Last week, rather to my surprise, Pope Benedict became, at 85, the oldest pope in the last 110 years. He is, furthermore, one of only six to reign past 85 in the last 500 years. Last week was an interesting week for him: if you had just reported it as though the last seven years hadn’t happened, it might have been taken as a confirmation of what many expected on his election: that he would be, in the words of one commentator, a “ruthless enforcer” of orthodoxy.
Firstly, the possibility emerged that there really might be an agreement to heal the rift between the Holy See and the SSPX, possibly by establishing it as a prelature, along the lines of Opus Dei. Seven years ago, any such possibility would have been explained by many as a confirmation of the Pope’s unyieldingly reactionary temperament. Nobody says that now. The second evidence of the Pope’s rottweiler remperament would have been last week’s crackdown on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the main umbrella group of women’s orders in the United States. This was after a three year doctrinal assessment by the CDF, as a result of which Cardinal Levada declared that there was a situation of “crisis ….characterized by a diminution of the fundamental Christological center”. There was “a prevalence of … radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith …. theological interpretations that risk distorting faith in Jesus and his loving Father … including commentaries on ‘patriarchy’ which distort the way in which Jesus has structured sacramental life in the Church; others even undermine the revealed doctrines of the Holy Trinity, the divinity of Christ, and the inspiration of Sacred Scripture.”
So: at the same time as a convergence with the SSPX, a crackdown on all those non-habit-wearing radical religious: absolutely typical, no? Well not quite. As the liberal commentator John L Allen pointed out in the National Catholic Reporter
If we take the last seven years into view, not just the last week, the picture changes considerably. Quite often, the most intriguing feature of this papacy isn’t how Benedict has confirmed expectations, but rather how he’s confounded them.… Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the great “Doctor No” of the Catholic church in his quarter-century as the Vatican’s doctrinal czar, has actually turned out to be the pope of what I’ve termed “Affirmative Orthodoxy.” It’s an approach to church teaching that emphasizes the Catholic “yes” — putting the accent on what Catholicism supports and affirms rather than what it opposes and condemns.
Allen illuminatingly quoted the Pope himself:
Firstly, you have to know what we really want, right? Christianity, Catholicism, isn’t a collection of prohibitions: it’s a positive option. It’s very important that we look at it again because this idea has almost completely disappeared today. We’ve heard so much about what is not allowed that now it’s time to say: we have a positive idea to offer … I believe we need to see and reflect on the fact that it’s not a Catholic invention that man and woman are made for each other, so that humanity can go on living: all cultures know this. As far as abortion is concerned, it’s part of the fifth, not the sixth, commandment: “Thou shalt not kill!” We have to presume this is obvious and always stress that the human person begins in the mother’s womb and remains a human person until his or her last breath. … But all this is clearer if you say it first in a positive way.
All this took me back to the astonishment that greeted Pope Benedict’s first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, in both the Catholic and the secular media. The Guardian’s report, I see from my files, was headed “Pope surprises Catholics with warm words on power of love”. It was written by Stephen Bates, the Guardian’s religious Affairs correspondent, himself a liberal Catholic, and its tone of gratified amazement reflected the general reaction among Catholics hostile to the overall direction of the pontificate of John Paull II, and particularly to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and its supposedly cold-hearted former prefect. “Pope Benedict XVI thawed his previously chilly image yesterday” wrote Bates, “by producing as his first message to his worldwide flock a notably warm rumination on the nature of love. Deus Caritas Est … was greeted last night with some astonishment and relief among senior Catholics”. The encyclical’s message, opined Bates, “was far from the finger-wagging ‘thou shalt not’ tone that characterised some of his predecessor’s pronouncements and contrasted with Benedict’s stern reputation…”.
True enough: the tone of the encyclical did, as we all vividly remember, belie the Pope’s “stern reputation”: but where, it had to be asked, did that come from? The answer is that the cold-hearted “Panzer-Cardinal” Ratzinger of former times was from beginning to end a media construct. But what the press constructs, the press can deconstruct: and there followed a media makeover unequalled since Dickens published the final instalment of The Christmas Carol, and mean old Ebenezer Scrooge, transformed by the Spirit of Christmas, astonished and slightly terrified the Cratchit family by turning up on Christmas day with a huge turkey (the encyclical was signed on Christmas Day). “There never was such a turkey”; wrote Dickens: “there never was such an encyclical” almost wrote The Tablet.
So: what was going on? Monsignor Andrew Faley, the assistant general secretary of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, said “We are seeing the substance of the man as a pastor and shepherd of the flock. A cuddly Benedict? Well, well”.
The fact was of course that the pope was being just as pastoral as prefect of the CDF when he said “no’ to some new heresy. As for being “less prescriptive”, Deus Caritas Est was just as prescriptive as anything the former Panzer-Cardinal ever published, prescriptive exactly as Our Lord was prescriptive when he gave us his “new [ital] commandment [end ital], to love one another as I have loved you”.
This was no soft-centred “cuddly Benedict”; the pope still had a spine, as we have seen over the years that followed. He was exactly the same Joseph Ratzinger as he had always been. There was no contradiction: as he wrote as Prefect of the CDF in 1993, “Christianity is at its heart a radical ‘yes,’ and when it presents itself as a ‘no,’ it does so only in defence of that ‘yes’.” The secular world does not, of course, WANT a radical Christian “yes”; it wants a “yes” not to the love of God but to our own “personal choices”; and so, it has to be said does the secularising fifth column within the Catholic Church (including the American Leadership Conference of Women Religious).
There was always a limit to the Pope’s new cuddliness. There was no change in direction, as that old curmudgeon Hans Kung correctly diagnosed at the time. Thus, having praised the encyclical’s “solid theological substance” he also grumbled that the pope had failed to mention the charity the church should show toward loving couples who use contraception, and those who divorce and remarry. Poor old Kung, he didn’t get it then, and he doesn’t get it now; he knows what he believes and has stuck to it through thick and thin. But so does the Pope; and so, the Lord be praised, has he.