Thursday, April 21, 2005

What's in the name, part 2 

In the follow up to my yesterday's post, The Bottom Line has turned my attention to this "Daily Telegraph" opinion piece by Charles Moore, which makes a good argument for St Benedict, the founder of Western monasticism, as the inspiration for Ratzinger's Benedict XVI, rather than the World War One pontiff.

If you think that divining the message behind the new Pope's choice of name is a meaningless exercise for bored theo-historical nerds, think again. This is all getting very interesting:

"I would suggest a historically more distant inspiration as well: St Benedict, the man who had given birth to monasticism in the twilight of the Roman Empire. His 'rule' - his instructions to monks - laid the foundations, Ratzinger believes, for the methods of democracy. His spiritual spark kept the light of Christianity alive through centuries of darkness.

" 'Think of late antiquity,' Ratzinger once told an interviewer. 'Where St Benedict probably wasn't noted at all. He was also a dropout who came from noble Roman society and did something bizarre, something that later turned out to be the "ark on which the West survived".' "
Far be it for the humble me to try to get inside the head of the new Pope, but if I were to speculate, this is what Benedict XVI might be thinking:

1) The West, or more precisely Europe, is in trouble. The situation today closely mirrors the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century AD, when the once great and universal civilization slowly declined under the weight of external threats and internal problems. Ratzinger looks at the European Union today, with its declining birth rates, loss of morale and civility, decadence, public disengagement, increasingly out-of-touch elites, intrusive government and thinks: sadly, we've seen it all before (you might argue with each and all of these points, but remember - the point is how he perceives the situation).

2) In this light, Ratzinger's
opposition to Muslim Turkey joining the Christian Europe in the European Union, as well as his distrust of multiculturalism, start to make a lot more sense. Again, think back to the 4th and 5th century AD, and how the slow infiltration (combined with outright invasion) by various barbarian tribes contributed to the death of the Western Empire and led to five centuries of Dark Ages. It's another deja-vu for Ratzinger, this time with migrants - mostly Muslim migrants - flooding into Europe, and with time and demographic trends going the way they're going, changing the complexion and character of the whole continent. In many ways, Ratzinger would think, the situation is even more dire than fifteen centuries ago: after all, most of the barbarian tribes were, or eventually became, Christian, and were attracted to the Western Empire because they wanted to partake in its fading glory (the Huns being virtually the only exception). For Ratzinger, the new wave of immigrants shares neither Europe's religion nor its culture, and doesn't want to assimilate but ultimately change the face of Europe.

3) St Benedict, the founder of the Western monastic tradition, can be largely credited with helping to preserve the legacy of the Christianized Western Empire through five centuries of Dark Ages, when religion, writing, learning and culture (as they were) only survived sheltered inside a network of monasteries spanning the Western Europe. If we're in for another Dark Ages, and if the Church is again to be the bearer of a spark that will reignite the civilization one day, it needs shock troops rather than lukewarm masses, pure quality rather than adulterated quantity. Hence, Ratzinger's preference for a smaller but orthodox Catholic community over a lowest common denominator religious community without passion or zeal.

I might be misreading Ratzinger - maybe he does not think of the current situation in quite such apocalyptic terms - but the new Pontiff is clearly concerned about the survival of Christianity in our post-West West, and he won't roll over and accept any "inevitable trends".

As an aside, I had a feeling that this would eventually pop up: a reader sends me a link to this
World Net Daily story, which dredges up the Prophecies of St Malachy, a 12th century monk who is said to have listed all the pontiffs the Catholic Church had and will ever have, giving each a brief Latin motto. The pope number 110, De labore Solis, was the description of Pope John II, and "Labor of the sun" fits his life on many different levels. His successor, Gloria olivæ, "Glory of the olive" was thought to either refer to the Pope's skin color (hence Latin American or Mediterranean) or the fact that he will be a member of the Benedictine order, also known as Olivetans, who sport the olive branch as a symbol. Ratzinger is not a Benedictine, but he chose as his name the founder of the order, St Benedict.

Bad news: there is only one more Pope left, Peter the Roman, in whose pontificate the Church will face many persecutions, Rome will be destroyed, and the world will end. Something to look forward to.


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