Habemus Papam...

In the words of Bette Davis, fasten your seatbelts...we're in for a rocky ride.

So, I've been reflecting a lot in the last day about our new pope, and, if you know me or have been following this blog, you know that I'm not exactly thrilled. In a spirit of faith in the Holy Spirit, however, here are some points for hope, even in the midst of what many have found to be a very disappointing choice.

  • As they say here in Boston, "He's a smahhhtie." Benedict XVI is a very capable theologian. His work before becoming the head of the CDF as a private theologian and even his doctrinal statements as Prefect might be controversial, but they are anything but stupid. Further, unlike JPII, his theology is rooted not so much in a particularly 20th century blend of personalist philosophy and mystical thought, as in the long scholastic and Augustinian theologies of the Catholic church. In this sense, he's more traditional, in a good way, than John Paul.
  • He is a master bureaucrat. Some observers have suggested that he was primarily chosen due to his age or to his words in the last few weeks, and that no doubt played a major role. But I think perhaps even more determinative might have been the cardinals' desire to see the curial house put in order. One can expect that, given full authority, we'll see a curia firmly under the hand of the pope. On things you might disagree with, this might not be so good, but at least there will be someone attempting to rein in the influence of various curial officials. If he couples this with a commitment to episcopal collegiality (which is possible, given some of his remarks this morning at his first mass as pope), this could be a real benefit for the universal church. We're not going to see any major changes in the doctrinal commitments of bishops, but I think we're also going to see an increase in the appointment of capable administrators and pastors to episcopates.
  • Only Nixon could go to China. One challenge that whoever succeeded JPII was going to face was the watchful eye of numerous Catholics so formed by the vision of John Paul that they would be in danger of going sedevacantist at the slightest indication the new pope was betraying John Paul's legacy. Ratzinger is immune to this; his street credibility is too high (as one pundit commented, he may be the closest the Catholic church gets to human cloning...). While I'm not expecting any radical breaks with John Paul's positions, Benedict has the freedom to be a moderate, or simply to do something slightly differently than John Paul, without being accused of heresy. It was at least a smart move to deal with the lingering effects of John Paul's cult of personality, and at best it could open the door to some necessary movement in the church that another pope couldn't even begin to address.
  • He's not a rock-star. On a similar point, Ratzinger may share many of John Paul's beliefs, but in style he may be the least JPII-esque cardinal. Ratzinger is a bookworm and a deskman, and very good at both. Unless I'm very surprised, it's not in his temperament to be a pilgrim pope like John Paul. This is a good reminder, especially for those of us who have only known one pope, that there are various ways in which the pope can be the pope. Again, this might help wean the Catholic church from the idea of the papacy which JPII imprinted so firmly in our minds.
  • Ecumenism will still be crucial. Again, Benedict signalled this morning his continuing commitment to re-establishing visible unity among Christians. You might see a shift in his ecumenical focus, however, back towards the Lutheran churches and other Western churches. He was one of the main political and doctrinal forces behind the Joint Declaration on Justification with the Lutheran World Federation, and his own experience of the divided church in Germany might help move him to put some more fuel in that engine.
  • The Holy Spirit moves in mysterious ways. My political scientist partner reminds me that the cliche in organizational studies is often "where you stand depends on where you sit." I would imagine that Benedict is firmly aware that his role as pope will have to be entirely different from his role as Prefect of the CDF. How he might act and/or think differently in a different role is up for grabs. (I'm showing Romero to my class right now, so I might be biased in terms of the potential for conversion...)
So...I may add more later, but these are just some first reflections on what might be good about this papacy. That being said, I'll be heading to mass at noon with a lot of different aspects to my prayer...


The Joe said...

So, not being a follower of your blog, but happeneing to stumble across it today, what do you NOT like about Benedict as the new Pope?


BaptizedPagan said...

I have a longish answer to that, but am having too busy a week to respond in full! Look for a post in a few days, and thanks for reading, even if only for a stumble!