National Catholic Reporter, November 24, 2006

A new book on Benedict XVI paints a disquieting portrait


THE RULE OF BENEDICT:  Pope Benedict XVI and His Battle With the Modern World

By David Gibson
HarperSan Francisco, 364 pages, $24.95

For a while the “new” Cardinal Ratzinger, as Pope Benedict XVI, led some to believe that perhaps his new role had allowed a different person to emerge. Then came the lecture with the obscure quote about the violence of Islam.

To his admirers, the violent Muslim reaction simply proved his point. But David Gibson wrote in the Sept. 24 Newark, N.J. Star-Ledger that the quote was quite consistent with the “old” Ratzinger, with his “clinical-sounding diagnoses of what he saw as the inherent faults of others.”

The author of The Coming Catholic Church, published in 2003, Mr. Gibson’s new study, The Rule of Benedict, building on Joseph Ratzinger’s several books about himself and John L. Allen Jr.’s biography, gives us Pope Benedict XVI whole: A character portrait that is fair, illuminating -- and chilling. Chilling, if the reader harbors hopes for the church’s structural reform.

While many American Catholics were stunned at Cardinal Ratzinger’s election, Mr. Gibson’s analysis makes its logic clear.

Although John Paul II’s condition had made it obvious that a conclave was looming, many cardinals arrived unprepared. The 13 general congregations -- pre-conclave meetings on church issues -- were run by Cardinal Ratzinger, who knew the languages and names of the cardinals. But discussions were unfocused, there were not enough translators, and about half could not understand what was being said. Cardinals from Africa and Asia, billeted at religious houses far from the Vatican, missed the informal conversations. At the election Mass of April 18, just hours before the conclave opened, Cardinal Ratzinger delivered an attack on the “dictatorship of relativism.” Standing next to Pope John XXIII’s tomb, Mr. Gibson, a convert to Catholicism, listened in alarm. “Was this jeremiad the sum of the Christian message?”

But thanks to a well-organized curia campaign begun in 2003, Cardinal Ratzinger’s dominance of the interregnum events, and the failure of reformers to organize around an alternative, the cardinal’s vision of the church and world became the rule.

In Mr. Gibson’s biography of the new pope, the child is father of the man. The son of a nurturing mother and an older, strict-disciplinarian father, young Joseph, sensitive and unathletic, found solace “in the life of the mind and faith.” Enrollment in the Hitler Youth was mandatory, and in 1944 he was drafted into an army labor battalion. After Hitler’s suicide, he deserted and fled home. True, he and his family did not support the Nazi regime, but neither did they resist, while a significant number of their neighbors did. The Nazi experience, says the author, bred in Joseph Ratzinger a tendency to distance himself from the world’s corruption by idealizing the faith, the church.

Mr. Gibson puts the new pope’s reputation as a “great theological mind” in the context of his rejection of the old-fashioned scholasticism based on Thomism and Aristotle, which used reason to make faith intelligible, in favor of St. Augustine’s earlier formulation where faith precedes reason. More a spiritual writer than a theologian, Pope Benedict XVI uses his intellect to make sense of his presuppositions, not to reach out to something new. At the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), he championed ressourcement -- going “backward into the future” -- rather than aggiornamento, which directly engaged the modern world.

The ascendancy of the aggiornamento theologians -- Rahner, Küng, Schillebeeckx -- and the turmoil of the student revolt pushed Fr. Ratzinger’s innate conservatism into full view. As archbishop of Munich, Germany, he helped sabotage the careers of old friends like Hans Küng and Johann Metz. When he vetoed Metz’s professorship at Munich, Karl Rahner wrote him, “[Your veto] makes a farce out of your responsibility to protect academic freedom.” As head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he silenced, disciplined or otherwise punished as many as 100 theologians -- including Frs. Charles Curran, Edward Schillebeeckx, Tissa Balasuriya, Anthony de Mello (after his death), Jacques Dupuis and Roger Haight -- all in complete secrecy and based on anonymous denunciations.

Jesuit Fr. Tom Reese wrote in his 1999 book Inside the Vatican that this breach between intellectuals and the church administration was a “recipe for disaster. … If the papacy continues to lose credibility in the intellectual community, schism could be the disastrous consequence.”

Mr. Gibson knows that many see Joseph Ratzinger as a “sweet soul,” but he concludes that the sum of his public record at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is a “legacy of sharp denunciations, thwarted careers, and embittered souls that seems to belie any claims he might make to promoting the love of Christ.”

Mr. Gibson’s wit and eye for detail consistently lighten up an otherwise somber portrait. When the dying John Paul II, mute and feeble, was driven from the hospital to the Vatican at night, on live TV, in the glass-covered popemobile, the ceiling light was switched on to bathe him in an ethereal glow. Did his handlers see him as a “papal El Cid,” propped up on his charger to reassure the faithful? Why was Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” for organ played to open Benedict’s installation Mass? It’s the classic horror film soundtrack, more associated with Bela Lugosi than the Roman pontiff.

Benedict dines alone. His favorite beverage is Fanta, the orange-flavored soda pop. He does not love cats, he adores them. With bright red shoes from Prada and sunglasses from Serengeti, he has undergone a fashion makeover guided by his handsome Bavarian secretary, Msgr. Georg Ganswein.

I first read this book in June during a visit to the Vatican where one can feel the tension that animates Mr. Gibson’s biography: between the world of the council’s “Church in the Modern World” plea to engage the joys and sorrows of society, and any religion’s tendency to pull back into itself. Mr. Gibson replays the major dramas: the suppression of liberation theology, the sex-abuse scandals, John Paul II’s crackdown on the Jesuits, and Tom Reese’s “thunderbolt” removal as editor of America. Mr. Gibson calls Reese “both the last victim of Cardinal Ratzinger and the first victim of Pope Benedict.”

Mr. Gibson has given us one of the best books on the church in many years. His love for the church he joined is palpable, but he wonders if Benedict’s ecclesiology will let him envision the changes that “would tempt believers to trust the church as a mediator of their faith.” Under Benedict, he fears, the church will fragment: Benedict’s followers will cling to his version of orthodoxy; the others will go elsewhere -- or nowhere.

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is professor of humanities at St. Peter’s College and NCR ’s media critic. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, November 24, 2006

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