Posted May 2, 2005
The Pope Without A Country
by Martin Mosebach
New York Times
April 30, 2005
People in other countries may have noticed that the official reaction of the German Catholic Church to the spectacular election of a German pope was, to put it mildly, restrained. German Catholicism is quite wealthy and very middle class. It enjoys significant state privileges and is afraid of stepping outside the bounds delineated by state and society. German bishops and prominent lay members are forever worried about losing their voice in the democratic consensus, their position within an enlightened liberal society.
Pope Benedict XVI may be convinced that democratic institutions have as little right to interfere in the structure of the church as all the many emperors and kings who tried to do as much in past centuries. This stance has made him unpopular among his fellow German clergymen, who are intimidated by contemporary culture, but it also fascinates intellectuals who are far removed from the church, and who aren’t swayed by any superficial rhetoric of reconciliation. In Benedict, they see the authentic representative of a religion that they don’t know whether to view as still dangerous or possibly as the only remaining counter to a secular society.
As a German, I myself have always been struck by how un-German the pope is. Consider his strikingly peculiar face, his large, child’s eyes lurking in their shadowy sockets, and the eager glow that seems to radiate from them even when he is absorbed in contemplation. It’s rare to see a face like that in his Bavarian homeland. The great novelist Heimito von Doderer once said that all Bavaria can be divided into a small group of butchers and a larger group of people who look like butchers. And unlike many of my compatriots, the pope is unflaggingly courteous and appears to grow even gentler in the midst of debate, though he’d never relinquish so much as an inch of ground. His enemies call him cold because he refuses to feign cordiality. And it’s true: his manner shows nothing of the effusive Dale Carnegie mold so admired in Germany.
But his German is beautiful, which is particularly noteworthy for a German in a high position, since the language is not often spoken correctly, not even by native speakers. Although he is a philosopher and a theologian, he has developed a style that is crystal clear in its simplicity, but that never simplifies the complicated topics he needs to address. Is this, too, not a virtue befitting a shepherd of souls?
The name Benedict is clearly indicative of the new pontiff’s program. Even as a cardinal, the pope struggled against a tendency that saw the Second Vatican Council as some kind of “supercouncil,” as if the history of the church began in 1962. “Benedict” plumbs the depths of that history down to the first Christian century, when the Latin and Greek churches were still united. The great Latin liturgy and Gregorian choral chanting have special ties with the Benedictine order. At his installation, the new pope reverted to a wool pallium in the style worn by pontiffs of the first millennium. He had the Gospel chanted in Latin and Greek, as once was done at every papal Mass. Clearly he sees in the ancient liturgy a sign of unity between East and West.
His strictness in matters of doctrine is in part an answer to perceived loss of clarity in both dogma and liturgy following the Second Vatican Council. But his main goal in restoring the liturgy is reconciliation with the Byzantine church. Exactly how charged this project is may be seen in the words he spoke as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, that in reconciling with Rome, the Orthodox Church should not be expected to accord any greater primacy to the pope than it did before the schism.
Any pontiff who truly wants to build bridges must first stabilize his own embankment. While John Paul II’s teachings centered on humanity in its God-given dignity, Pope Benedict might turn back to the nature of Jesus. Western theology has long been influenced by a creeping Arianism — the idea that Jesus was not of the same substance as God. It would be true to character if Pope Benedict were to invest all his zeal in the effort to recast the concept of the divine incarnation in a new language, which would once again render it understandable to modern-day theologians, teachers and intellectuals.
Coming from the lips of a man convinced there is no contradiction between faith and rationality, this precept will sound as if it had never been in doubt.