Is There Any Hope for the Pope?

Urbana, Illinois

More than thirty years ago, the editor of the New Left Review, Perry Anderson, wrote of the Roman Catholic Church as follows:

“Strange historical object par excellence, whose peculiar temporality has never coincided with that of a simple sequence from one economy or polity to another, but has overlapped and outlived several in a rhythm of its own, the Church has never received theorization within historical materialism … Issued from a post-tribal ethnic minority, triumphant in late antiquity, dominant in feudalism, decadent and renascent under capitalism, the Roman Church has survived every other institution — cultural, political, juridical or linguistic — historically coeval with it … Its own regional autonomy and adaptability — extraordinary by any comparative standards — have yet to be seriously explored…”

This strange historical object, the Roman church, has elected itself a new bishop, by a system that illustrates the idea that bishops in the Christian church — originally based in cities, like the empire in which it was born — are elected by the Christian people of that city. A German cardinal, Bp. Josef Ratzinger, became bishop of Rome on April 19. The most interesting thing about him — and perhaps the only surprise — is the name he chose, Benedict. It’s in part for the sixth century Benedict of Nursia, the founder of monasticism in the West, the principal institution whereby the Christian church became (as Anderson says) “…the main, frail aqueduct across which the cultural reservoirs of the Classical World … passed to the new universe of feudal Europe…” For the Roman Church, Benedict of Nursia is the patron saint of Europe.

But at his first public audience the new Pope Benedict XVI said that his primary reason for choosing the name was to associate himself with Benedict XV, who was pope from 1914 to 1922. Giacomo della Chiesa, an Italian diplomat nicknamed “Piccoletto” (“Tiny”), was elected a month after the First World War began. He’s known for three things — putting an end to an intellectual witch-hunt run by his predecessor, Pope Pius X; reversing Pius’ anti-liberal politics; and working strenuously for an end to the war.

In his evocation of the memory of Benedict XV, the new pope referred particularly to his predecessor’s anti-war work. Some people had already suggested that that would be Ratzinger’s primary concern as well. Writing in the Libertarian blog,, Justin Raimondo described “Benedict XVI: A Champion of Peace,” as follows: “The ascension of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI is good news for the peace camp: he will carry on the legacy of John Paul II, whose stance against the invasion of Iraq enraged the War Party — and inspired millions with the hope that God had not abandoned the world to the Devil. The new Pope, as head of the Congregation [for the Doctrine] of the Faith, openly disdained the Bush Doctrine when it was invoked by the U.S. government as a rationale for war: ‘The concept of a “preventive war,”‘ he noted, ‘does not appear in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.’ You bet it doesn’t, and if I were the White House I would be expecting much more along these lines. Even as the War Party was reveling in its purported triumph, the Cardinal averred that ‘it was right to resist the war and its threats of destruction,’ declaring: ‘It should never be the responsibility of just one nation to make decisions for the world.’

“The Holy Father got that right. Even in the choice of his name, the portents are good. Pope Benedict XV was pope during World War I. He remained neutral and ‘in 1917 delivered the Plea for Peace, which demanded a cessation of hostilities, a reduction of armaments, a guaranteed freedom of the seas, and international arbitration.'”

The new pope is certainly aware that Benedict XV’s politics included dissolving the papacy’s opposition to the anti-clerical governments of Italy and France and reversing the opposition to the labor union movement, as well. Equally important for the internal health of Catholicism, he stopped the “anti-Modernist” crusade, which had enforced “integralist” Catholicism in the previous papacy, and he suppressed the secret organization, “The Society of St. Pius V,” which his predecessor had used to spy on suspect theologians. The best general history of the papacy says Benedict XV was “as explicit a reaction against the preceding regime as it was possible to get.” Can this be what Ratzinger has in mind? How much does he suggest by choosing that name?

That’s a real question, not a rhetorical one, and in a phrase employed by moral theologians, “solvitur ambulando” (roughly, time will tell). But I’d also point out that all four of the popes elected in the last fifty years (before the present incumbent) contradicted the expectations with which their elections were greeted. Roncalli (John XXIII, pope 1958-63) was supposed to be a chair-warmer, but he produced the biggest intellectual revolution in Catholicism since the Reformation. Montini (Paul VI, pope 1963-78) was elected explicitly to continue that program, but he didn’t. Luciani (John Paul I, pope for 33 days in 1978) was supposed to be a “uniter, not a divider,” but, by dying immediately, left matters in disarray. Wojtyla (John Paul II, pope 1978-2005) made his reputation as a liberal in the Vatican Council of the 1960s, but as pope he was, in the words of his first and best biographer, “a great disappointment.”

So, although Ratzinger would not have been my choice, I’m hoping to be surprised again.

Many people however seem to be quite sure what to expect. Raimondo again: “Naturally, the smears began even before the papal conclave was over. The London Times, in a shameful piece headlined ‘Papal hopeful is a former Hitler Youth,’ informs its readers: ‘The wartime past of a leading German contender to succeed John Paul II may return to haunt him as cardinals begin voting in the Sistine Chapel tomorrow to choose a new leader for 1 billion Catholics. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, whose strong defence of Catholic orthodoxy has earned him a variety of sobriquets — including “the enforcer,” “the panzer cardinal” and “God’s rottweiler” — is expected to poll around 40 votes in the first ballot as conservatives rally behind him … Unknown to many members of the church, however, Ratzinger’s past includes brief membership of the Hitler Youth movement and wartime service with a German army anti-aircraft unit.’

“Pope Benedict — another Kurt Waldheim. Uh, well, not quite. The author of this slime waits until the 9th paragraph, when we are finally told that he didn’t have much choice in the matter: ‘He joined the Hitler Youth aged 14, shortly after membership was made compulsory in 1941. He quickly won a dispensation on account of his training at a seminary. “Ratzinger was only briefly a member of the Hitler Youth and not an enthusiastic one,” concluded John Allen, his biographer. Two years later Ratzinger was enrolled in an anti-aircraft unit that protected a BMW factory making aircraft engines. The workforce included slaves from Dachau concentration camp.’

“In other words, the Holy Father, like millions throughout Europe, was enslaved by the Nazis. But he’s a German, and therefore automatically suspect, at least in certain circles. The smears are already coming from all the usual suspects — for example, Andrew Sullivan hates him for the same reason he hated John Paul II — because he won’t endorse the Sullivanian cult of War and Sodomy. Tough. Let Sullivan and his fellow whiners wail and rend their hair — this Pope means trouble for the War Party. And to that I can only add: Amen!”

One of the charges against the new pope is — as one of my correspondents put it — that “Ratzinger … gave the Vatican’s seal of approval to Church officials who were using the abortion issue to discourage a vote for the Democratic candidate.” There were indeed American Roman Catholic bishops who were talking that way. But Ratzinger, as head of the the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, actually put a stop to it. Here’s what he wrote to the American bishops:

“A Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil, and so unworthy to present himself for Holy Communion, if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate’s permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia. [But] When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favor of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons.”

Couched in the technical terminology of classic Catholic moral theology (such as “remote material cooperation”), that’s a quite traditional opinion. There was nothing new in what Ratzinger said, as he tried to cool some of the hotheads among the American bishops. He said quite reasonably that, when you choose between candidates, you choose the lesser evil, in which a candidate’s position on abortion (or anything else) is one issue among others. And on this basis many Catholics voted for Kerry in good conscience — even though the elctorate was given the choice between two war criminals, one wholesale and one retail, as it were, and I thought there were a good number of reasons to reject both the Democrats and the Republicans — but “remote material cooperation … can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons…”

In the American press, those most hysterical over the election of this pope — and the surest about what he is going to do — are the right-wing identity-politics liberals, like Marc Cooper in the L. A. Weekly (“the Stalinist Pope”); Andrew Sullivan, whom Raimondo referred to; and Sidney Blumenthal, one of Clinton’s intellectual bodyguards. Blumenthal blames Kerry’s defeat on Ratzinger: he summarizes Ratzinger’s letter, outrageously, as saying that “Voting for the Democrat was nothing less than consorting with the forces of Satan, collaboration with evil.” As Lakshmi Chaudhry pointed out, “While it’s true that Bush increased his support among Catholics … in 2004, he also improved his standing with almost every demographic since 2000. Why assume that the reasons for this spike among Catholics is any different than, say, the factors — fear, terrorism, etc. — that gave Bush a bigger share of the married women’s vote? How can Blumenthal so confidently blame it on … Ratzinger…?” I would add, especially when he doesn’t understand what Ratzinger said.

What authority, after all, does the Christian community claim in regard to ethics and politics? The Christian movement — the church — understands its primary task to be to announce the good news (the gospel, in the old English word) of Jesus. It is not in the first place about ethics at all. Jesus preached the coming of the “kingdom of God,” a notion not original with him, however obscure it might be. But for Jesus the kingdom was “at hand.” (“Jesus is the only Jew known to us from ancient times who proclaimed that the new age of salvation had already begun,” wrote Jewish biblical scholar David Flusser.) Christians believed that the resurrection of Jesus was his passage into the kingdom, a way that all could follow. “As he is so shall we be.” They thought that they could take the meaning of their lives not from the limited circumstances around them but from the world to come. It was the church’s job to preach the kingdom, to “remember the future.” They thought that, against all the appearances, we are loved in the universe.

That view led to two ways of thinking about behavior. As the late British theologian Herbert McCabe put it, “The question is; do we regard the Church as a movement living by the Holy Spirit which, in the course of its history, through disputes and many mistakes and disagreements, through hard experience and trying to learn from anyone, will tend broadly speaking to talk sense about what is or is not reasonable human behaviour — a movement which when it conflicts with a recently fashionable teaching is pretty likely to be right — or do we see the Church as having already in some occult way worked out the answers to most moral problems.”

Further, “…since the christian moral outlook is formulated in the course of a long historical tradition that stretches far back into the past, it may be out of tune with the present … simply because its formulations belong to the past. This is more or less inevitable because they are the work of the whole christian community, and in this community, as in any community that has lasted for two thousand years, the great majority of the members have been dead for some time. It is necessary, then, in any age, for the living christians to disentangle these two factors; to discover to what extent they stand askew to the world because they are a revolutionary movement based on the future, and to what extent they stand askew merely because of their ties to the past. In what way is their cussedness eschatological and in what way is it merely old-fashioned?”

So Ratzinger/Benedict has some more choices to make, and there’s no assurance that they’ll be the right ones. The last German pope, before the current one — and the last non-Italian pope until John Paul I, in 1978 — was Adrian VI, who was elected in 1522. An academic theologian, he had been tutor to the young Hapsburg emperor, Charles V, and at the time of his election was Charles’ regent in Spain. Erasmus of Rotterdam, who saw more clearly than anyone else what was happening in early 16th-century Europe, wrote to a friend that Hadrian was a good man but primarily a moral theologian and “a pure Scholastic” — not praise in Erasmus’ lexicon.

Pope Adrian died in 1523, after a brief and generally unsuccessful pontificate. His tomb bore the inscription, “How much depends on the times in which even the best of men are cast.” Thinking about Perry Anderson’s observation on the papacy and historical materialism, we might be reminded by that of Marx’ famous remark from the Eighteenth Brumaire, that people “make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” In the particular case of Pope Benedict XVI, we will see to what extent it’s true, as Marx continues, that “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like an nightmare on the brains of the living.” In his ethical and political teaching, it will be interesting to see how much of that history is a nightmare from which he tries to awake.

As McCabe observes, it’s a fundamental Christian truth that “Holiness is not first of all about being good; it is first of all about truth. If we can admit the truth about ourselves and our world then goodness can take care of itself.”

C. G. Estabrook is a visiting scholar at the University of Illinois and conducts two weekly programs (one on politics, the other on poetry) on WEFT Champaign, 90.1 FM. He can be reached at: