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How I changed my mind about the Pope

Mark Dowd embarks on a personal quest to understand Pope Benedict XVI

By on Friday, 10 September 2010

Care for the environment is an integral part of Benedict XVI’s theological outlook (AP Photo/L'Osservatore Romano. Upper photo: BBC/Rob Cowling)

Care for the environment is an integral part of Benedict XVI’s theological outlook (AP Photo/L'Osservatore Romano. Upper photo: BBC/Rob Cowling)

June 1945. An exhausted 17-year-old boy has been released from a prisoner of war camp and completes an 80-mile journey back home, eager to see his family and friends. As he descends at sunset from the hills into his home town of Traunstein close to the Austrian border on the feast of the Sacred Heart, he hears music coming from the church of St Oswald. It is almost something from a Hollywood screenplay.

“The heavenly Jerusalem itself could not have appeared more beautiful to me at that moment,” he writes. The teenage Joseph Ratzinger knew that his mother and sister Maria were in the church. You or I might have hastily pulled open the church door and blundered in, scouring the pews in search of eager family reunion. But what does the present Pope tell us in, Milestones, his short collection of memoirs published in 1997?
“I did not want to create disturbance so I did not go in.”

Why not? This was one of a huge list of questions I wanted answers to and one which forms part of a BBC Two film, Benedict: Trials of a Pope, to be shown next week before the arrival of His Holiness on the first ever state visit by a Pope to Britain. The most fitting person on hand to answer that question was his 86-year-old brother, Georg, now a retired choirmaster and canon at Regensburg Cathedral. Our production team had found a willing intermediary in family friend, Margarete Ricardi, who I met outside his home in the centre of Regensburg.

“How do I address him?” I asked nervously. “Is it OK to call him Herr Ratzinger?”

Margarete’s face betrayed a faint sense of revulsion. “No, no,” she said. “You must call him Herr Domkapellmeister [cathedral choirmaster]. Titles are very important in Germany.”

Clearly. Ninety per cent of my O-level German has all but disappeared, but this word was inserted firmly into my cerebral cortex and duly reappeared five minutes later as we made our introductions.

So what about that reluctance to enter the church?

“My brother has spent his whole life in devotion to the liturgy and knows that it is the central pillar of the Church’s life,” Georg told me. “He knows that if he had gone in, it would have created a disturbance. No, he said a prayer and that was it.”

The young Joseph went home. Father was waiting and later, that long-awaited reunion with his mother and sister. But if ever a story were to touch on so many important themes in the Ratzinger worldview, it is this one: the respect for the aesthetics of liturgical life, the centrality of order and a strongly held sense of boundaries: and not making yourself “the story”, realising that self-assertion is not a central component of personal freedom.

The making of this film has been something of a voyage of discovery for me. I can’t be the only Catholic in the world who had major apprehensions on April 19 2005 as the conclave made its decisive choice to elect the first German pope since the 11th century (I don’t count Adrian VI, born in Utrecht in 1459, part of the Holy Roman Empire). I was worried about whether the former head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith might be just a little too polarising. I am no expert of conclave arithmetic, but my hunch was that he simply had too many doubters inside the College of Cardinals to get the required votes. Wrong. And I have been wrong about him, too. It is not that he has changed radically since taking up the papacy; it is simply that when you have to make a one-hour programme on one of the most clever and gifted people on the planet you have to look behind the headlines and the angry rants on the blogosphere. In short, you have to do justice to the man as best as you can.

Something similar is going on with Pope Benedict at the moment as has been occurring with John Henry Newman in recent months. Recognising the brilliant intellectual acumen of an individual often leads to wings, sections of the Church, staking their claim. They want to possess them as “their own”. I can understand why. But there are occasionally rare moments when these drives towards colonising the output of a gifted mind simply fail on account of the sheer dynamism and multi-facetedness of the individual concerned. So Pope Benedict’s uncompromising language on homosexuality, his disciplining of liberation theologians and 2007 Motu Proprio on the Old Rite of the Roman liturgy all have conservatives ticking their boxes and approving. But how then to deal with some rather contradictory evidence, not least of all his championing of workers’ rights in Caritas in Veritate and his uncompromising critique of neo-liberal economics?:

“I would like to remind everyone, especially everyone engaged in boosting the world’s economic and social assets, that the primary capital to be safeguarded and valued is man, the human person in his or her integrity” (italics from the text).

Similarly, those who complain of the betrayal of Vatican II and have this pontificate down as unreservedly restorationist and insular have some explaining to do. How is it that such a man commands the respect of a towering figure and atheist intellectual such as Jürgen Habermas, so much so that they are prepared to engage in a dialogue in public? How is it that such a man devotes his first encyclical to a profound discussion of human love and ponders on the potential for Eros and Agape to be a bridge between the human and the divine? Furthermore, how is it that this pope has taken every opportunity to emphasise that care from the environment is not some woolly-minded aspect of New Ageism, but an integral part of his theological outlook? So much so that in January His Holiness called in many of the ambassadors accredited to the Holy See and berated them for the “economic and political resistance” that resulted in the failure of last December’s climate summit in Copenhagen.

When I ascended the roof of the Aula Nervi just a three-minute walk from St Peters, the charming Vatican architect, Guido Rainaldi, unveiled an amazing sight to me: more than 2,500 solar panels. Low carbon heaven. Green energy companies have been beating a path to the site and sounding out the idea of using Vatican employees as guinea pigs with their emerging fleet of electric cars and scooters. “Who knows,” said Signore Rainaldi, “perhaps when we get the first consignment of vehicles, the Holy Father will bless them. Maybe he can take one for a spin?” (The Pontiff does not possess a driving licence, but in theory that is no bar on him hopping on to a scooter.) That Joseph Ratzinger has not quite lived up to his predictable billing is a point well understood by the Italian senator Marcello Pera, with whom Pope Benedict wrote a book on Europe and culture called Without Roots. When I met Pera in the heart of Rome earlier in the year he told me of the reaction of his fellow legislators.

“There was a huge prejudice,” Pera said. “Everyone was expecting the Rottweiler. I had invited him to address the Senate: this was the first time a cardinal had ever set foot inside the building and they were amazed. He really charmed them.” What exactly was Pera doing, as a godless man, engaging with the Vicar of Rome?

“I wanted these secularists to reflect. They talk about the absolutist nature of human rights, but they have no idea of the basis of where such an idea comes from – namely, that everyone is made in the image of God and deserves respect and has an integrity based on that.”

Pera makes a further point: “Let’s look at this question from a historical point of view. What happened to Europe, when it denied Christianity? We had Nazism, Fascism, Communism, anti-Semitism. That means that when Europe tried to avoid its own roots and so the culture of rights, specially the respect of the human person, Europe finds itself in dictatorship.”

Good for Pera. Can you imagine this from the archpriest of atheism, Richard Dawkins?

But the real delight for me has been in engaging with the writings of this 83-year-old man. The encyclicals have been given deserved space and attention. Yet you have to go back to 1968 for his classic, Introduction to Christianity, a work in which it becomes abundantly clear that, for this gentle and determined Bavarian, that man does not create his own truth through effort and endeavour, but, as he writes: “To believe as a Christian means in fact entrusting oneself to the meaning that upholds me and the world, taking it as the firm ground on which I can stand fearlessly… to believe as a Christian means understanding our existence as a response to the word, the logos, that upholds and maintains all things.”

There are some wonderful reflections on Moses, the encounter with the burning bush, the voice of God and the seeds of the understanding of true monotheism – the God who replies, “I am what I am” being a transcendent presence “who cannot give his name in the same way as the gods round about, who are individual gods alongside similar gods and therefore need a name”.

Jump forward almost 40 years and we have volume one of Jesus of Nazareth. I must confess to being daunted by this work as many had started and failed, warning me that it was “hard going”. Be that as it may, what is genuinely moving about the encounter one undergoes in reading this book is the sheer power and depth of faith in the 335 pages. Forty of those are a flowing meditation on the Lord’s Prayer and the Pope writes with such a direct voice, occasionally moving away from a more formal and academic tone – you almost feel he is in the room, singling you out, speaking to you directly. “We must also keep in mind that the Our Father originates from [Jesus’s] own praying,” he writes, “from the Son’s dialogue with the Father. This means that it reaches down into depths far beyond the words… each one of us with his own mens, his own spirit, must go out to meet, to open himself to, and submit to the guidance of the vox, the word that comes to us from the Son.” And to think that volume two on the Passion, death and Resurrection has already gone off to the publishers…

These books are not exercises of the Magisterium, as Pope Benedict reminds us in the preface to his first volume: “Everyone is free to contradict me. I would only ask for that initial goodwill without which there can be no understanding.”

That this goodwill has been at times conspicuous in its absence in the run-up to next week’s visit has been obvious for some time. I put that down to a trinity of factors which, when mixed in a heady brew, account for a lot of the reservations: an ever-present strain of anti-Catholicism here in Britain, a small but potent anti-German sentiment and, of course, the understandable raw nerve touched by the seemingly endless crisis of clerical sex abuse.

It is this last factor which deserves some detailed attention and in our BBC film we do our best to take account of how fair it really is to single our Pope Benedict for special criticism. The man I approached to help me evaluate all this was John Allen, the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter and a man described as having a “maddening objectivity” by the online Catholic magazine Godspy. In a Catholic world of tribal rivalries, Allen is trusted by most to get it right and to be fair. That is why his Vatican contacts are the envy of most members of the fourth estate.

Allen’s take is principally that the bottle is overwhelmingly more full than empty. The Pope has met the victims of abuse on several occasions, made numerous apologies and embraced a zero-tolerance policy for clergy found guilty of abuse. The statute of limitations has recently been extended to 20 years to allow abuse cases to be pursued with greater ease, placing the Catholic Church ahead of many civil authorities in this respect. Moreover, it was the Pope, shortly after his accession, who moved to isolate Fr Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legionnaires of Christ, after years of mounting evidence of abuse and corruption, evidence which culminated in a Vatican investigation into his movement. None of this happened under Pope John Paul II and many have suggested that the then Cardinal Ratzinger would have taken action earlier, but supporters of Maciel acted to block any initiatives. But it is clear this is not a man in denial.

When I spoke to Allen in Rome about the effect all this was having on the Holy Father, he said: “I have spoken to people who work in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith who were there in the rooms when case files were being read out loud and they saw the kind of reaction of disgust and horror and shock that washed across the visage of Joseph Ratzinger.

“I don’t think that was for show. This was away from TV cameras in a private room. I think that genuinely does speak to his experience.”

As my quest to understand Joseph Ratzinger gathered momentum a clearer picture was emerging. Far from questions of massive personal culpability, it seemed to me that the implosion of recent cases presents the leader of the Catholic Church with a very heavy personal burden. This man’s talents are not best served by details of management and structures: he is a first-rate theologian and thinker. As John Allen put it,
“There is a root kind of frustration that he must feel. This a mind that is so given to the quest for order, to creating logical links from A to B to C leading to the glories of Christian orthodoxy. Now to be put in a position of governing not only a Church that seems in meltdown in many ways, but a world which changes every 15 minutes as blog sites are refreshed and where the situation to which he is trying to respond is constantly in flux, I think has to be a source of angst.”

But also remember that this is a man whose instincts are also geared to searching for truth. On the recent flight to Fatima in May a posse of journalists on the papal plane took their seats and when one of them asked about any possible links between the predicted sufferings of the Church in the Fatima visions and its present difficulties, Pope Benedict replied with candour: “The greatest persecution of the Church doesn’t come from enemies on the outside, but is born in sin within the Church. The Church thus has a deep need to re-learn penance, to accept purification, to learn on one hand forgiveness but also the necessity of justice.”

It was a decisive riposte to those in the Vatican who had sought to blame everything on the media and “idle gossip”. As my former prior in the Dominicans, Fr Timothy Radcliffe, told me: “The Pope is just too honest a man to accept the idea that all this is simply somebody else’s fault. He knows it comes from us and that we have to face it. And I find this all very promising and I hope it leads to a more honest church, a more transparent Church and a humbler Church.”

The predictions of an inflexible Vicar of Rome, “God’s Rottweiler”, in 2005 have been misplaced. Many of us got it wrong and I am happy to say so unambiguously. But I end on this thought. My old novice master, Herbert McCabe OP, was always reminding us of the massive dilemma at the heart of all theology: that as humans we are drawn to God and made to share union with the Creator but our ability to use words to reference all this is always doomed to failure, given the gap between our finite status and the transcendent force that lies beyond our grasp. T S Eliot puts it best in “Burnt Norton”:

words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.

Pope Benedict, shy and retiring man that he is said to be, might be horrified at this suggestion. But might it be that one of the reasons is he is so hard to categorise, to put into that simple neat box, is that his writings, teachings and insights are an albeit imperfect reflection of that infinity and immutability that is the “peace that surpasseth all understanding”?

Mark Dowd’s film, Benedict: Trials of a Pope, will be broadcast on BBC Two on Wednesday September 15
at 7pm

  • Richard

    Mark, if only Tatchell's documentary was going to be as fair as your's. A good feature and I look forward to the film.

  • http://www.Drivingstraight.com Jack

    Thanks for the encouraging commentary. As one who lived – and has written about – the Legion of Christ experience with Maciel, I've been more than a little perplexed at why the Vatican took so long to make a definitive statement. I agree with your appraisal and thank you for it.

  • Eric Conway

    Very good Mark. You have achieved a journalistic first – managing to track down two open-minded/tolerant/intelligent atheists – Messrs. Habermas & Pera. Really though I'm surprised that you're surprised what an open-minded analysis of Pope Benedict led to. You could have saved yourself all this trouble five years ago by not believing everything you heard from the ” liberal “media. Always keep an open/critical mind, & beware of the mob – Joseph Ratzinger would approve !.

  • Suburbanbanshee

    Interesting and insightful. I agree that trying to fit his stuff into a political box is fruitless, and that the same is true of Newman. (And heck, even if you wanted to box Newman, surely you'd start with the politics of his time and not of ours. So it's twice the silly.)

    Also, it's hilarious that you apparently were told that Jesus of Nazareth was hard going, when it's Introduction to Christianity that's written for the academic and philosophical crowd (made my normal reader's head hurt! A lot!). Most of his books have a difficult bit for the first few pages, and then break loose into the open. So anybody with trouble might want to skim ahead a bit, and then maybe go back and read the first few pages after you see just where he was going with them. His homilies don't need the academic foundations to be laid up front, so they're a lot smoother.

  • http://twitter.com/RCYouthWorker Jack Regan

    Brilliant article, thank you.

  • Mamasnookems

    Pope is just a man, not God, we shouldn't be making idol out of a man. he isn't perfect either, we should be looking to Jesus, He will listen to us, and He is the same yesterday, today and forever. Traditions of man change alot, Jesus doesn't.

  • Mike

    “June 1945. An exhausted 17-year-old boy has been released from a prisoner of war camp and completes an 80-mile journey back home, eager to see his family and friends. As he descends at sunset from the hills into his home town of Traunstein close to the Austrian border on the feast of the Sacred Heart, he hears music coming from the church of St Oswald. It is almost something from a Hollywood screenplay.”

    Never mind Hollywood. Just watch the opening sequence to “Heimat 1”, Edgar Reitz’s masterly film about life in the fictional village of Schabbach between 1919 and 1982.

  • tiggles

    Some of us always knew. So no change of mind was needed.

    I did nt think your feature was particularly edifying. But then of course you are persuing an agenda, like so many others today, and indeed all of the media.

  • Ratbag

    Well done! Many, many thanks, Mark!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=587154045 Joe Rogers

    no one is idolising him.

  • jdomn

    The article is admiring him, not idolizing him. It even quotes the Pope's humble words stating that anybody is free to contradict him. Did you even read this article????

  • Phil MacDonald

    The pope, “one of the most clever and gifted people on the planet”? Clever and gifted people do not deny the efficacy of condoms, they do not deny abortion to even the most vulnerable women, they do not oppose the rights of homosexual people, they do not rehabilitate holocaust deniers into the church, they do not head an organisation responsible for the criminal cover-up of endemic child abuse, they do not deny the equality of women to practice religion at the same level as men. And as anyone who has even the slightest interest in religion in the world will know, these myriad evils are just the tip of the iceberg. But it is nice to know he's got solar panels installed; the surprise being a man so averse to evidence, reason, and morality, at least promotes conservation. But that's not nearly enough to atone for the crimes against humanity he continues to commit.

  • Lnewington

    Reading this historical view of Benedict; I have to ask myself, would his mother approve of the manner the church has dealt with the treatment of the vulnerable catholic children world wide, which he is now presiding over as Pope .

    Would respect for the aesthetics of liturgical life and strongly sensed strength of boundries, over rule the accountability for the souls destroyed through horrific abuse, befallen them through breach of trust for decades, even in his own country and well recorded.

    I don't think so and I'm sure this is quietly giving him food for thought.

    For most, Mama is always in the shadows, being the one who nurtured and fostered vocations in her beloved children and then waiting to receive them in heaven.

    I only hope he is given time to get things right.

  • Mel

    I agree! Equally, and whilst being discerning, we too should keep an open mind about the 'liberal' media if we want them to research and report on Catholicism and faith issues fairly and intelligently.

    I thought that I'd have to stick to EWTN for the whole of the Papal visit; it seems that something profound has happened to the secular media over the last couple of days. BBC presenters, whom I usually find intransigently biased against the Church and, I feel, lack any grasp of the Church's vastness and viewpoint at all, seem surprised and genuinely moved by the power of the Pope's message and the love which so many people have for him.

  • ray

    You clearly do not understand or are ignorant of of the Church's teachings and of the Pope's thought process. Try first to get to know him through his writngs and of what the Church actually and truly teaches, then perhaps you may have or make sound and educated objections…..

    As Archbishop Fulton Sheen once stated “There are not one hundred people in this world who hate Catholicism, but there are millions who hate what they mistakenly believe Catholicism to be.”

  • Paul_mather1

    The Holy Spirit certainly works in wonderful ways. Paul Mather

  • A Decruz89

    Thank you for your article. I have always admired Ratzinger even when he was a cardinal and derided by people as the Panzer Cardinal. He is the pre-eminent Catholic intellectual because many of the others have been silenced.

    But when the former Pope gave him the cross to carry to lead the Good Friday service in the Vatican many years ago, I knew he would be our next Pope. And the cross is the sexualabuse scandal. Ratzinger knew the scale of it when his dicastery was assigned the job in 2001. Having delved in the different churches and understood the depth of the scandal, he propmply filed his resignation thrice. Yet here he is the man who has to deal with the scandal that many Popes faced but avoiding doing anything seriously about. Here is the first Pope to have a go at the spring cleaning!

    He continues to make curial appointments like JPII. As the church is Catholic (meaning universal) its nice to see that the heads of Vatican departments comprise many non-Italian cardinals. Match this with another non-Italian Pope and together much can be achieved to transform the normally slow moving bureaucracy and the Catholic church.

    I have great hopes for this man and hope for his longish life as Pope (another ten of so years?) especially as Germans are normally disciplined, focused and hardworking. This one is also honest having freely acknowledged his (compulsory) Hitler Youth background. B16 is also intelligent and knows his theology inside out.

    His appointment as Pope has immensely increased the stature of the Catholic Church. The 1 billion Catholics are incredibly blessed to have this man as Pope.

  • Christianfriendskenya


  • Eric Conway

    As intelligent/rational Catholics open-mindedness is in our DNA. That's why from Aquinas right down to Joseph Ratzinger we can discern the inherent absuridity/irrationality of most ephemeral liberal dogma. Liberals by their nature are incapable of reporting fairly & intelligently on anything, Least of all the Catholic Church. To paraphrase the late Brian Clough, we can diaologue with them for politeness sake, & then agree that the Catholic position is the correct one.

  • Mel

    “Clever and gifted people do not deny the efficacy of condoms.” At one time, I would have agreed wholeheartedly. The comedian Ardal O'Hanlon had a line about prophlactics, which are frequently proclaimed as Africa's saviour, if only the church would stop being such a terrible stickinthemud.

    Condoms: they're a disgrace, aren't they? They break and they don't work…

    I didn't understand this teaching at all until I happened to read an article by Germaine Greer (not a typical proponent of Catholic teaching) about contraception and condoms in particular. She seemed to be saying that they work against women's rights because they encourage a lack of respect and the view that “I've done my bit, if it split, then tough.”

    Later I met a very experienced woman who had worked in the poorest parts of Africa. She said that the people who spread AIDS are often less than bothered about who they have sex with. Giving them condoms is pointless because they don't have the respect to use them with these strangers. From experience, she believed that engendering a culture of respect was the best way to alleviate the AIDS epidemic.

    I noticed that in the headlines on the day the Pope arrived in Scotland, the statistics for AIDS victims had fallen.

    “God is in the details, Maurice.”

  • Bob

    Very interesting……Mark Dowd moves closer to appreciating the Pope while Maureen Dowd becomes more contentious.

  • jennychang

    DeCruz does not go far enough. What the Pope should do is to defrock the errant do nothing Cardinals. They had reports about their errant priests in files which they just kept in their safes. Presumably into blackmailing those same priests if they step out of line liturgically or to do their own bidding. Its not right that the Cardinals are appointed for life and watch the churches in their countries go down the tube.

    Why should the Austrian cardinal, Groer be the only one penalised and persecuted? The same treatment should be meted out to:-Cardinal Pell of Australia; the Cardinal of Northern Ireland(foreget his name who terminated a CNN interview when the abuse question was brought up); Cardinal Godfrey Danieels (Belgium); Cardinal Law (ex Boston if he is still alive. It is not right that Laws is shifted to Rome and promoted); Cardinal Sodano (the great denier) etc. All these gus need to be dis-appointed or relieved of their cardinalship for their lack of basic honesty you would expect in a simple priest and their immorality to protect errant priests. It seems that when one is given the red hat one is free to lie with impunity. What trash of the church these people. Bendict 16 please act fast. We cannot wait for the visitations to end in all these countries before action is taken

  • Richard chin

    jenny, the cardinal of armagh whose name you forgot is Sean Brady. His conduct must be seriously scrutinised. He should have been removed long ago.

    And Cardinal Pell he himself had a wiff of scandal about him, having been personally accused in the past. He crafty thought that by writing a book explaining Benedict's theology he will earn favour with the Pontiff and earn promotion to the Vatican didn't come to pass. Phew but it was close.

    Agreed that the do-nothing cardinals admist so much shame must be dis-appointed. They cannot serve for life or until 80. Most have lost the mandate and trust of their flock. They better be replaced. There is no shortage of talent to replace them. These cardinals are also among the “enemies within” that the Pontiff was talking about

  • http://www.catholictruthscotland.com EditorCT

    I’ve just stumbled across this – don’t know how I missed it at the time – is this the same Mark Dowd who is openly “gay” and regularly attends the “gay” Masses in Soho?

    Goodness, on the odd occasions when I manage to get a letter published in the Catholic Herald letters page, they omit the name of the publication – Catholic Truth- which I edit. Yet they happily publish articles from openly “gay” writers…