The Year of Two Popes

How Joseph Ratzinger stepped into the shoes of John Paul II—and what it means for the Catholic Church

Together these two episodes suggest the outlook in Rome in the novemdiales, the nine days of mourning from the funeral to the conclave. Public expectations for the conclave and the cardinals' preparations for it could hardly have been more different. The faithful and the press wondered about the prospects for momentous change in the Church, and imagined the dramatic ways the cardinals might bring it about: the politicking and coalition-building, the off-site lunches and after-hours tête-à-têtes, the favor-trading, the nods and whispered promises. "There are enough intrigues in Rome just now to fill a Dan Brown novel," one correspondent wrote. Meanwhile, the cardinals, taking part in the daily meetings called general congregations, sat in the modern audience hall tucked behind the Palazzo Sant' Uffizio and pondered the difficult situation of the Church in the twenty-first century. One cardinal after another would claim the rostrum and offer a commentary—about evangelization, secularism, ecumenism, episcopal collegiality, or the challenge of Islam. The meetings went on and on. "It was extremely disorganized at first," a man who knows many cardinals told me. "Then Ratzinger imposed order."

As dean Ratzinger supervised the general congregations—ruled over them, some would say. He greeted each cardinal by name and addressed him in a language familiar to both of them—Italian, German, English, Spanish, or French. When some cardinals complained that the reliance on Italian as a lingua franca made things hard to follow, he had interpreters brought in. He saw to it that the cardinals who had not been heard from were invited to speak, and at the same time kept the windier cardinals from upsetting the schedule. He chatted to all and sundry during the coffee breaks—so different from the remote John Paul.

The closer Cardinal Ratzinger drew to the papacy, the more determined to oppose him certain cardinals grew. The story of the novemdiales is the story of the failure of moderates and progressives to unite in opposition. What went wrong? In the first days after the conclave his opponents in Rome laid the blame on the structure of the process. They complained that Ratzinger's role as dean, strengthened by his power as the doctrinal prefect, made him the lone voice of the Church more than was right. Moreover, they said, the protocol for the novemdiales, devised by John Paul and carried out by Ratzinger, prevented—practically forbade—an opposition from emerging. While it sounds conscientious that the cardinals spent two whole days reviewing the rules for the conclave, they said, the rules were already common knowledge, making the review of them a strategic waste of time on the part of the cardinal in charge. While it sounds fair that each of the more than 150 cardinals, including those too old to vote, was allowed to speak for seven minutes in the congregations, the brevity of each man's remarks kept any one position from gaining traction—making the congregations the Vatican equivalent of open-mike night.

Even the cardinals' sleeping arrangements were blamed for the lack of effective opposition. Many cardinals had assumed that the Domus Santa Marta—built with the next conclave in mind—would be their residence during the run-up to the conclave. But as the cardinals were settling in Rome they were told that the Santa Marta would not be opened to them until the eve of the conclave. Until then they would stay in their usual Roman lodgings: at the North American College and other national seminaries, at the houses of their religious orders, or at hotels or in palazzi. Scattered thus, the cardinals didn't have a chance to meet informally, out of sight, and put their heads together.

I asked Cardinal Szoka, the Vatican's governor, why the cardinals weren't allowed to move in earlier. He pointed out that the Santa Marta's rooms had other occupants, mainly priests on long-term stays, who needed time to clear out, and that it had to be "swept" thoroughly to make sure no electronic bugging devices were present. The procedures meant to keep the cardinals' discussions secret, then, actually kept discussions from taking place.

So did the collective romance with Carlo Maria Martini, which came to naught but led the more progressive cardinals to take their eyes off the prize. For years before the conclave reform-minded Catholics had put their hopes in Martini, the archbishop emeritus of Milan. Learned, experienced, and modern, yet an institutional man to the core; an Italian, a Jesuit, orthodox and yet open to the world outside the Church: he embodies the qualities that they envisioned in a successor to John Paul. The only problem was that Martini had received a diagnosis of Parkinson's disease, inviting the prospect of another pontificate ending in slurred speech and trembling hands. As he took a scholarly post in Jerusalem, rumors circulated that he had withdrawn himself from consideration. Even so, progressives seem to have had trouble letting go of Martini and settling on a more electable man.

All these factors doubtless complicated the efforts of cardinals to come together behind a candidate other than Ratzinger. But, finally, there is no tactical reason why the "so-called liberals" (as one Roman layman bitterly calls them) weren't able to fashion a response to the Ratzinger candidacy. After all, John Paul's death had not caught them by surprise. A conclave had been in the offing since 2000, if not longer. They had at least five years to prepare the ground—as much time as their idol John XXIII had to get elected, call a council, and see it through its first session before his death, in 1963.

Because the cardinals take a vow to keep the workings of the conclave secret, and for the most part really do remain tight-lipped, there is still no definitive information about what took place inside the Sistine Chapel. But an account that would explain the lack of a real challenge to Ratzinger might go like this.

At the core of the opposition was a group of moderates and progressives that included Cardinals Hummes of São Paulo, Rodríguez Maradiaga of Honduras, Mahony of Los Angeles, Danneels of Brussels, Dias of Bombay, Napier of Durban, South Africa, and Hamao, a Japanese curialist; the Germans Walter Kasper and Karl Lehmann; and as many as seven other North American cardinals. With Martini of Milan finally judged unelectable, these men settled their hopes on another, very different Jesuit: Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the archbishop of Buenos Aires.

Why Bergoglio? By all accounts he is unambitious and would not have sought the papacy openly. But his humility, together with other personal qualities, made him an attractive "bridge" candidate between progressive cardinals and moderate ones, between the Third World and the First. He is an Argentine but of Italian ancestry. As a Jesuit he is thought to be outside the grip of Rome, yet he serves as adviser to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, and so is a regular presence at the Vatican. Though trained as a chemist, he is considered an excellent theologian, and he is legendary for his simple and self-denying way of life: he lives in unadorned rooms near the cathedral in Buenos Aires and takes the bus to his appointments. As an Argentine he would have considerable appeal among the progressives, who have long sought a pope from Latin America, where nearly half the world's Catholics live; yet his emphasis on piety rather than social issues would make him acceptable to the moderates.

It is unclear which cardinals might have put Bergoglio forward as the anti-Ratzinger or assembled a coalition in his support. A curial official who has known Bergoglio for many years suggested that I look to Germany.

It was not an outlandish suggestion, for Walter Kasper had long shown himself willing to challenge Rome in general and Ratzinger in particular. Like Ratzinger, Kasper is a first-rank theologian who was brought into the episcopate. In his writing, and in his work as bishop of Rottenburg-Stuttgart and then with the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, he had emerged as Ratzinger's moderate doppelgänger. He had supported a plan to allow Catholics who had remarried after a divorce to receive communion, drawing Ratzinger's censure. He had challenged Ratzinger's argument—in one of the prefect's "personal writings"—that the universal Church, represented by Rome, is "prior" to the local churches, represented by Catholic communities around the world, and the debate went on for months in the relatively open space of Catholic journals. His round figure and warm smile endeared him to the press, who mentioned him as one of the papabili, never failing to note his nickname, "Kasper the Friendly Cardinal."

With the conclave approaching, Kasper tested the limits of the silenzio, tilting at Ratzinger once more.

As Ratzinger had gone to Subiaco on the eve of John Paul's death, Kasper on the eve of the conclave went to the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere, half a mile from St. Peter's, the central place of worship of the Community of Sant' Egidio, a progressive Catholic movement based in Rome. Kasper's dispute with Ratzinger had gotten attention not only because it was a rare instance of two cardinals' disagreeing openly but also because it bore on the whole question of authority in the Church—which is to say, on the role of the pope. Kasper's argument for the "simultaneity" of the local Church and the universal Church was an argument for a degree of local autonomy. Ratzinger's argument for the priority of the universal Church was an argument for the priority of Rome and the pope.

Kasper took to the lectern in the ancient basilica, alongside a medieval icon of an all-seeing Christ. Alluding, it seems, both to the outpouring of enthusiasm for John Paul on the streets of Rome and to the support for Joseph Ratzinger among the cardinals, he remarked: "Just as it is forbidden to clone others, it is not possible to clone Pope John Paul II. Every pope ministers in his own way, according to the demands of his era." And then—addressing the other cardinals more than the lay people in the pews—he added pointedly: "Let's not search for someone who is too scared of doubt and secularity in the modern world."

But Cardinal Ratzinger, as dean, would have the last word. On Monday morning the College of Cardinals assembled at St. Peter's. The Domus Santa Marta had been swept for bugs and the cardinal electors had settled in. A few aides and clerical workers who would be needed in the chapel had been administered oaths of secrecy. Now, gathered under the great dome of the basilica, the cardinals listened to Ratzinger, who after two weeks of decisive action was nearly hoarse.

Ratzinger's homily is now known as the "dictatorship of relativism" speech, and with good reason. Within an eloquent and characteristic account of the gifts of faith and the sacred tasks of religious leaders he embedded a stinging denunciation of the Church's relations with the world—in which the Church, he suggested, quoting Saint Paul, is "tossed by waves and swept along by every wind of teaching arising from human trickery." He told the cardinals, "This description is very relevant today."

Some experts read the homily as the very opposite of a campaign speech, taking its toughness as proof that Ratzinger did not care to court popularity. Others saw it as Ratzinger's own warning to the cardinals, his way of making clear what they could expect if they elected him pope. It was certainly both these things. But it is most revealing as one more instance in which Ratzinger identified his audience and then identified himself with them, with a rhetorical skill that our age calls political. Preaching to the vast crowd at John Paul's funeral, he had spoken as if he were one of them, just another pilgrim in the square; now, preaching to the cardinals on the threshold of the conclave, he exhorted them as a band of brothers, his fellow travelers on the storm-tossed ship of faith.

The homily was met with applause, and as the cardinals made their way in procession down the center aisle of the basilica an hour later, the applause rose from the congregation again, cresting at the sight of Cardinal Ratzinger, who brought up the rear. Who was being applauded—a departing cardinal or a presumptive pope? Whatever the case, as the cardinals climbed the grand staircase to the Sistine Chapel, the applause rang out as if the conclave were ending, not beginning.

VII. The Long-distance Pope

The night of his election, posters showing Benedict emerging on the loggia were pasted to walls throughout Rome. They joined the fraying posters of John Paul that clung tenaciously to the same walls, the image of the new pope's open arms appearing alongside a kneeling, smiling John Paul. In this way it was a time of two popes. "It seems I can feel his strong hand squeezing mine; I seem to see his smiling eyes and listen to his words, addressed to me especially at this moment: 'Do not be afraid!'" Benedict told the cardinals during a mass in the Sistine Chapel, and for a few days on the streets of Rome he and John Paul greeted passersby together.

That Sunday, April 24, Benedict XVI was invested as the 265th pope in a grand mass outside St. Peter's Basilica. Just enough had changed since John Paul's funeral to suggest something of a makeover in Vatican City. The new pope wore a new pair of gold-rimmed reading glasses. There were more German pilgrims than Poles in the crowd, waving flags as at a World Cup match. Jeb Bush led the U.S. delegation instead of George W. Up on the colonnade the protocol of press cards and assigned seating, thrilling three weeks earlier, now seemed routine, as if a new pope were installed every few years, not once in a quarter century. The popemobile rolled out to the strains of that most German of classics, Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor. The homily, though, was vintage Ratzinger: as he explained two symbols of the papacy—the ring on his right hand and the woolen pallium around his neck—the beauty of his words cloaked the severity of his vision, in which humanity is drowning in alienation, "in the salt waters of suffering and death," until we are rescued by Jesus Christ and the "fishers of men" who are his disciples.

In the months since then experts have sought evidence of a secret side to the new pope: an alternative to the forbidding stereotypes, a counterpoint to the exacting world view that he has developed over a lifetime. But there have been no great surprises. Benedict has exercised the papal office with the assurance of a man who put reflections on "the primacy of Peter" at the heart of his recent theology, and who watched a pope from close range for twenty-five years.

There is no doubt that under Benedict there will be some unexpected developments in the life of the Church. Yet to hope that the papacy will bring out some hidden side of its present occupant is to look for change in the wrong place, and to misunderstand both the man and the office.

Together John Paul II and Joseph Ratzinger carried out what Ratzinger declared the "authentic interpretation" of Vatican II. As a result, in Rome today all the great Catholic controversies of the past half century—about women, sexuality, politics, and authority in the Church—are considered settled, and settled in the conservatives' favor. This gives Benedict a clear set of precedents and a staff of people who share his point of view. Yet it leaves him with less to do than the popes who preceded him. It means that his influence will most likely be felt more through his character than through his power to bring about change.

That itself is the change at the Vatican worth pondering, for Benedict's character places him at some remove from his predecessors. The popes of our era—John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, and John Paul II—were all worldly men. Even as they stressed that the pope is not popularly elected, they sought popular acclaim, a practice culminating in John Paul's foreign trips, which took the papacy to the people. And those popes could be seen reaching out and acting in ways that were meant to affect the lives of ordinary believers directly. Pope John summoned Vatican II, which changed the forms of everyday Catholic practice: the Latin mass, the meatless Friday. Paul formed a committee of experts to reconsider the Church's ban on artificial birth control, and when he upheld the ban over their recommendation, Catholic couples felt personally cheated out of a papal blessing on their sexuality. Shortly before he was elected, Pope John Paul I, Albino Luciani, defying convention, sent warm greetings to the first child conceived through in vitro fertilization. Through his travels John Paul II brought moral theology into the park, the stadium, the living room, giving his reaffirmations of traditional Catholic stands the drama and urgency of front-page news.

In short, those popes were public figures. As such, they commanded the attention not only of the faithful but of all those who are still convinced that great personages shape events more than they are shaped by them. Like Nehru, or Margaret Thatcher, or Václav Havel, they were studies in human character, exhibits in the drama Edmund Wilson called "the writing and acting of history."

Benedict is different. He works with words more than gestures, challenging the world with an uncapped pen. Although he doesn't lack charisma, it is expressed on a small stage, in his writings and his one-on-one meetings with other churchmen. He is suspicious of popularity, and indeed of strong personality, whether in a pope or in an errant theologian. And although he has a very definite vision of the Church's role in worldly affairs, his emphasis is always on the Church as church. The most consequential actions of his pontificate so far have all involved ecclesial matters: implementing a review of seminaries (which includes deterring gay seminarians); meeting formally with Orthodox, Muslim, and Jewish leaders; setting in motion the process for the canonization of John Paul; and naming John Paul's secretary the archbishop of Kraków. Even his dinner with an old foe, the progressive Hans Küng, was, after all, a meeting with a priest and a theologian like himself.

Surprisingly, given his authoritarian image, Benedict has a fairly restricted conception of the papacy, especially when compared with that of the maximalist John Paul. In his personal writings he explains it through the biblical imagery of the rock. Following tradition, he sees the papal office as at once "petrus," the rock on which the Church is founded, and "skandalon," the stumbling block. To these images he adds one from Michelangelo. In Benedict's view, change in the Church is brought about by what the sculptor called ablatio, or removal—"the removal of what is not really part of the sculpture." The Church is in need not of reform but of renewal, and the pope is less an agent of change than a sculptor helping it to attain its noble form.

The new pope's critics might say that this essentially negative approach to the office will make him a scourge bent on removing signs of life from the Church. So it may be. Or it may be that he will help to purify a Church that—as the scandal of priestly sexual abuse made plain—is greatly in need of purification. In any case, his program as pope is a good deal narrower than John Paul's. The very fixity of the Vatican's doctrinal positions, together with his focus on Church matters above all, means that Benedict will play a more limited role in the life of the Catholic people than his predecessors did. The pope, for half a century as familiar as the parish priest, will once again be a fairly distant figure in Rome, a man from a far country.

No one moved to deeper faith by the charisma of John XXIII or John Paul II can help feeling this change as a loss. Yet it is a change that offers certain possibilities for the lives of ordinary believers. Great things have happened under popes who were much sterner than Benedict and lacked his intelligence and sophistication. History suggests, too, that much of what is best in the Catholic tradition has arisen in the shadow of an essentially negative papacy, and much of what is worst has occurred when popes overplayed their role. Consider Pope Pius XII, the now vilified wartime pope. It was Pius's pretensions to be a statesman, not a fisher of men, that led him to calculate about the fate of European Jews rather than telling his Church to stand up and do the right thing. At the same time, Pius's relative indifference to American society left open spaces for American Catholics to shape the Church's noble form in the United States: building schools and settling neighborhoods; furthering alliances between Church leaders and working people; establishing the Catholic Worker and other movements devoted to the least among us; tending to a flowering of Catholic literature best represented by Thomas Merton and Flannery O'Connor; and leaving Catholics free to find common ground with Jews, Protestants, and people of no religion at all.

At Subiaco on the eve of John Paul's death Ratzinger characterized Europe, for so long the cradle of Christianity, as essentially missionary territory, which stands in need of a new evangelization. True or not, it is an insight rich in implications for the United States, for it serves as a reminder that as far as religion is concerned, this country is part of the New World, not the old one. In the history of the Church the United States is not an imperial power but a developing country. Ours is a place where Christianity is still relatively new, and our folkways, so different from those of Europe, have long eluded easy understanding in Rome.

This puts Benedict at a certain disadvantage, especially when compared with John Paul II. Karol Wojtyla knew what it meant to be an outsider, and his visits here, for all their hortatory trappings, conveyed his relative openness to American experience—an eagerness to walk our streets, see our sights, hear our song. In contrast, Benedict, for all his learning, remains unschooled in the American experience, and one suspects that, at nearly seventy-nine years old, he is too far along to catch up on the work. The task of making sense of America will await some other pope.

In the meantime, the question of who the next pope will be has been answered emphatically. For better and for worse, there is no question who Benedict is. The clarity of his world view will turn some Catholics away from the Church altogether. But his vision of Christian faith offers a challenge to the rest of us. It reminds us that the conflict between the Church and the modern outlook is not only over this or that issue but over the root questions of religious faith—about the existence of God and the ways God might be made manifest in our lives. It reminds us that even the pope must work with the Church as it actually is, not as he'd like it to be, and that he is likely to see his boldest projects founder or fail. With those points in mind we ought to turn away from the question of what the pope believes and consider just what it is that we believe—turning our attention away from Rome at long last and back to the world in which the real religious dramas of our time are taking place.

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Paul Elie, a senior editor at Farrar Straus & Giroux, is the author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, which won the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction, among other prizes.

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