The Reality of Pope Benedict
Günter Grass, in his memoirs, recalls an encounter with the young Joseph Ratzinger while both were held in an American prisoner-of-war camp in 1945. The young Grass, a Nazi who had been proud to serve in the Waffen-SS, was taken aback by this soft-spoken, gentle young Catholic. Unlike God, the future pope played dice, quoting St. Augustine in the original while he did so; he even dreamt in Latin. His only desire was to return to the seminary from which he had been drafted. "I said, there are many truths," wrote Grass. "He said, there is only one." (Daniel Johnson, New York Sun, September 18, 2006)
When the bells pealed for Ratzinger, there did commence some howling and not a little drama-queening. As Archbishop Chaput of Denver noted, Benedict was given no honeymoon. Live-blogging coverage at National Review, Kathryn Jean Lopez wrote: "Moments into his papacy, a seemingly annoyed Cokie Roberts calls him an ‘extremely controversial' pope." Writer Andrew Sullivan said, "The culture wars in America are already aflame, his elevation as Benedict XVI amounts to a barrel-full of petrol on the fire." E.J. Dionne described himself as "petrified" of what a Pope Ratzinger might bring. Sr. Joan Chittister suggested that Benedict was so retrograde he represented the theology of the 13th century, and predicted, "[if women are not allowed ordination] . . . we're going to lose an entire generation of young women and we're going to lose them quickly." Tina Brown got insulting: "Oh no! Cardinal Ratzinger!" wrote Brown, "His very name was ominous," while Maureen Dowd went into a predictable meltdown: "The white smoke yesterday signaled that the Vatican thinks what it needs to bring it into modernity is the oldest pope since the 18th century . . . a 78-year-old hidebound archconservative who ran the office that used to be called the Inquisition and who once belonged to Hitler Youth."
As Benedict XVI's papacy has unfolded quite differently than was predicted, we can look back upon these and other dire predictions and report that -- thus far, anyway -- Benedict has not thrown his head back to bare his fangs. No iron maidens have been commissioned for the new inquisition. He has poured no kerosene on the teeming bonfires of American culture. The soft-spoken, multilingual, piano-playing, book-loving octogenarian has proved himself to be a peaceable and pastoral shepherd, one who likes to talk and to listen, but to do both while resolutely teaching the faith throughout the age, rather than spreading the age throughout the faith.