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The Scholar Popes

by Ramesh Ponnuru

How John Paul II and Benedict XVI changed their office

In the days since Pope Benedict XVI announced that he will step down at the end of February, speculation about his successor has obsessed about nationality, race, and geography. Are we about to see the first African pope? Or the first American one?

The answer to that second question is probably “No.” The Catholic Church is a worldwide institution with European roots and a population increasingly drawn from the “global South” (what used to be called the “Third World”). Both Europe and the global South think that the United States controls enough of the world as it is. This sentiment can be found even among people who generally think well of us. It seems likely that most of the cardinals of the Church share it.

Approaching papal elections as an Olympic sport, with national teams of bishops, obscures a lot of what’s important about them. This is true even when nationality is important. When John Paul II was selected, a great deal of attention was paid, understandably, to the fact that he was the first Polish pope ever and the first non-Italian in centuries. The selection of Benedict XVI, a German, made for a non-Italian streak, which was again widely noted. Fewer people noticed that these two popes had no experience in the Vatican diplomatic corps, as every pope from 1914 to 1978 had. John Paul and Benedict were intellectuals — indeed, academics — unlike their predecessors. They also had more pastoral experience than the post–World War I popes.

Where the background and training of those predecessors may have led them to see the Church as making moves on a chess board, John Paul and Benedict were led by theirs to see it as engaged in a very public battle of ideas. These pontificates were unlike their immediate predecessors in that the encyclicals associated with them bore more of the personal stamp of the popes and less of the stamp of the Vatican bureaucracy. John Paul II produced major new statements elaborating and developing the Church’s view of the free society (Centesimus Annus), the protection of human life (Evangelium Vitae), Christian unity (Ut Unum Sint), and the relationship between faith and reason (Fides et Ratio), among other topics.

Benedict’s role as a public intellectual can perhaps most clearly be seen in his lectures. His 2006 address at Regensburg, which set off an international furor because of its criticism and perceived insult of Islam, shrewdly identified the theological reasons the conflict between that faith and Christianity has taken the character it has. His conversations with Jürgen Habermas, the paradigmatic postmodern European thinker, were a symbolic representation of his view (shared by John Paul) that the Church should not be at all defensive in the contemporary intellectual world but can both instruct and learn from it.

The intellectual project the two popes had in common could be summarized as a reclamation of the Second Vatican Council, in which both had been influential participants — John Paul II as a bishop, Benedict as a “peritus” (theological expert). Both saw the council as a reform of the previously existing Church and not a break with it: It amounted to “innovation in continuity,” in Benedict’s words. The Church had not surrendered to modernity but rather had found within itself the resources to engage it.

The council’s proclamation of a robust doctrine of religious freedom was a case in point. Deeply scarred by the French Revolution, the Church had associated modern ideas of religious freedom with anti-clericalism. The council, as Benedict has recently observed, rejected any conception of religious freedom founded in skepticism about man’s ability to discover the truth, including the truth about God. Instead it founded its conception in the dignity that God has invested in each person as a creature made in His image.

John Paul and Benedict had to do battle on two fronts to vindicate this interpretation of Vatican II: against reactionaries who opposed the council as a rejection of all that had gone before, and against progressives who supported it for that reason. (The political terminology, though not wholly appropriate, is hard to avoid.) The second group was particularly influential. As Benedict put it, “the council of the journalists” — the one, that is, of their creation — was not “the council of the fathers.”

The progressives treated the council’s statements as “living documents” in much the same way that liberal jurists treat the Constitution, with the putative “spirit of Vatican II” legitimating deviations from its letter — so long as the deviations were of the right sort. Because they rejected the proposed deviations, both popes were faulted for violating that spirit. They saw themselves as applying a “hermeneutic of reform” rather than of “discontinuity and rupture,” to use Benedict’s words again, to the work of the council. They revived older liturgical forms in the service of this interpretation of the council as well as of beauty.

As they further developed the Catholic Church’s distinctive synthesis of faith and reason, the popes again sought to avoid two sets of errors. They rejected any fideistic conception of the faith and its moral teachings that rendered them unreasonable or irrational in the strictest sense of the words. Human intellect, though “wounded and weakened by sin,” is a divine faculty meant to be used to understand God and His creation. Against contemporary intellectual trends, they asserted that reason is capable of apprehending not only instrumental truths (how to achieve given ends) but also sapiential truths (what our ends should be). They insisted on both the reasonableness of faith and the need for faith in reason.

Scratch the surface of the controversies surrounding Church teachings in recent years and you will find that synthesis. Under these popes the Church more and more self-consciously emphasized that its case against abortion, for example, rests on truths discoverable by reason, even apart from whatever additional illumination is provided by revelation. In the Regensburg lecture, Benedict argued that Islam’s tendency to identify God with Will to the exclusion of Reason (logos) stifles both its development and its ability to accommodate pluralism.

Benedict is sometimes seen, especially in the press, as a lesser pope than John Paul, and certainly he has been a less charismatic and telegenic one. The election of an intellectual partner of John Paul was, however, crucial to the consolidation of his legacy. At one quite fundamental level, Benedict’s eight-year pontificate ensures that John Paul’s was no aberration. The Church will not revert to insular, bureaucratic, defensive form. Benedict improved on John Paul in some ways, notably in doing more to reform the practices that had led to clerical sex-abuse scandals.

The popes also had slightly different perspectives. Benedict’s resignation may of course be taken as an implicit criticism of John Paul II’s staying on through his decline. Benedict has also been more willing than John Paul to suggest that the destabilizing misunderstandings of Vatican II were partly its own fault: It had inadvertently fostered the impression that the content of the faith was now open for negotiation. Less optimistic (because more Augustinian) than John Paul, he has spoken of the possibility that the Church of the future will be smaller. Too much should not be made of these differences. John Paul’s optimism did not make him affirm the perfectibility of man in this world; Benedict’s pessimism did not defeat his hope.

The difference manifested itself most starkly in one of their most public disagreements. In 1986 John Paul II brought leaders of all the faiths of the world to Assisi to pray for peace. Benedict thought that the event ran too great a risk of teaching a mistaken lesson about the interchangeability, the equivalence, of faiths: To have integrity Catholicism had to insist that while other great faiths contain important elements of truth, they are in error where they diverge from Christian claims (such as the divinity of Christ). In the days since his resignation, his insistence on this point has been revived in the press as evidence that his pontificate has been “controversial.”

Most of what the Western press treats as “controversial” inside the Church is not. There is no chance that the next pope will be “softer” than John Paul or Benedict in defense of Church teaching on life and marriage. The election will tell us, however, how the cardinals of the Church see its task in proclaiming the Gospel. Another intellectual leader will mean that the Church is now putting a premium on the kind of public argument at which John Paul and Benedict excelled: and the surprising change these men embodied will have become one of the background assumptions of the contemporary papacy.

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