If it happens that Josef Ratzinger becomes the 265th pope, journalists will have a field day reading all his voluminous writings, but especially his three books composed by answering face-to-face the questions of journalists. Two of these were great best sellers.
I cannot think of any cardinal who has been so fearless and open with the press, speaking for a dictation tape and allowing the journalist to frame the questions and supervise the editing (the cardinal was allowed to simplify and clarify the transcript where useful, but for the most part let the spoken words stand as spoken). The last two of these books were guided by the well-established German journalist, Peter Seewald–The Salt of the Earth and God and the World.
The latter begins with such simple questions as, Are you ever afraid of God? Does God ever seem to be critical of you? Are you ever cross with God? When do you pray? Assuming you have problems, do you take them to God? The Cardinal’s answers are breathtakingly direct, almost childlike in their simplicity and yet mature in their wisdom. He seems quite un-selfconscious. He answers questions about John Paul II, the Church in the United States, the fate of Europe, the kind of liberal tolerance that is intolerant, and anything else the journalist wishes to press, over an extended period of several days in the silence and peace of Monte Cassino. To check out Ratzinger on Amazon or Barnes and Noble is to confront a very long list. But a full bibliography of his writings runs to over 190 pages. He has been a scholar’s scholar, and a pastor eager to explain. He is an enthusiastic ecumenist and inveterate attender of conferences and giver of lectures–most often on the most difficult subjects.
One of my favorite essays of his is his epilogue to Principles of Catholic Theology (1987). It is one of the most profound reflections I have ever read on the strengths and weaknesses of Vatican II, in the light of the state of the world –and above all, of the faith–since then.
There may be enough votes at the Conclave to elect another candidate. But I could see an enormous intellectual contribution to the world’s understanding of itself if Ratzinger had the papal bully pulpit. His work has involved him in intimate problems of international culture for more than two decades now, and at a very deep and holistic level.
The wide boulevard just outside the Vatican walls that runs up the hill toward Via Aurelia Antica and other roads to the West is called Gregorio VII [Gregorio Settimo], after the Pope whose great vision at the turn of the first millennium turned Europe from a congeries of largely barbarian, primitive tribes toward the civilization of cities and music and painting and science and learning that it became during the second millennium. Such a name would suit a new Pope at the turning point of the second millennium into the third.
For the great problem of the world at this juncture concerns what principles lie at its heart–nothing at all, with neither standards nor meaning — or a reasoned faith that bursts with inner life and love and hope. It is on this problematic that Ratzinger’s mind has long been fixed. It is, I think, at the heart of the matter, for the world’s future. And for the future of the faith.
Yet as I wrote earlier in this space, the college of cardinals has “a deep bench,” and there is a fairly long list of accomplished men, any one of whom might be elected this week (or next). And it may, as last time around in 1978, be someone no one now is thinking of.