Pope Benedict XVI shocked the world on Monday by announcing that he would resign effective February 28, becoming the first pope since 1415 to leave office before death. Elected in 2005 after the two-decade reign of Pope John Paul II, Benedict—previously known as Joseph Ratzinger—was expected to champion the conservative wing of the Catholic Church.
Reporting from Rome, Jay Tolson penned a 3,400-word cover story for U.S. News & World Report on the election of the new Vatican monarch, who was taking the helm of the 1 billion-member church after a long career in its bureaucracy.
Among the highlights of the piece were the fears of more progressive cardinals, a bloc of whom offered "grudging silence" to Ratzinger's elevation and reportedly skipped an evening celebration honoring the new pope.
Although seen as a hardline conservative before his reign as pope, Benedict took a small step toward modifying the church's anti-condom policy. In 2010, Benedict suggested that the use of condoms—long forbidden by the church—might be the lesser of two evils for a male prostitute, after years of refusing to endorse condoms as a tool to halt the worldwide HIV/AIDS pandemic.
In his Monday announcement, Benedict cited a "lack of strength of mind and body" as the reason for his resignation.
This story originally appeared in the May 2, 2005, issue of U.S. News & World Report.
Defender Of The Faith
By Jay Tolson
ROME—It seemed almost inevitable—or, as the faithful would say, preordained. Some of the thousands gathered in St. Peter's Square believed they saw in it the guiding hand of the Holy Spirit, others the politically achieved culmination of the all-too-human struggle called the "culture war." Yet others perceived it to be an inseparable weave of both. Whatever the case, when his name was finally announced, after the long interval between the first puffs of white smoke and his appearance on the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica, the crowd seemed almost unsurprised to learn that the 115 cardinals had elected Joseph Ratzinger—now Pope Benedict XVI—as the 264th successor to St. Peter.
This was the man, after all, who had not only been John Paul II's chief adviser on doctrine and his trusted confidant, heavily involved in helping the late pope formulate some of his most important documents and statements about the church's relations with other Christian sects and other religions, as well as its stand on a range of ecclesiastical, moral, and social issues. He had also been dean of the College of Cardinals, presiding over John Paul's funeral mass and the mass that officially launched the conclave. In all of those capacities, he had made himself known to his fellow cardinals and to the wider world as an exactingly orthodox defender of the faith, an able leader and manager, and a master of an unassuming rhetorical eloquence. More directly to the point, since John Paul II's funeral, he had gone from a long shot to a surprising front-runner, a figure against whom the reformist wing of the College of Cardinals was said to have rallied in a last-ditch effort to prevent his election.
The reactions that came from the crowd at the announcement of his name—from joyous exuberance to grudging silence, with much respectful but restrained applause in between—seemed to provide an instant referendum on what people thought about a man who had condemned homosexuality as an intrinsic moral evil, declared other Christian sects gravely "deficient," and vigorously opposed the ordination of women or marriage among clergy as unacceptable violations of tradition. To many Americans in the crowd, he was also known for expressing dismay at the aggressive way the American legal system prosecuted pedophile priests, in his view further fueling the scandal.
There were, at the same time, those who expressed a sense of comfort in the new pope's theological certainty. "I think the church needs Benedict," said an ebullient John Burger, a junior from Christendom College in Front Royal, Va., on the square with a group of schoolmates who were all studying in Rome. "He will be clear and forceful, and he will bring internal integrity to the church. There is nothing more attractive than a faith that is strong."
Praising the new pope in more measured tones was Pierre Romain, 31, a seminarian from Cameroon. The new pope, he thought, would deal sensitively and sensibly with the challenge of adapting Roman Catholicism to the different cultures of the developing world and particularly of Africa, where the church is now expanding rapidly. But in that effort, as well as in the development of the Christian dialogue with Islam, Romain added approvingly, the new pope "will not compromise the Gospel and what it stands for." Some of the stronger reservations heard that evening on the square were voiced by people from, or closer to, the new pope's native country. "I will feel some national pride, although I would like a more reform-oriented leader," said Gabrielle Schuh, 76, of Hagen, Germany, who had come to Rome with her three children expressly for the conclave. "For the German Catholics," she added, "it will be a problem."
A problem, a solution, or a big question? Around the world, theologians, commentators, and men and women on the street batted those possibilities back and forth. But even some of Benedict's biggest critics, including his longtime adversary in theology, Hans Kung, said that, as disappointing as the election was, Benedict should be given a chance to make his intentions known. Sister Joan Chittister, a writer and commentator from Erie, Pa., had spoken strongly for reforms in the church at a conference organized by the international lay Catholic movement We Are Church in Rome the week before the conclave. She had hoped the cardinals would choose someone who saw less of a contradiction between orthodox faith and a realism that permits women to be deacons or accepts the use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS. Yet after the election, she voiced cautious optimism that "people on different parts of the spectrum of the church" would still be able to have an open discussion.
Speaking to the cardinals who had elected him the day before after only four rounds of voting—and by a vote that went well over the two-thirds majority to something around 100, according to Marco Politi of the Italian newspaper La Repubblica—the new pope seemed to be responding to some of the concerns that were being raised around the world. After dedicating himself to the task of bringing the "light of Christ to shine before the men and women of today," he pledged to address himself "to everyone, even to those who follow other religions or who are simply seeking an answer to the fundamental questions of life."
Was this, then, "God's Rottweiler," the man who at the opening mass of the conclave had denounced "the dictatorship of relativism" and seemed to call for a circling of the wagons of faith to protect true believers from a host of modern "isms" and "new sects" that draw people into error? Was Benedict XVI the same man whom people thought they knew as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the uncompromising defender of orthodoxy, or was he already becoming a more open and receptive pastor of the world's largest Christian church, extending a hand not only to the faithful but to others seeking meaning and truth in their lives?
While many fretted over questions like that, those who claimed to know the new pope well suggested that there were always deeper qualities of mind, character, and belief connecting these seemingly different faces of the man. Cardinal Roger Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles, speaking at a press conference the day after the election, urged people to resist rushing to labels. "He has so many qualities," Mahony said, "so many dimensions."
It remains unclear, though, whether those deeper qualities add up to the kind of person who can take the legacy of John Paul II further into the 21st century, and particularly whether Benedict can build on the enormous reserves of goodwill and affection that people had come to feel for a pontiff who was both a strict teacher and a vigorous advocate of spiritual solidarity among all people. How, furthermore, will the new pope face the challenges confronting the church after the 26-year reign of John Paul II? The increasing secularism of Europe and the industrial world in general is, for instance, something for which Benedict, as cardinal, proposed a rather uncompromising solution: Don't dilute the doctrine or teaching; hold firm to orthodoxy even if it means that the num-ber of believers dwindles further. "Perhaps the time has come to say farewell to the idea of traditionally Catholic cultures," he said in a book-length interview with German journalist Peter Seewald. "Maybe we are facing a new and different kind of epoch in the church's history, where Christianity will again be characterized more by the mustard seed, where it will exist in small, seemingly insignificant groups that nonetheless live an intensive struggle against evil and bring the good into the world--that let God in." Reformists in the church, unsurprisingly, see that approach as giving up too easily by shutting down the conversation and debate with the modern, secular world.
And what about the developing world, where the church is far from being a mustard seed and where more than half of the world's Catholics live? The challenges there abound, from the AIDS crisis in Africa to the growing influence of Protestant evangelicals in such former Catholic bastions as Brazil. Many wonder whether this intensely cerebral pope will be able to offer anything but orthodox pronouncements about the need for sexual abstinence. Will he, for example, do anything to address the discontent that many Brazilian women feel about their second-class status within their society and, many feel, within the church? If not, many critics predict, there will be even greater migrations into the rapidly growing Protestant evangelical sects.
The new pope, in his opening statement to the cardinals, made it abundantly clear that he will continue his predecessor's fight to bring economic justice to the developing world--including, specifically, some relief from its crushing debt load. The concern, though, is whether the new pope will have the charisma and energy that the previous one brought to the task. The 78-year-old pope, alluding to the short tenure of another Pope Benedict, Benedict XV, who worked to prevent World War I, told the cardinals on the day of his election: "I, too, hope in this short reign to be a man of peace."
The issue of church governance also looms large. Benedict says he is committed to the Vatican II ideal of stronger collegiality, but is this master of curial politics going to increase the power of the church's central bureaucracy or to restrain it to allow more decision making to return to bishops in their dioceses and to the national bishops' conferences? There are also growing numbers of lay Catholic movements demanding a more central role in the running of the church at the local level. Will they be collectively ignored--or even selectively ignored, if the agendas of some are seen as too liberal or reformist?
Fall of man.
All of these matters will appear more urgent precisely because the new pope has less proven personal magnetism to work with. Brazilian women may have been angry with the church, but many stayed in it because they loved John Pope II. He conveyed concern and real love. He also seemed to embody optimism and hope. This pope, by contrast—shy and gentle in his personal demeanor--seems to be largely preoccupied by the struggle against moral depravity and evil, the struggle with humankind's fallen nature. "The Christian faith holds that the creation has been damaged," Ratzinger told Seewald in another extended interview. "Human existence is no longer what was produced at the hands of the Creator. It was burdened with another element that produces, besides the innate tendency toward God, the opposite tendency away from God." This is orthodox Christianity's standard view of the problem for which Christ's sacrificial death is the only solution, if the believer will accept the grace bestowed by that sacrifice. But the emphasis on the fallen nature of all humankind comes from St. Augustine, the theologian Ratzinger is most deeply drawn to. In part this may be due to a natural affinity, in part to his own experience of history, particularly the experience of growing up in Hitler's Germany--and his own reflections on the cultural conditions that enabled the rise and success of such a monstrous ideology. The answer he came to was that, in addition to economic factors, it was the excesses of individualism and freedom that led to the nihilism of pre-Nazi Weimar German culture, a condition that made the racialist utopian solution of National Socialism look so attractive to so many people. "He will still take an Augustinian, pessimistic view of the world," says Cardinal Avery Dulles, a theologian at Fordham University who was too old to be among the electors in this conclave. Still, he cautioned, "maybe we will see another side of him, though, someone who will try to win with honey rather than with threats."
There is ample evidence to suggest that the new pope is a person capable of change, or at least superficial modifications, even while he remains faithful to his bedrock beliefs—and even though, as his biographer John Allen reports, he has in the past insisted that he hasn't changed his theological position "over the years."
Born and raised in small-town Bavaria, where conservative Catholicism runs deep, young Joseph grew up seeing the consequences of strong convictions. His father, a policeman, was compelled to move from town to town when his own devout Catholicism put him at odds with Nazi officials. Joseph, the youngest of three siblings, was forced to enroll in Hitler Youth while he attended seminary, but he allowed his membership to lapse even before his schooling was interrupted and he was assigned to an antiaircraft battery. Returning to the seminary after the war and ordained in 1951, he became an academic theologian and taught in several prominent German universities until he was named archbishop of Munich and Freising in 1977. He became a cardinal later that year and John Paul II's prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1981.
It was during those years that he formulated his theological views in essays and books such as The Meaning of Christian Brotherhood and Introduction to Christianity. And it was also along the way to his position in the Curia that Ratzinger played a central advisory role in the four sessions of the Second Vatican Council, from which came his book of essays, Theological Highlights of Vatican II.
The new pope insists that he has remained true to the real accomplishments of that council, bringing the church more into line with its oldest traditions and freeing it from some of the rigidities of medieval scholasticism. His critics, however, say that he reversed his stand on any number of very specific reforms—from liturgical changes (including the abandonment of the Latin mass) to views about collegiality.
Endless debate circles the question of whether Ratzinger did or did not really change between the time of Vatican II and his days in the Curia, but there is no question that he was alarmed by what he saw in the cultural upheaval of the late 1960s, particularly the student uprising of 1968 that convulsed his own campus at the University of Tubingen. The blend of antireligious Marxism and hedonistic individual-ism contributed to his decision to relocate to a university in his native Bavaria. More important, he later said in an interview, "here [at Tubingen] I saw very clearly and also really experienced that there were incompatible concepts of reform." In Ratzinger's view, any reforms that challenged the authority of tradition and Scripture, the core of the teaching of the church, were simply unacceptable.
But Allen suggests, along with many other observers, that the Ratzinger of the Curia became more "concerned with arresting the development of tradition than with defending it." Specifically, Allen continues, "in 1966, Ratzinger wanted to recover the role of Scripture as a tool for assessing church teaching and practice." By 1997, however, he warned that the use of Scripture to evaluate church teaching "was one of the most dangerous currents to flow out of Vatican II." In other words, was this a man and theologian who had come to the view that the church's stand on such matters as homosexuality and celibate priests was something that could not be re-examined in light of the best critical readings of the Bible? And was his own increasingly narrow interpretation of Christian tradition as the full truth of that tradition closed to further discussion?
On the opening day of the conclave, after hearing Ratzinger's manifesto against modern relativism, some observers certainly feared so. "I agree with what he says about relativism, but he doesn't have anything positive to offer," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the Jesuit weekly America, as he walked down the Via Conciliazone in the heart of the Vatican. "To preach the Gospel in the 21st century, we have to free up the conversation. We have to have theology engage with the modern world. That is not what we were hearing."
Others agree. "The absolutist approach has never been Catholic," said Sister Joan Chittister on the morning of the second day of the conclave, citing the example of how the church changed its position on usury, abandoning the view that charging interest on a loan was a mortal sin. "I am afraid," she continued, "of what may happen to the church and the world if we think we can crawl back into a 19th-century cocoon. If we do, the world will go without our great spiritual insight." But it was also possible to find other Catholics in full support of Ratzinger's style of orthodoxy. "After the Holy Father," said James Peak, a seminarian in the diocese of Spokane, Wash., standing in St. Peter's Square later on the same day, "Cardinal Ratzinger is the most articulate explainer of the faith."
That was apparently a view that somewhere between 40 and 50 cardinal electors held as the conclave opened. According to reports in the Italian press, the first round of votes saw close to an equal number going to Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, a standard-bearer of the reform wing of the college but thought to be too infirm to be a real contender. By Tuesday morning, many undecideds were throwing their lot in with Ratzinger, and at lunch, after what some reports suggested was a conversation and gentlemen's agreement between Ratzinger and Martini, most of the reformers decided to get behind Ratzinger. About 10 percent of the reformers did not—the same 10 percent who, the Italian press reported, supposedly did not attend the evening celebration in honor of the new Pope Benedict.
An abbott's legacy.
Was the message delivered the next day at the Sistine Chapel, surrounded by Michelangelo's frescoes, a first attempt to make good on the gentlemen's agreement--if, indeed, there had been one? Perhaps. If so, it might signal some slight shift away from the former Cardinal Ratzinger's view that the church is better off remaining a small but devout "remnant" of the faithful who hold fast to orthodox teaching until better times come. That would give some reassurance to those in the church who believe that the best way of turning the tide against rising secularism is by engaging it in a more vigorous and passionate discussion. That group might also be reassured to think that this pope will be just as engaged as his predecessor in fighting for social and economic justice in the developing world, even while he supports a stronger spirit of collegiality among bishops in leading a truly global church.
And, indeed, the choice of the name Benedict may be suggestive in several ways that would reassure both reformers and conservatives. Yes, it recalls Benedict XVI, who tried to make peace as Europe prepared to destroy itself in the conflagration of World War I. But it also recalls the legacy and teaching of Saint Benedict, who created the "Rule" governing the communal and spiritual lives of the monasteries that played a vital role in preserving not only the Christian faith but the civilized Mediterranean heritage during several tumultuous centuries.
It is the latter's legacy that seems to hold out the greatest hope for the new pope's doubters. Sister Chittister, a Benedictine herself, points out that the great abbott, who became the patron saint of Europe, declared after writing the "Rule," "Any brother who sees a better way, let him arrange things differently." Chittister cites other counsel from Benedict: "Whenever weighty matters are to be decided, let the abbott call together the entire community and, beginning with the youngest, seek their advice." It is hard to imagine more concise and eloquent appeals for true collegiality. If Benedict XVI can emulate the virtues and wisdom of his namesakes, he may well surprise some of his loudest critics--without disappointing all of his staunchest supporters.