Sexy for the Intellectuals A Pope for the Melancholy Modern Age

Why is a reactionary Bavarian anti-modernist in white robes so fascinating to the enlightened intellectuals among us? The riddle that is Joseph "Sepp" Ratzinger, aka Benedict XVI.


The man has everything needed to induce weeping and gnashing of teeth in the most hardened left-wing liberal.

He has put an end to liberation theology. He despises rock and pop music, even if people pray along with it. He has ruled out ecumenical services and stubbornly refuses to allow divorcees to take communion. He fraternizes with the anti-modernist Lefebvre disciples and pro-lifers, but gay priests are banished from the seminaries. And to top it off, all this power is expressed in a slightly effeminate, old man's voice: "Cari fratelli e sorelle ..."

Pope Benedict XVI is a thorn in the side of every enlightened intellectual.

His reorganization of the Roman Curia - the world's oldest bureaucracy - shored up the strictest sticklers among its staff. The flock's most loyal followers hold the key positions: Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone is the new secretary of state. Viennese Archbishop Christoph Schönborn is no longer alone in his crusade against the theory of evolution.

Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, a British expert on Islam, was removed as President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and shipped off to Cairo as papal nuncio; in Ratzinger's pontifical opinion, he has been a little too open to dialogue. Anyone combing the Vatican for reformers in the spirit of Hans Küng (horribile dictu!) need not look any higher than janitor level.

"Atheists should welcome the election of Pope Benedict XVI. For this aged, scholarly, conservative, uncharismatic Bavarian theologian will surely hasten precisely the de-Christianization of Europe he aims to reverse," predicted the British political writer Timothy Garton Ash immediately after the conclave.

He was way off base.

The man from Marktl am Inn

The man from Marktl am Inn may not have packed the churches in Bavaria. But for some reason, during the 18 months following his investiture, the Roman Catholic leader has drawn greater numbers of the curious to St. Peter's Square than his predecessor. Notwithstanding dire prophecies to the contrary, he has not launched a crusade, not insulted women and not destroyed any political icons. He is fêted in Cologne and Bavaria like the German national soccer squad. And following his speech in Regensburg, he put his personal stamp on intellectual discourse urbe et orbe like few popes before him.

What is it about Benedict?

Or could it just be that times have changed? German feature journalism, in particular, has undergone a seismic shift. Columnists are yearning blithely for the good old Latin liturgy and meeting with approval. The editor-in-chief of a new intellectual magazine has composed a "creed": "Why the return of religion is a good thing." Highbrow newspapers like Die Zeit and Frankfurter Allgemeine carefully analyze every utterance from the Apostolic Palace. All the German pundits worth their snuff are hanging on the pontiff's every word.

Intellectual interest in papal pronouncements has long been a tradition in Italy, and Joseph Ratzinger maintained an ongoing dialogue with the agnostics. In Germany, this intellectual involvement marks a new departure. Something has happened: The country of Luther, Marx and Nietzsche has lost faith in godlessness.

Germans in many parts of the country - and World Youth Day and the pope's visit to Bavaria have done nothing to change this - may still believe that a rosary has something to do with flowers. But they are no longer indifferent to faith. Unlike just a few years ago, they take a real interest in tidings from Rome, even in a thoroughly politicized city like Berlin. The secular intelligentsia's curiosity is piqued; it is flirting with the una sancta, the "One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church."

B XVI is the ideal partner for this tango. Pope John Paul was into images; Benedict is a man of words. He sympathizes with the nonbelievers. He does not say, as his predecessor did: Kneel down and say the rosary. He says: Enlightenment must be enlightened. He is an intellectual who does not replace reason with mysticism, but instead deploys it in the service of God.

For a melancholy, modern age

For him, the truth lies not in mystical self-immersion, but right here on Earth, on his desk. For Ratzinger, action driven by reason is the trademark of true religion.

Benedict is the right pope for an age in which people have strayed from the path of faith but still yearn to arrive at a destination - even if that destination is ultimately faith. He is the right pope for a melancholy, modern age.

Benedict's surprising charisma is due in part to the differentiated attitude this German has brought to the papacy in particular and Roman Catholicism in general.

Broadly held assumptions notwithstanding, Joseph Ratzinger did not want this job. For decades, as guardian of the Grail, he had spent "80 percent of [his] time dealing with old women who claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary," as he once remarked to a visitor.

What he wanted was to go home to Bavaria and write the three fundamental treatises that only he could write, along with a study of Jesus Christ.

The address he delivered as cardinal deacon to open the conclave sounded like a candidate's election speech. But it was intended as a legacy. "How many winds of doctrine have we known in recent decades, how many ideological currents, how many ways of thinking?" he lamented in the style of Cato the Elder. "The small boat of thought of many Christians has often been tossed about by these waves - thrown from one extreme to the other: from Marxism to liberalism, even to libertinism; from collectivism to radical individualism; from atheism to a vague religious mysticism; from agnosticism to syncretism, and so forth."

An audible voice in Europe

"Having a clear faith" was being perceived as fundamentalism, he proclaimed. As hopelessly passé under a "dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as certain and which has, as its highest goal, one's own ego and one's own desires." That sounded like a parting shot, but it backfired. The popemakers in Italy elected the German professor - despite his advanced age. They believed he alone was capable of lending the truth-seeking Church an audible voice in a Europe cacophonized by transcendental illiteracy.

The cardinals wanted a European pope - not yet another charismatician who would even have been amenable to Latin Americans, because he could pray like a champion and virtually twist himself into a knot, as if posing for Ernst Barlach. But who would never have satisfied an enlightened European community.

Benedict XVI is the antithesis of this type. He prays with a fixed stare and barely moves his lips, like an altar boy whose thoughts are somewhere else entirely.

In his years as chief dogmatician, Ratzinger had said Mass every Thursday morning on the Campo Santo, the German patch of holy ground just outside St. Peter's. Little clusters of pilgrims had always waited for him afterwards. The cardinal had asked robotic questions about where they were from and where they were going. It was all too obvious, though, how foreign to his nature were the ecstatic handshakes, the bows, the photo sessions, the children hoping for a papal pat on the head. Not bothersome; simply foreign.

He is a strange spectacle: an absolutist world leader who prefers not to be the center of attention. John Paul II became the face of Catholicism. Pope Benedict spreads a gospel that entails more than do's and don'ts, but he preaches his brand of Catholicism with an immobile mien.

"If Joseph Ratzinger ever has a question, he goes to the library. He clearly doesn't have a friend he turns to for advice," says a priest and church historian who knew this J.R. before his metamorphosis.

He toils away

The library is the Holiest of Holies. The professor pope pens page after page: letters, sermons, speeches, epistles, books. Several hundred theological works already make him the most published pontiff in church history. He seizes every opportunity to put systematic theology into practice and into print. Benedict XVI is even capable of working a reference to fundamental theology into a letter of accreditation to the Andorran ambassador.

But the man can be stubborn, too, stubborn as only a German professor can be. Clear a speech? Never. Even if it criticizes the prophet Mohammed.

Ratzinger's appointment as head of the church has not really interrupted his lifelong mission. He toils away at his basic conflict, pitting "truth" against the "relativism" of the modern age: The focus must be on the human being as God's creature, not as a substitute for God.

Worldly promises of salvation have always led people to their doom, be they the promises of the Nazis at home in Traunstein and elsewhere - or those of the Marxists and their disciples with their liberation theology. There is no freedom in this life.

"Within this history of mankind which is ours," Ratzinger wrote, "there will never be the absolute, ideal condition." Which more or less means: Salvation is not of this world, let's not fool ourselves, but instead try to live truthfully. "Many of those who are responsible for proclaiming [the truth] fear that people might recoil from excessively clear words. However, general experience proves that the opposite occurs," Benedict XVI exhorted bishops whose road had led to Rome for an ad limina visit.

It was at Auschwitz, in May 2006, that he said, "We believe in a God of reason, not a kind of cold mathematics of the universe, but in a God who is one with love and goodness." That is an extended definition of reason, in which technological, scientific rationality harks back to the human as godly. Faith, he wrote in his first encyclical, "helps reason to better fulfill itself to become ever more fully itself."

At times profoundly pessimistic

Man approaches God through the Word, not through fasting and wearing a crown of thorns.

Ratzinger has mulled all his life over these unequal siblings, faith and reason, which explains the leniency and interest with which German cultural critics have received this pope. He is one of us. He refuses to be defined in terms of the laical trinity, i.e. the triple threat of condoms, women priests and abortion.

He is a thinker, with a theology that has not changed significantly since his 1959 inaugural lecture in Bonn. Christianity is the daughter of Greek philosophy. In the beginning is the Word, logos, not blind faith. And certainly not mystical experience.

Man encounters the self at the level of thought. That is why believers can communicate with non-believers. That is why the Frankfurt philosopher Jürgen Habermas and Joseph Ratzinger harmonized so perfectly when they discussed the "Dialectics of Secularization" at the Catholic Academy in Munich. If the Word is a gift from God, then the theorist who champions communicative action can but nod agreement.

Joseph Ratzinger is an intelligent man and therefore, in his view of humankind, at times a profoundly pessimistic man. The Church is like a leaking ship which is close to sinking, he says; her clothing is as filthy as her face. This was his Easter message in 2005, when he was still a cardinal, shortly before the death of Pope John Paul II. Maybe he was having a bad day.

Benedict knows that his days on Peter's throne are numbered, and one of his closest associates is certain that this pope will not stay on until his dying breath: "Being a thinker, he will know when he is no longer capable of adequately performing the duties of his office."

Time is running out. Ratzinger has planned three reforms in the spirit of veritas, none of which is political in the true sense of the word. These are ecclesiastical reforms which radicalize the organization, penetrating to its liturgical, structural and ecumenical roots.

"Beauty of the liturgy"

The core project of Benedict's pontificate is his counterreform of the liturgy. Even at his first World Synod of Bishops, debate centered on the hosts, chronology, form and sequence of the Eucharist.

For Ratzinger, the church crisis is a crisis of the liturgy as well. This pope is trying to preach a message, not sell it. He is more interested in establishing the truth than marketing the doctrine in a glitzy campaign. This is also why he is trying to push Karol Wojtyla's event manager, Piero Marini, out of his post as "Master of Pontifical Liturgical Celebrations."

Ratzinger is convinced that the churches have already "papified" themselves too much - at the expense of the sacred. As a child, he himself had found faith in the "beauty of the liturgy," back when people still prayed on their knees and the children mindlessly rattled off responses in a foreign tongue they could not understand.

If the Latin Mass (which was never formally prohibited) is now resurrected, this should not be done solely to win back the traditionalists. The dramatization of the sacred - Gregorian chants, billowing incense, ritual formulas murmured in Latin, the whole marvelous mystery play with a soupçon of Dan Brown - is a "unique selling point" on the faith market, and should not be thoughtlessly cast aside.

The second reform concerns ostpolitik in its ecumenical guise. A dialogue with

the Eastern Orthodox Christians is far more important to Pope Benedict than debating with the Anglicans or the Protestants - not least because Patriarch Alexi II, for one, now presides over a veritable national church.

Anything but a dogmatic Rottweiler

This is also why Cardinal Walter Kasper has been reappointed president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. It is hoped that the Swabian, who heads a joint theological commission of Orthodox and Roman Catholics, will help break the ice in Moscow. In March 2006, as a sign of goodwill, the pope also relinquished the title "Patriarch of the West."

Lastly, the perestroika process inside the Vatican must continue. The number of congregations and working groups has been reduced and a non-member of the Curia - Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone of Genoa - appointed secretary of state. The College of Cardinals has been further globalized by the appointment of three new Asian members.

As his own successor as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger chose the Archbishop of San Francisco, Cardinal William Levada, who is anything but a dogmatic rottweiler.

Ratzinger does not need additional bite.

Notwithstanding the smiles, the imputed Prada shoes and his new collection of headgear, Ratzinger has not backed away an inch from his rigid stance on socio-political issues. Marriage is forever; abortion is a crime; women are not entitled to follow the Apostles. Modern society must abide by God's word. Period.

Ratzinger has not changed his tune; he has simply modulated his tone. As pope, he no longer has to be "Mr. No." The Catholic Church, he often notes, is not a steel body of rules, regulations and bans. Or at least, not just that. It is also a community of the loving.

Benedict XVI knows how to maintain a level of abstraction so far removed from earthly toils that it has all the appearances of compassion. Deus caritas est, Benedict's first encyclical in January 2006, was a meditation on love - and not the widely anticipated reactionary harangue against homosexual unions, unmarried cohabitation, inchastity and other works of the Devil.

Sexy to the intellectuals

Mum was the word on all of these issues. The encyclical was a eulogy, extolling love, eroticism in marriage, and social work. He simply switched the level of abstraction and made himself more unassailable. This pope doesn't talk about condoms; he talks about exploiting people (even if it's only for a one-night stand). This pope gets to the bottom of things. This pope is a radical - another trait that makes him sexy to the intellectuals.

In October 2006, a star-studded colloquium at the University of Münster discussed "The Return of the Religions" - and identified an "ego weariness" in Germany, a post-modernist upward valuation of the concept of truth: "Man cannot survive on doubt, irony and deconstruction alone." What is left for us to believe in, if everything is open to discussion? And who is going to take us seriously? This is the fundamental question addressed in Germany by numerous bestsellers and talk-show debates on "values," "the new Kulturkampf," "the parenting challenge" and so on.

In the post-modern age, everything was somehow OK; values were relative, and we believed that was a good thing. By September 2001 at the latest, this belief was called into question. There was no more room for irony.

How can truth exist in a pluralist society? Joseph Ratzinger has pondered this question all his life. And it has never been more relevant than today.

A today that is perhaps not the hour for prayer, not the age for ritual, but rather a time for introspection, for self-examination, for thought. And in that context, the man in the Papal Palace is right for his role. Benedict XVI is not a comfortable pontiff, because he can communicate eyeto-eye with the secular world. He already sees eye-to-eye with the spiritual one.

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