Now that the Italian press is reporting that Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, a hero of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and perhaps the closest intellectual associate of Pope John Paul II during the past 25 years, has already received the support of 40, maybe 50 cardinals, out of the 77 votes needed to be elected the next Pope, it is time for the American media to begin searching into the mind and heart of one so close to JPII. The Pope and Ratzinger, his closest cardinal friend, met for long discussion at least once a week, and often twice a week. Their theological and philosophical commitments to ideas like the primacy of love (glimpsed by the newborn child in the eyes of its mother, and felt in her touch, from the first moments of birth) and their bold visions for the future of the church united them, although they also loved to argue. Ratzinger’s theological mind is encyclopedic, sweeping over nearly all of Christian history, and his interests–in bioethics, for instance, and in the analysis of history and culture–
draw him into excited engagement with contemporary problems. Recently, he published a short book called Without Roots on problems of nihilism and relativism in contemporary Europe, in dialogue with the President of the Italian Senate, the intelligent and probing Senator Marcello Pera. In the European and Italian context, Ratzinger is strongly pro-American on issues of religious liberty, and rather Tocquevillian in his interpretation of the American experience. He has expressed a certain disdain for efforts three decades ago to wed Catholicism to Marxist economics–he had seen too much of the latter close-up. He has a strong commitment to honest and frank ecumenism, based upon fraternal love but not upon false and mealy-mouthed pretendings of unity, where there is no unity.
It was Ratzinger who presided over the magnificently conducted funeral of John Paul II, the greatest funeral in the whole history of Rome along the axes both of history and of global reach. Many said: He looked every inch the Pope. Most surprising to many were the warmth and poetry of his sermon, evoking Pope John Paul II so realistically that at several points the vast crowds broke out in affectionate applause.
And, actually, my own sources in Rome now suggest that the number of cardinals supporting Ratzinger is closer to 55, leaving him at this early point some 22 short. Some caution should be exercised here, since in Rome counting of this sort is in most cases not actually by head, as is done in Washington by a Senate or House whip. In Rome, estimates are usually made by inference from known connections of cardinals and their close associates. However, some people in Rome (not necessarily with experience in American mayoralty elections) do know how to count votes. Those I know of in this camp are keeping their cards close to their chest. But they do not dispute the published numbers, except to hint that the true number is higher.
What no one disputes is that the numbers of the “progressives,” once gathered around Cardinals Donneels of Belgium and Martini of Milan (now retired), have collapsed. There are not even enough of them to block the majority seeking a “Continuator” of John Paul II’s legacy. The loyalty expressed by millions all around the world to John Paul II became so visible at the funeral that “Continuator” is now the motif. Whether that mantle falls on Ratzinger–or, perhaps, on someone younger and more vigorous–such as Angelo Scola of Venice, a truly brilliant and creative student of the much-beloved theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, will soon enough become clear. There are four or five who could fill this place in the batting order, or take their turn next time around.