Kenneth Woodward: Pope Benedict Once Was Progressive--What Changed Him Were the Student Riots of the 60s

Roundup: Talking About History

Kenneth Woodward, in the WSJ (4-21-05):

[Mr. Woodward is a contributing editor at Newsweek, where he served as Religion Editor for 38 years. He is the author, most recently, of "The Book of Miracles: The Meaning of the Miracle Stories in Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam" (Simon & Schuster, 2001), and is currently writing a book on American religion and culture.]

... Does the Roman Catholic Church really need another intellectual as pope? Surely, one of the achievements of the previous papacy was the clarifying of church doctrine -- which is why many Catholics hoped the next Roman pontiff would be a more "pastoral" pope in the tradition of John XXIII.

Moreover, John Paul II left a huge library of writings that will take decades for church scholars to thoroughly digest. The new pope, of course, will add to that body of papal discourse. But a pope is much more than just defender of the faith, and perhaps the first test Benedict XVI faces is how well he moves mentally from the job of deciding when theologians are off base to the far broader role of expounding Christian truths in ways that excite the faithful to live a more authentically Christian life.

In this respect it is worth remembering that Benedict XVI was not always a conservative theologian. As an adviser to German bishops at Vatican Council II, the young Joseph Ratzinger was a university professor and progressive theologian who urged a more open and accommodating attitude toward the world. He became a conservative in reaction to the student riots in Western Europe in the late 1960s, and to the wild embrace of theological novelties that erupted after the council. If a conservative is a liberal who abhors chaos, then Benedict XVI certainly will be a doctrinally conservative pope.

But the church is very different from the one the new pope knew in 1968, or even in 1978, when he took office at the Vatican. And so is the world. The churches he frequented in Germany are nearly empty, as are the Catholic seminaries throughout Western Europe and most of the United States. For the first time, there are now more Christians -- including Catholics -- in the Southern Hemisphere than in the North. But the latter fact should be of no great comfort to any pope.

In Africa, as in Latin America and much of Asia, the form of Christianity that is growing fastest is Pentecostalism, which mirrors tribal religions by emphasizing exorcisms of evil spirits, trance-like feelings of divine possession, and promises of health and wealth for those who believe. These are not the kinds of rocks on which to build a sold Catholic church. And although Third World Catholics tend to be more conservative than those in the First World, they do not readily respond to the theological abstractions that the new pope dealt with daily in his old job. What they liked in John Paul II, as much as anything else, was his celebrity, his sheer physical presence....

comments powered by Disqus