Benedict XVI appearing
on the Balcony of Saint
Peter's immediatetely after
When Josef Ratzinger was elected to the papacy as Benedict XVI, there had been much talk that he didn’t want the papacy, but frankly , to paraphrase Shakespeare, The pope doth protest too much, methinks. I was living in Rome and at the time of the death of John Paul II and the election of Benedict and my historical background led to being hired as a consultant to several international teams of journalists covering the events. Frankly it is very difficult for me to believe that Josef Ratzinger did not do everything canonically in his power to secure his election to the Holy See. I emphasize canonically: he played hardball but he played within the rules. In fact, he made the rules work for him.
In the first place, Cardinal Ratzinger was the Dean of the Sacred College at the time of the death of John Paul and the subsequent conclave. While it is not usual for the Dean to be elected Pope (the time previous to the election of Cardinal Ratzinger was the 1555 election of Paul IV), in the electoral process the Dean is the most powerful of the Cardinals. Several of the ceremonial duties previously assigned to the Camerlengo of the Holy Roman Church were transferred to the Dean by the Apostolic Constitution Universi Dominici Gregis of John Paul II in 1996. This increased the visibility and the authority of the Dean in the interregnum. The Dean is the public face of the Church during the papal vacancy. It is the Dean’s duty to summon the conclave and to chair the daily meetings of the Cardinals during the period of sede vacante. While for centuries the Dean was traditionally the longest serving Cardinal-Bishop, Paul VI changed this practice in 1965 empowering the Cardinal Bishops to select the one of their number they wished to hold this office. In 2001 at the urging of John Paul, the Cardinal Bishops selected Josef Ratzinger for this position. Ratzinger had been named to the Sacred College by Paul VI in 1977 and 1993 he was elevated within the College to the rank of Cardinal Bishop making him eligible for the Deanery. Named vice-Dean in 1998, he was made Dean in 2002 upon the retirement of Bernardin Gantin.
During the period of sede vacante in 2005 Josef Ratzinger kept a very high profile. He called on the other Cardinals to take an oath of silence, not speaking to the press or giving interviews during the interregnum, but he himself released a new book during the week between the funeral of John Paul and the conclave, bringing considerable attention to himself while the other Cardinals remained in the background. Of course, since the election process was confined to members of the College of Cardinals, such a publicity move had little effect on the subsequent election. Nevertheless, it was one of several events that week the kept his name in the forefront. As Dean, Cardinal Ratzinger had the responsibility of preaching both at the funeral of John Paul and the opening of the conclave. He preached a remarkably fine funeral homily for the dead pope, but it was the opening homily of the conclave that is really worth noting. On the Saturday evening before the conclave opened, April 16, Cardinal Walter Kasper preached a homily at the Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere. This Mass always draws a crowd as it is the weekly Eucharist for the Sant’Egidio Community, a fellowship of committed Catholics who do outstanding work on behalf of the poor in Rome and throughout the world. The Community numbers many bishops and Cardinals among its friends and customarily invites a distinguished prelate to preach at its Saturday evening liturgy.
Cardinal Kasper supposedly was one of several German and American Cardinals anxious to find an alternative candidate to Ratzinger for the papacy. Ratzinger was the acknowledged front runner, but there was a significant block in the Sacred College that did not want to see him elected fearing that his ideas, particularly on ecumenism, inter-religious dialogue, and liturgical reforms—three very important areas of Vatican II Reform—would reverse much of the renewal accomplished in the four decades since the Council. It was Good Shepherd Sunday and Cardinal Kasper preached a very pointed sermon on the qualities of the Shepherd needed by the universal Church. It was never said, of course, that Cardinal Ratzinger was not the man who fit Kasper’s bill, but it was clear that the Church needed a pope who would advance the agenda set by the Council in ways that did not match the ideology of Cardinal Ratzinger. Kasper’s audience was not large—perhaps seven or eight hundred people. His text was not, to my knowledge, published. There were probably very few who heard his homily who were also present for Cardinal Ratzinger’s homily at the opening Mass of the Conclave on Monday, April 18th. Cardinal Ratinger gave a point by point rebuttal of the Kasper homily. This may have been a coincidence; it may even have been divine inspiration. Whatever the inspiration, Cardinal Ratzinger did a remarkable job in laying aside any fears that one might still have had that his papacy would not carry out the projects of the Second Vatican Council. Having heard both homilies I would say that Ratzinger was the more skillful preacher; Kasper the prophet.
I do not mean to imply in this posting that Cardinal Ratzinger was in any way personally ambitious for the papacy. I do not believe that he was. The papacy is not fun. It is long days, no hope of retirement, confined—in a palace—but confined none the less. it meant and end to his every-day post luncheon walk through the Borgo and Prati districts; no longer would he go to his favorite German Restaurant just outside the Vatican walls. Being pope requires virtual separation from family, from friends, from the normal joys of human relationships. It is life under the microscope of public opinion and while you will always have your fans, you will have your detractors as well.
I think Cardinal Ratzinger was genuinely concerned about some directions the Church had taken in the years since the Council—directions he once had advocated but now thought better of—directions he questioned even under the conservative John Paul II. Ratzinger clearly thought, and seemingly still does think, that his predecessor had gone way too far on matters of interreligious dialogue. Both towards Islam and towards Eastern Religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism, John Paul’s cordiality and lack of rigid adherence to Vatican policy on no shared “prayer” with those outside the Abrahamic faiths has been troubling to many, not least Josef Ratzinger. John Paul also had somewhat muddied the waters between “Churches” and “Ecclesial Communities,” welcoming Anglican and Lutheran Bishops (whose Apostolic Orders are not recognized by the Catholic Church) with the same protocols accorded to Orthodox prelates whose Orders the Catholic Church recognizes. For example, at various ceremonies such as the opening of the Holy Door for the Jubilee year of 2000, John Paul was flanked by the representative of the Patriarch of Constantinople on one side and the Archbishop of Canterbury on the other. Even before assuming the papacy, at the funeral of John Paul, Cardinal Ratzinger as Dean made subtle changes in the protocol of how the various prelates were ranked. Most significant, I think, was Cardinal Ratzinger’s determination that the Novus Ordo of Paul VI was seriously (though certainly not fatally) flawed. He is well known for his opposition to translating pro vobis et pro multis (literally “for you and for many”) as “for you and for all.” This is one of the “corrections,” actually the premier correction, in the new translation coming out this autumn for our English speakers. He has written extensively on the subject of the priest taking an ad orientem position at the altar; that is the priest facing eastwards which in a traditionally oriented church (a church with the altar at the east end) would place the priest with his back to the people. (This is a very complex issue both historically and theologically.) Benedict has been much in favor of restoring usage of the pre-conciliar rite, initially as an alternative to the Missal of Paul VI, but eventually using the elements of the traditional rite to restore to the Rite of Paul VI a continuity with the Tridentine Rite that Benedict and others believe was broken by the Missal of 1970. Benedict has been a frequent visitor to the Tridentine abbey of Fontgombault and has spoken at its conferences on the pre-conciliar rite. While the Pope himself has not yet celebrated the Traditional Rite, at least publically, he has widely expanded its use even usurping the authority of the local bishop to govern the pastoral practices in his diocese. I think that Benedict sees these steps as Reform—or as it is often called The Reform of the Reform. Others see it as a reneging on the Reforms of the Second Vatican Council. How history will see it—as Reform or backing away from Reform is anyone’s guess. Probably more important a gauge of Reform than matters of liturgical translation or positioning, is getting at the root issues of how power and authority are exercised in the Church. Will Benedict get to the abuses of power that encouraged bishops to cover up the sex-abuse crisis? Will Benedict mandate fiscal transparency in the Church? Will Benedict introduce structures of accountability? And, perhaps most crucial, while the Pope certainly has the authority, does he have the power to effect needed structural reforms or has the power already fallen into others’ hands? Benedict is the White Pope, but is there are Black Pope (or more likely a Scarlet Pope) lurking behind his throne and forcing his hand? Hmmmm. Politics and Intrigue have long trumped the Gospel in the shadowy corridors of the Vatican.