What is your reaction to the news?
My initial reaction was that I would like to do the same thing – that is, retire to a Benedictine monastery. A lot of people are saying half in jest and half seriously that they want to follow him. Queues are forming.
However, having slept on the issue for a night I woke up feeling quite confident that this really could be the work of Providence.
In an essay by Jean Danielou, who was one of Pope Benedict’s fellow Conciliar Periti, Danielou had this to say:
“Our Lord has told us that souls are to be won away from the Devil first by fasting and vigils, and that the great battle is fought in the heart of the desert, in the depth of solitude, on the summit of Carmel, before it is fought through the ministry of preachers, on the great highways and in the villages…We must tear souls away from Satan first of all through prayer, penance and sacrifice.”
I imagine that something like this thought has been occurring to Pope Benedict and that he has decided that the best thing that he can do is to go into the heart of the desert and fight for the Church there, while handing over the task of governance to a younger man more capable of bearing the particular responsibilities which go with the daily management of the Church.
I think that the witness this will give will be dramatically powerful. It says that prayer matters more than political action. Those of us who love Pope Benedict can all “keep calm and carry on”, knowing that he is still very much on duty.
Why was Joseph Ratzinger so important in the life of the Catholic Church?
Ratzinger is one of the greatest Catholic scholars of the last century. He was a leading theological advisor to Cardinal Frings of Cologne at the Second Vatican Council and someone who played a significant role in the drafting of the Conciliar document Dei Verbum – The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation. He was also a founder of the International Catholic Review called Communio which was designed to articulate an interpretation of the Second Vatican Council’s documents, now described in theological parlance as a ‘hermeneutic of reform’ or sometimes, a ‘hermeneutic of continuity’.
In 1981 he was called to Rome by John Paul II to become the Prefect for the Sacred Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the President of the International Theological Commission and the President of the Pontifical Biblical Commission. In 1985 he participated in the Synod called to reflect upon the reception of the Council and out of this meeting came the decision to publish a new Catechism or Compendium of Catholic teaching. He played a major role in its composition and presided over its release in 1992. As Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith he dealt with all manner of doctrinal issues, including, in the early years of John Paul II’s pontificate, the problems associated with liberation theology. He was, in short, the most significant intellectual supporter of the pontificate of John Paul II.
Why was Pope Benedict XVI so important?
In general one might say that this papacy has been focused on healing the schisms of the 11th and 16th centuries and the problems created by the ‘hermeneutic of rupture’ approach to the Second Vatican Council, including the schism of 1988. It has been a papacy devoted to Christian unity. This has required a certain sensitivity to historical and theological differences not often possessed by the average tabloid journalist. His creation of an Anglican Ordinariate, though controversial, may well be the beginning of the end of the mess created by Henry VIII in 1531.
His speeches and homilies have also been inspirational. Often busy leaders rely on the speeches they are handed by aids which were in turn drafted by committees with all the compromises this inevitably entails. However when Pope Benedict speaks one senses that he has written the material himself and it is never bland. His Wednesday audience addresses, or ‘catechetics 101 classes’ have been immensely popular and a great tool of evangelisation.
Who do you think will likely be the next Pope?
There seems to be general agreement that the front runners are Cardinal Marc Ouellet, a French Canadian who has worked in Latin America as well as in the Curia in Rome, Cardinal Angelo Scola who is the Cardinal Archbishop of Milan and former Patriarch of Venice and thus the most senior of the Italian Prelates, and Cardinal Peter Turkson who is from Ghana.
Cardinal Ouellet is a former Professor of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family and Cardinal Scola was the Rector of the Lateran University and International President of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family before being appointed to Venice, so I am immensely proud to say that the Institute has two candidates in the list of front-runners. As you would no doubt know however, there is the saying that whoever goes into a conclave as a papabile, comes out a cardinal.
What do you think of the expectation that he ought to be from the developing world, where Catholicism is growing? Do you think he should come from the West?
I will leave this one to the Holy Spirit. St. Augustine said that God enriches the course of the world’s history by a kind of antithesis which gives beauty to a poem. In the composition of the world’s history there is a beauty arising from the antithesis of contraries – a kind of eloquence in events, instead of in words. The election of a Pole at a moment in history when the Soviet government was about to run a propaganda campaign around a Polish cosmonaut was one such example. The Soviets were intending to market the Polish cosmonaut as an icon of Soviet-Polish relations but their campaign came unstuck when the Archbishop of Krakow was elected to the papacy and totally relegated the cosmonaut to the back pages somewhere behind the sports results. The Holy Spirit may well do something like this again and surprise us all.
The argument in favour of someone from the West is probably that most of the developing world’s problems begin in the West. I think that one reason why Cardinal Ouellet is so high on the short-list is that he is someone from the West, in his case a Canadian, who has worked in the developing world, so he has had experience of the problems from both ends as it were.
I know that this is a frivolous comment but it has occurred to me that it would be very funny if we ended up with a Canadian pope with a beaver on his coat of arms succeeding a German Pope with a bear on his coat of arms.
Is there a “Karol Wojtyja”, a left-field candidate?
Cardinal Peter Erdo of Hungary is the second youngest of the Cardinals, an intellectual and a canon lawyer. He is also the President of the Episcopal Conferences of Europe. If youth becomes a key criterion, and if being a canon lawyer is regarded as a desirable attribute that would aid the pontiff when dealing with all manner of internal ecclesial governance issues, then Erdo could be the ‘left-field’ candidate. He has a reputation for working particularly hard for the defence of the sanctity of human life.
What do you think of the mainstream reaction to the news that you have seen?
The press agencies managed to dig up a few ex-nuns and disgruntled priests to say the usual things but surprisingly some younger lay Catholics have also been interviewed. I was really impressed by an English girl who was interviewed almost as soon as the news broke. She was young, dignified and gracious and managed to express her admiration for the courage this decision would have required of Pope Benedict. I hope that members of the press might realise through this experience that they can get more interesting material by interviewing young professional laity rather than ex nuns or priests with problems.
What are the challenges the new Pope will have to confront, in your view? In the short, and long term?
In the short term I think he will have to get on top of an enormous amount of administrative detail and make some strategic decisions about internal governance issues. In the longer term I think he will need to continue the serious intellectual leadership of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. They have done the back-breaking work but their successor will need to keep batting on as it were. The plan is that we want a civilisation of love, not a culture of death. This means that the successor will need to understand the internal dynamics of both. He will need to be capable of intellectually analysing the pathologies of western culture and their significance for the developing countries.
How do you feel about this Pope, not so much as a theologian and a biographer, but as a Catholic person?
I think he is a hero. He may well feel as though he has been caught on a set of Lord of the Rings and he wants to hand the ring over to someone else. It may well be that in this particular battle that is the right decision. If it isn’t then God is more than capable of coming up with a Plan B.