Benedict brings hope
The arrival of Pope Benedict XVI in Britain has provoked protests that, in the intesity of their anger, far exceed those that greet the state visits of blood-drenched dictators. That is because the Pope is seen to represent — in ascending order of secular distaste — religion, Christianity, the Roman Catholic Church and the conservative wing of Catholicism. Fair enough: Benedict does represent all of these things. He opposes atheism, regarding it as a desperately sad alienation of man from his creator. He embraces Christianity in what he regards as its most definitive, classical and pure form: that Church that he leads. Unlike many Catholics, he does not deviate from hard teachings on artificial birth control, abortion or homosexuality, or try to airbrush them to make them seem innocuous to a Radio 4 audience. To that extent he is conservative.
But, if the protestors know where Benedict XVI stands on issues of sexual morality, they have a very shaky grasp of his precise relationship to these issues. We keep hearing — for example, in Peter Tatchell’s ignorant Channel 4 documentary — that the Church’s opposition to condoms, gay sex and women priests is the product of the Pope’s ultra-reactionary style of Catholicism, whereas these teachings were actually set in stone by his predecessors. Paradoxically, however, Benedict’s critics very rarely focus on those ideas that genuinely do bear his personal stamp.
Joseph Ratzinger is the most important theologian to become Pope for centuries. His work would be studied in universities even if he had never been made a bishop. Yet this fact goes unrecognised by almost everyone who has commented on his visit. The only public figure who, to his credit, consistently draws attention to Benedict’s significance as a Christian thinker is the Archbishop of Canterbury. Dr Rowan Williams does not, of course, agree with the Pope about papal infallibility or female ordination; but he does recognise the subtle imagination with which Benedict addresses Christianity’s role in the shaping of Western civilisation.
The former Professor Ratzinger deplores the ‘degeneration’ of the Enlightenment, whose achievements he believes have been undermined by relativism. But as he explained in a notably friendly debate with the German leftist intellectual Jürgen Habermas in 2004, he grants a central role to the ‘divine light of reason’ in the correct formation of Christian belief. He is also surprisingly non-polemical in the way he envisages the sweep of history, seeing it not so much as the battle of good and evil as the struggle between love and the in-ability to love.
The message that both the tolerance and the traditional family structures of Western civilisation are primarily expressions of love is one that should appeal not only to all Christians but also to thoughtful non-believers. Yet it is being drowned out by the mendacious caricature of the Pope as a former Nazi apologist for child abuse. Also, and this is perhaps an even greater source for regret, there has been little attempt to explain what is truly distinctive about Benedict by the Roman Catholic Church in Britain. The embarrassing (and expensive) incompetence of the liberal Catholic authorities in making arrangements for this visit — exposed by this magazine in June — is matched by their lack of interest in his theology and liturgical reforms. Pope Benedict must therefore speak for himself if he wishes to convey what is, in essence, a radically optimistic vision of the future of Christianity. We hope that he is given a chance to do so.