The Long View 2005-04-20: Wir haben einen Papst

Pope Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict XVI

It is interesting to look back at the partisan reactions to the elections of Pope Benedict the XVIth. Catholic conservatives, myself included, were overjoyed. Catholic liberals were despondent, having hoped for a great liberal reformer. Then, just a few short years later, the roles were reversed when the long awaited liberal Pope finally came.

For the vast majority of Catholics, nothing changed all that much. Individual bishops continue to be the shepherds of their flocks, setting policy and making decisions. The center of gravity of Catholicism continues to shift toward Africa, for simple demographic reasons. Relations with our Orthodox brethren slowly improve.

The general trajectory of Catholicism wasn't altered much by the election of either Benedict or Francis. Which is probably what you should expect from a diffuse, locally governed organization with billions of adherents.

Wir haben einen Papst

So why have I been so keen that Joseph Ratzinger should be elected pope? The chief reason is a series of sermons he gave in 1996, In the Presence of the Angels I Will Sing Your Praise, when his brother Georg retired as choirmaster of the Regensburg Cathedral. This passage tells you more about the man and his real concerns than anything you are likely to see in the press:

It is, therefore, not at all the case that man contrives something and then sings it, but rather the song comes to him from the angelic choirs, and he must raise his heart on high so that it can harmonize with the tone which comes to him.

But one fact is of fundamental importance: the sacred liturgy is not something which the monks manufacture or produce. It exists before they were there; it is an entering into heavenly liturgy which was already taking place. Only in and through this fact is earthly liturgy a liturgy at all -- in that it be -- takes itself into that greater and grander liturgy which is already being celebrated.

I can (and do) defend this metaphysics on its merits, but I cannot deny how much it appeals to me simply as intellectual esthetics. This is how I think; or at any rate, it is how I feel. Ich kann kein ander.

Ratzinger's life work has come to be defined by the fact that not everyone finds this neoplatonic vision so intuitive. When he was a young adviser at the Second Vatican Council, and accounted a liberal, he promoted chipping away the gingerbread of historical accretions on Catholic liturgy and theology. He did this for no other reason than that these things had grown so thick that they partially obscured the divine presence they were intended to frame. He sought clarity through austerity. In later years, to his growing horror, he realized that the license for experimentation issued by Vatican II was being used by people who did not see the transcendent at all, or who confused it with human intersubjectivity. At the worst, "the spirit of Vatican II" came to mean the community worshiping itself. Even when there was no heresy, there was a great deal of stupidity: new Catholic church-buildings almost invariably looked like Darth Vader's helmet, and the ancient tradition of Latin chant, which fascinates even people with no immediate interest in Catholicism, was replaced by a repertoire that was so accessible that parishioners did not find it worth singing.

We will be hearing a great deal more on Benedict XVI's views about local control of the church, and homosexuality, and war and peace, and capital punishment. What we must remember is that none of these are basic issues, even when the Church's position on them is not negotiable. All that matters is keeping unobstructed the vision of that liturgy that never ends. Ever feature of the structure of the Church, and of human society, must be ordered to that end. Keep that in mind, and this papacy will make perfect sense.

* * *

Meanwhile, there is the gloating issue. I had this problem when George Bush was reelected. Many friends and family members were stunned and horrified when that happened. I tried not to rub it in. I really did. The election of the new pope presents a somewhat different problem, however. Most people I know who had heard of Joseph Ratzinger also wanted him to be pope, so I have fewer temptations to be vindictive on a personal level. Well, that's what the Internet is for.

You do have to feel sorry for these people. Poor Fr. Richard McBrien, S.J., of Notre Dame was offering commentary on ABC (the American network) when the results of the election were announced at St. Peter's Square. Fr. McBrien has signed on to every flaky theological idea for the last 35 years, and he has been audibly waiting since 1978 for John Paul II to die. His face was not visible when the announcement was made, but he spoke in the sort of voice we normally hear on televison only from the victims of natural disaster. He must have felt like what Michael Moore would feel like if George Bush resigned and was replaced by Karl Rove. Alas.

And then there is Andrew Sullivan. Alackaday.

All I can suggest to such people is that they are not living in the worst of all possible worlds.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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