Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Benedict XVI 

At about half past two in the morning I got woken up by an SMS from a friend of mine who's two time-zones away. The SMS read: "Ratzinger". Habemus papam, I thought. We have a Pope. Or at least I thought I thought it; I was pretty sleepy. But this morning it got me thinking - I haven't heard these words since I was six and a half. Most Catholics around the world today don't have a memory of any other Pope but John Paul. Big St Peter's shoes to fill for Cardinal Ratzinger, indeed.

As a Pole, I found it quietly satisfying that we managed to get one before the Germans. That aside, I remember among all the speculation of the last few weeks an opinion that favored Ratzinger as John Paul's successor as a "transitory" Pontiff. He's 78 years old, so the cynical argument went, and is not expected to have as long a stint in the office as, say, somebody in their 60s, and this would allow the Church hierarchy a few more years to trash out among themselves the ultimate direction they want the Papacy to take in the new millennium. Well, Ratzinger looks pretty healthy to me, and God can have a pretty wicked sense of humor in these sorts of things.

One thing is for certain; the "moderates", "liberals" and "progressives" within the Church who expected a break from the past, will be disappointed. Ratzinger is not a trendy reformer. I'm sure we will be reminded countless times over the next few weeks that until now, he has been the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the body which in the past centuries used to be known as the Holy Inquisition. Of course, all institutions change over time, and it makes as much sense to tar Ratzinger with burning heretics in sixteenth century Spain, as saying that George W Bush currently holds the office which had once supported slavery. But tarred he will be, because the progressives did not get a Pontiff that "moves with the times", or at least with "The New York Times."

Andrew Sullivan is already foaming at the mouth: "the Grand Inquisitor" (there you have that meme), "it would be hard to over-state the radicalism of this decision", "a full-scale attack on the reformist wing of the church", "polarizing", "a coming civil war within Catholicism", "the hard right has now cemented its complete control", "we are back to the nineteenth century". Make some small changes and it reads like much of the post-Presidential election commentary last year. Ratzinger simply believes that Catholicism (or Christianity as a whole, for that matter), is built around some non-negotiable and unchanging truths - a concept totally alien for today's trendy relativists. For Sullivan it means that the new Pope won't be changing the Church's position on the same-sex marriage. Professor Bainbridge, needless to say, thinks that Andrew Sullivan is an ass.

Pundit Guy rounds up the news and reactions. James Taranto has more.


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