Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Enlightenment Pope

By GIULIO MEOTTI in the Wall Street Journal

VATICAN CITY -- There's a popular joke here at the Holy See: The Swiss progressive theologian Hans Küng goes up to paradise to discuss his theories with Saint Peter. After the meeting, he comes out in tears: "How could I have been so wrong?" Heretical priest Leonardo Boff goes up next and also comes out crying: "How could I have been so wrong?" Then it's the turn of Joseph Ratzinger, the German who became Pope Benedict XVI. When his meeting's over, it's -- you've guessed it -- Saint Peter who comes out crying "How could I been so wrong?"

Joseph Ratzinger is the first "theologian pope" in a very long time. A Vatican writer once said that no other German since Martin Luther has had such a profound effect on the church. While Karol Wojtyla was a great prelate, Joseph Ratzinger is the author of academic textbooks used in seminaries and universities. At the same time, he's capable of teaching theology to simple people and children.

In his 25 years as chief of the Congregation for the Doctrine and Faith, formerly known as the Holy Inquisition, Cardinal Ratzinger was renowned for his firm and orthodox views. But two years into his papacy, and a few days after his 80th birthday, he has managed to astound those who feared "God's Rottweiler." Benedict XVI has written so far one encyclical, titled "Deus Caritas Est," or God Is Love -- not exactly the theme you would expect from a "Panzer Pope." It's one of the most inclusive documents in Catholic theology.

Not many believed that a Bavarian shepherd, the son of a German police officer, would become, in just two years, one of the most popular popes in history. Numbers don't lie. Twice as many people descend upon St. Peter's now than under the also hugely popular John Paul II. Mr. Küng, one of Roman Catholicism's most prominent dissenters, recognizes that "Benedict is open to new ideas." Both men taught at the University of Tübingen in the late 1960s, a sort of Mecca for Catholic progressives, and back then Mr. Küng loved to tease the German about his empty classrooms. Joseph Ratzinger wouldn't say what students in 1968 wanted to hear.

The former architect of John Paul's Kulturkampf calmly accepts the challenges of secularization. He has proven that he's not the "harsh inquisitor" people called him. In 1979, the Vatican revoked Mr. Küng's license to teach as a Catholic theologian for questioning the pope's infallibility. Pope John Paul II neither met nor talked with Mr. Küng for a quarter of a century. Pope Benedict XVI received him after only one year.

If Cardinal Ratzinger upheld faith, Pope Benedict must spread it. He knows he can't hope for mass conversions or the evangelization of entire populations. But what he can work for is "a proud and visible Christianity." Of course he will never be open to married or female priests, but he's not a conventional conservative pope. He is the pope of fresh openness to the dialogue with nonbelievers, the pontiff of rational persuasion.

He was after all a young peritus, or adviser, at the Second Vatican Council, which profoundly modernized the Catholic Church, allowed the use of vernacular language in liturgy, increased the participation of laity and reached out to Judaism, condemning anti-Semitism. Ratzinger now wants to open the church further to the world. His approach to the crisis of Christianity is not defensive, and his reflection on the marginalization of religion is often based on self-criticism.

The columnist Andrew Sullivan wrote that Benedict XVI is "immune from reasoned inquiry." He could not have been more wrong. Benedict XVI is best understood as an "Enlightenment Pope" in an era in which reason has few defenders. The Pope is acutely aware of the oppression brought about by irrationality: In his childhood, it was Nazism; until the collapse of the Soviet Union it was Communism; today it is, as he puts it, the "dictatorship of relativism," the rejection of absolute norms, and radical Islam.

His "lectio magistralis," held at Regensburg University last September, sparked a huge controversy as he explored his theories on the relationship between reason and faith. The one requires the other, the pontiff said, if mankind wants to avoid what he called the "pathologies and life-threatening diseases associated with religion and reason" -- in other words, politically and religiously inspired fanaticism. As pope, Joseph Ratzinger looks to Athens and Jerusalem, whose coming together, he proudly says, gave birth to "the West."

"The inner rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry was an event of decisive importance not only from the standpoint of history of religions, but also from that of world history....This convergence, with the subsequent addition of the Roman heritage, created Europe." A "European Islam," in other words, would have to undergo a similar convergence process. Only an Islam tempered by logos, which means both "reason" and "word" in Greek, can possibly be part of any meaningful interfaith dialogue, the pope suggested.

"God acts with logos" -- and so does his representative on Earth. "This will be a pontificate of concepts and words," said Wojtyla spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls when Cardinal Ratzinger was elected pope. The past century didn't know a pontiff with a language so sharp. Joseph Ratzinger is a tireless writer the way Karol Wojtyla was a strenuous actor and traveler. He loves words which he utters firmly, but always softly, as a gentle pastor, to his one billion and 27 million faithful. He doesn't shy from scandal, like when he gave a private audience to Oriana Fallaci, the beautiful provocateur and the scourge of Islamic fanaticism. He uses strong words against the nihilism of Islamic terror and in favor of the existence of Israel as a sovereign state and "sign of God's choice."

This shy scholar, who during his Tübingen days meditated on St. Augustine's dictum "in interiore homine habitat veritas," has never ceased to seek and fight for the truth.

Mr. Meotti is a journalist with Il Foglio. Elizabeth Galloni translated this article from the Italian.

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