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.”