,
issuing the occasional unremarkable document. As those who have
worked with him can tell you, Benedict XVI gets things done. This
will be an active and productive papacy. And given the prolific
writing career of the former-Cardinal Ratzinger, we can expect a
small library of encyclicals from him, now that he occupies the
Apostolic See. Please Lord, may it be so.
"Benedict XVI has a dark, Nazi past."
This one is almost too ridiculous to address. But since the
ridiculous is no disqualifier for some, we must answer it. The charge
stems from the pope's childhood in Nazi Germany. At the time,
membership in the Hitler Youth was mandatory for young men. And so,
against his wishes, he was enrolled.
By all counts, he was a very unenthusiastic member -- indeed, his
family had been outspoken in their opposition to Nazism, to the point
where they actually had to move to a different town out of safety
When the pope turned 16, he was drafted into the German army to
serve with an anti-aircraft unit. He never saw combat and
subsequently deserted (an action that would have meant summary
execution had he been caught).
And that's the sum total of his involvement with the Third Reich.
Does this constitute a "dark past"? After all, he describes all of
this himself in his book, "Salt of the Earth." The interesting thing
is, none of his critics actually believe he had any affection for the
Nazis. Furthermore, the "Nazi Connection" charge was ably refuted a
few days ago in the Jerusalem Post -- hardly a haven for Hitler
apologists. And other prominent Jewish leaders, like Abraham Foxman
of the Anti-Defamation League, have come to the pope's defense.
As for his attitude towards Judaism, it's well known that he was a
key participant in and supporter of Pope John Paul II's historic
outreach to the Jewish people. And anyone who reads his wonderful
book, "Many Religions, One Covenant: Israel, the Church, and the
World," will discover his affection for our elder brothers and
sisters in the Jewish Faith.
So, is Benedict XVI an anti-Semite? No. A man with a suspicious Nazi
past? No. In the end, the pope's sole mistake was being born in the
wrong nation at the wrong time.
"Pope Benedict XVI is a doctrinal hardliner who opposes the
reforms of the Second Vatican Council."
It's almost difficult to know where to start. Since when, after all,
does standing behind that which has always been believed and taught
make one a "hardliner"? Furthermore, can the term itself be
understood as anything other than an insult? Have you ever heard it
used as a compliment? And what if the position one stands behind is
true? If I defend the existence of gravity against someone who denies
it, does that make me a gravitational hardliner? How silly.
Happily, the main portion of the charge -- that he opposes the
reforms of Vatican II -- is much easier to address. As anyone
familiar with his life or work knows, Benedict XVI fully supports the
documents and decrees of the Council. Indeed, he attended as a
theological advisor and, along with Henri de Lubac, was a chief
proponent of the Council's return to Scripture and the Early Fathers
as the prime sources of Catholic theology.
What Benedict XVI does oppose, however, is the misuse of Vatican II
to justify things the Council Fathers never proposed. Abortion,
contraception, women's ordination, acceptance of homosexual behavior
-- all are paraded by dissenting Catholics as natural outgrowths from
the documents of the Council. But such claims are only convincing to
one who has never actually read those same documents (which are
thoroughly orthodox and bear no support whatsoever to such radical
That's when the "Spirit of Vatican II" makes its entrance. You see,
since dissenting Catholics cannot actually find their wish list
anywhere in the actual conciliar documents, they're forced to imagine
a kind of trajectory from the Council -- almost as if Vatican II were
a perpetual, unending event. Given enough time, the theory goes, the
Fathers would have eventually embraced the theological fascinations
of the Catholic Left.
Don't be fooled. One of my favorite former theology professors --
certainly no conservative -- used to say that the phrase "The Spirit
of Vatican II" really means, "This is what Vatican II would have said
if Vatican II were me."
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Brian Saint-Paul is the editor of Crisis Magazine. Copyright © Brian Saint-Paul and Crisis Magazine
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