Flashback: "The Catholic Church" (July 2002)
Atlantic articles from the past forty years have considered the troubles and the institutional weaknesses plaguing the Catholic Church.
Interview: "The Loyal Catholic" (July 2002)
Garry Wills, the author of Why I Am a Catholic, talks about faith, scandal, and the importance of constructive criticism.
Interview: "Behind the Scenes at the Vatican" (January 10, 2006)
Paul Elie, the author of "The Year of Two Popes," talks about Ratzinger's rise and his own extraordinary experiences researching the story.
The cardinals took their seats in long rows on two sides of the Sistine Chapel, tucking their cassocks beneath them. A hymn was sung, a prayer said, an oath taken. The doors were locked. Then, with ritual solemnity, the cardinals rose one by one to cast their ballots in the first "scrutiny." Each man stepped to the front of the room, declared that he was voting for the man he believed to be God's choice as the next pope, and then dropped a paper ballot into an urn.
It was Monday, April 18, 2005. Two weeks earlier the body of John Paul II had been laid out beneath the great dome of St. Peter's Basilica, the feet (in old brown shoes) pointing straight upward in a final expression of earthly vigor. Now 115 cardinals were meeting to elect his successor—to find out which of them would be next to lie in state in St. Peter's.
Three cardinals counted the ballots. Three others checked their work. Seventy-seven votes were needed for election: two thirds plus one. In this first scrutiny perhaps fifty cardinals had cast their ballots for Joseph Ratzinger, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Perhaps ten had cast ballots for Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a Jesuit and the archbishop of Buenos Aires; nine for Carlo Maria Martini, another Jesuit and the retired archbishop of Milan; six for Camillo Ruini, the vicar of Rome; four for Angelo Sodano, the Vatican's secretary of state; and many for scattered others. The ballots were burned in the chapel furnace; black smoke issued from a chimney visible from St. Peter's Square. The doors of the chapel were unlocked and the cardinals descended a grand staircase. A small fleet of minibuses awaited them; they clambered aboard and were taken to the Domus Santa Marta, a $20 million guesthouse a few hundred yards away. The conclave's first day was over, and Cardinal Ratzinger, for a quarter century one of John Paul's closest advisers, was something like a presumptive pope.
At the Santa Marta the cardinals ate supper in the refectory. Afterward they prayed, read, paced, or smoked, stepping outside to avoid the ban on smoking indoors, enforced even for cardinals electing a new pope. Some cardinals paid a visit to Cardinal Martini. Some visited with Cardinal Bergoglio. At least one wrote in his diary, which he would show to a reporter after the conclave. They went to sleep, rose, washed, prayed, dressed, and celebrated mass all together in the modern chapel of the Santa Marta. They ate breakfast, were dressed again in red and white, and were taken back to the Sistine Chapel, where they cast their ballots in the second scrutiny.
This time more than sixty of them voted for Ratzinger. Perhaps thirty-five voted for Bergoglio. Not one voted for Martini. In the night the votes for the one Jesuit had passed to the other, and the unassuming Bergoglio had emerged as the candidate of those who opposed the formidable Ratzinger. The cardinals voted again. In the third scrutiny Ratzinger gained votes, to seventy or more. Bergoglio also gained, climbing to perhaps forty votes. The ballots were burned. The chimney smoked black. From Michelangelo's fresco of the Last Judgment, Jesus Christ stared down impassively, separating the saved from the damned; cleansed of soot, the scene was a good deal clearer than at the time of the previous conclave, when Karol Wojtyla was elected pope on the eighth ballot.
The cardinals left the chapel, boarded the minibuses, and were taken to the Santa Marta for lunch—all except Cardinal Walter Kasper of Germany, who went on foot through the lush Vatican gardens. Was Ratzinger unbeatable? No; but his hour seemed to have come.
In the refectory Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo of Colombia buttonholed other cardinals, especially those from Latin America. An ardent supporter of Ratzinger, he urged them to consider the tally for Bergoglio. A vote for the Argentine was not really the vote of regional solidarity they might think, he said. Many of the votes for Bergoglio were probably coming from scandal-ridden North Americans or from Western Europeans whose flocks could fit onto the head of a pin. Coffee was served. The cardinals boarded the minibuses once more.
The chapel doors were locked for a fourth scrutiny. The cardinals strode to the front of the room one by one. This time two dozen votes went to Bergoglio. More than eighty went to Ratzinger. The prefect had been elected pope. The ballots were burned in the chapel furnace. Smoke guttered up gray and then white. The bells of St. Peter's tolled, setting off a ringing of bells across Rome. A text message—"fumata bianca"—was forwarded from one mobile phone to the next, and tens of thousands of people in the city hastened to the square to see the new pope, whoever he was.
It was just past 6:00 p.m. in Rome when Cardinal Jorge Arturo Medina Estévez, a Chilean, emerged on the loggia over the big central doors of St. Peter's and declared, "Habemus papam"—"We have a pope." He then pronounced a string of Latin words with a surname at the end: Ratzinger.
Several hundred commentators, watching from the square or on television monitors, began to tell a story of Ratzinger as an unlikely pope and a surprising choice—a shy scholar summoned from his study against his will to lead the world's billion or more Catholics along a path trodden dramatically by his outsize predecessor.
The new pope appeared on the loggia, freshly vested in red, white, and gold, a white skullcap on his head. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger—priest, theologian, author, doctrinal supervisor, Vatican insider—was now Pope Benedict XVI, the vicar of Christ, the servant of the servants of God. He beamed and raised his arms to the sky. He looked happy, proud, nervous, awestruck—but in no way surprised.
This is the story of how Joseph Ratzinger took hold of the papacy, and of what his accession means for the Church today. It is the story of a man "inwardly seized by Christianity" (as he once wrote), seen preparing to seize the moment, putting human ambition in the service of suprahuman demands. It is a story of power and its exercise, though not in the usual pejorative sense. Ratzinger's stern stewardship of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had led the press to dub him "Ratzweiler"—and to luridly point out that the CDF was the successor to the Inquisition. But Ratzinger was at once more and less than an inquisitor. On the one hand, he was a crack theologian reduced to vetting Vatican documents; on the other, he was an intellectual with portfolio, speaking truth from power rather than to it.
Ratzinger had no need to grasp for the keys of St. Peter's. As John Paul's most trusted associate he didn't have to pull rank or trade favors to make his influence felt. Rather, he drew near to the papal office by degrees. Over a period of years he laid claim to the role of leader of the Church by making a series of strong interventions in the Vatican's internal affairs, largely out of sight of the press and the vast Catholic populace, but very much in the gaze of the people who elect popes.
Like several million other people, I was in Rome last spring, as the papacy passed from one man to another. The experience combined reportage and pilgrimage. I went into the basilica to pay my respects to John Paul, joining the swollen stream of mourners who filed past the body, forbidden by the security guards to pause, much less to pray, and so left to salute the dead pope with a click of upraised camera phones. I arranged meetings with priests and Vatican officials I'd come to know over the years. In suit and tie I watched from a seat atop Bernini's colonnade as Cardinal Ratzinger celebrated the funeral mass, delivering a deeply affecting eulogy to "our beloved pope," while the wooden coffin containing John Paul's body lay spectacularly alone beneath the Roman sky. At a bus stop I took a snapshot of a poster pasted to an old stone wall, as it had been pasted all over Rome: John Paul on his knees and gazing heavenward, and below him the word GRAZIE, "Thank you."
When he was elected, in 1978—the so-called "year of three popes"—John Paul, fifty-eight, was the youngest pope in modern history. When he died, at eighty-four, he seemed beyond age, like a biblical patriarch. In the obituaries the early photographs showing his strong jaw and straight back came as a shock; it was hard to remember that he had ever walked normally, much less skied or stood up to the Soviets. Parkinson's disease, a hip replacement, fatigue, and old age had ravaged him more profoundly than the public knew.
"They treat him as though he were already dead," it had been said of the aging Pope Paul VI, who died already out of favor among the clerics who run the Vatican. It was vastly different for John Paul. The longer he lived, the greater the reverence for him grew at the Vatican. The more he suffered, the more Christlike he was seen to be. The less capable he became of doing the routine work of the papacy, the more confident his subordinates were that he was a saint in their midst.
The events of the twelve months from the onset of John Paul's last illness up to the present—a year of two popes—complete a process that has been under way since the turn of the millennium. John Paul's poor health prompted Ratzinger, always confident of the soundness of his own approach, to speak and act more boldly than ever. John Paul's physical weakness made Ratzinger (seven years younger) seem spry and vigorous beneath his head of white hair; John Paul's thick, clotted speech made Ratzinger's gentle enunciations seem the voice of clarity. John Paul's struggle to carry on despite his ailments precluded the notion that Ratzinger's own limitations—advanced age, a divisive public image, an attraction to thoughts more than to thinkers—were drawbacks in any important sense.
Did Ratzinger want to be pope? Certainly—provided that this was what God and the other cardinals wanted of him. More and more, it seemed, he was wanted. Beginning in 2000 circumstances at the Vatican seemed to call Ratzinger to the papacy—to "convert" him or turn him around to the office, as he would put it. He saw the papacy diminished by the pope's illness, and the Church weakened by scandals. He was clearly "head and shoulders above the rest of the cardinals," one of his aides told me, "and he knew it"; he at once recognized his mastery of the mechanisms of Vatican power and trusted himself to use them properly. He did not—dared not—wait for John Paul to die; the Church was going off course again. So he prayed for guidance and then stepped in.
The deep roots of Benedict's pontificate were hard to see in the glare of media coverage surrounding the funeral and conclave. Once the foreign press left town, however, the silenzio at the Vatican slackened considerably. That is when I returned to Rome for a stay that stretched into midsummer. With the new pope meeting rabbis and mullahs, and with Vatican City's license plate SCV1 taken off John Paul's bulletproof popemobile and placed on Benedict's open-topped Mercedes-Benz, I found that people at the Vatican—cardinals and archbishops, curial officials and theologians—were eager to talk. We would meet in the sitting rooms of the curial offices along the Via della Conciliazione, the broad, sterile boulevard leading up to St. Peter's. These are neo-Baroque salons furnished with chairs like those found in the lobby of a Hilton, beneath high ceilings that make their occupants look small. I would take a seat under a stylized portrait of John Paul (sometimes Rembrandt, sometimes Norman Rockwell) and eventually a young man would rise from behind an old computer, leave the room, and return with a cardinal or a bishop. Or we would meet for lunch in a trattoria in central Rome. As the pasta turned rubbery in the midday heat, and the meal was prolonged by espresso and sweets, the distance between the Vatican and everyday Rome would seem to lengthen, until we spoke of "il Vaticano" as the different country it purports to be.
My interlocutors told me how Ratzinger deliberately took charge as John Paul faltered, and described what Ratzinger hadn't liked about John Paul's approach to the papacy. They provided the commentary that made it possible to form a clear picture of the conclave.
Four men were especially forthcoming. As is common at the Vatican, they spoke with the understanding that they would not be named. I'll give them pseudonyms.
Matthew is a scholar who has known Ratzinger for forty years, a man who balances his admiration for the new pope with the skepticism of one who has just seen a professional peer acclaimed as God's vicar on earth. Mark is a controversialist, a man in the public eye who knows the new pope well—but not as well as he knew John Paul. Luke is a monk who was called to Rome for his literary gifts; although he does not know "Benedetto" the way some of his friends do, he can quote him chapter and verse. John, trained in theology, was brought into contact with Ratzinger through curial service; he knows the new pope through firsthand observation and direct interaction.
I was a little awed to be breaking bread with people who knew the pope when—who had taken his classes, drafted his documents, carried out his directives, shaken his hand without pomp and circumstance. But such workaday relationships are where his true life is lived. Whereas John Paul seemed most at home when celebrating mass for 100,000 strangers, Benedict is most himself when among fellow churchmen in Rome. Whereas John Paul made all the world an altar, Benedict's sphere of action is the compound of churches and offices surrounding St. Peter's. As a symbol of the papacy John Paul's popemobile has been replaced by Benedict's personal theological library of several thousand books, which were photographed after his election so that they could be reshelved in the same order in the papal apartments.
In short, Mr. Outside has been succeeded by Mr. Inside; and the story of Ratzinger's emergence as the Church's leader reveals the ways in which his pontificate is likely to affect the Church as a whole. In many ways the central fact of the papacy in the modern age is the gap between the pope's growing power in the Church and his diminishing influence on the religious lives of individual believers. This gap is one that John Paul and his predecessors sought to close. Under Benedict the gap is open—wide open. He will govern more but matter less than John Paul—and will probably matter less to the lives of individual Catholics than any other pope of the past half century.
A postcard for sale in Rome shows John Paul and Joseph Ratzinger together many years ago. John Paul is wearing the white papal vestments and an embroidered miter, Ratzinger robes of red and gold. They are facing each other in profile, their hands on each other's shoulders, John Paul's strong gaze and stony forehead opposite Ratzinger's softer features and thick white hair, their eyes locked and alight with joy. It is a friendly, even a fraternal, embrace, but the impression is somewhat misleading: the picture was taken at the mass in October of 1978 at which John Paul was "invested" as pope, and the embrace was a ritual show of fealty, performed that day by each of a hundred cardinals who stood in line to honor him.
"Friends" is how the two men are usually described, but even now the nature of the friendship is hard to pin down. It is more revealing, I think, to see them the way they saw themselves—as "co-workers in the truth," a New Testament expression that Ratzinger made his motto when he became an archbishop.
In the 1960s both men took part in the Second Vatican Council—Karol Wojtyla as a young prelate from Kraków, Ratzinger as an adviser to the archbishop of Cologne—and the Vatican II connection is the source of much of their subsequent authority. But although their contributions to Vatican II are beyond dispute—Ratzinger's to Dei Verbum, a document about the sources of revelation, and Wojtyla's to Gaudium et Spes, about the Church's approach to the modern world—they did not become acquainted during the four years of the council. According to Ratzinger, they never even met there. It was not until 1977 that the new archbishop of Munich-Freising met the archbishop of Kraków, and it was not until the two papal conclaves of 1978 that they got to know each other.
The first of those conclaves elected the Italian cardinal Albino Luciani—John Paul I—as the successor to Paul VI. Luciani died of heart failure a month later. In the second conclave Ratzinger was quick to join a coalition led by Franz König of Vienna, proposing Karol Wojtyla as the next pope.
Though younger than Wojtyla, Ratzinger at the time was the more prominent of the two. Wojtyla was a charismatic prelate immersed in the Church's struggles in cut-off Poland; Ratzinger was a well-known theologian across Europe. After Vatican II, Ratzinger had taught at the University of Tübingen, a kind of Institute for Advanced Study of Catholic thought. He had been a founder of Concilium, the most prominent journal to emerge from Vatican II, and then of Communio, a more conservative journal established out of disaffection with an overly progressive reading of the council's texts—particularly Gaudium et Spes, Wojtyla's key text, whose openness to modernity Ratzinger judged "unsatisfactory." Ratzinger's Introduction to Christianity had become a standard work in Catholic seminaries. "I read it in my first year as a monk, and it was not about liberal or conservative, Vatican II or the reaction to Vatican II," my friend Luke told me, fetching a battered paperback copy from a high shelf in his cell as if to evoke a more innocent time. "It was about belief itself. I thought, 'Now, here is a writer who knows what it is to be a Christian—who knows what it might mean to me personally to commit my life to Christ and the Church.'"
Ratzinger's support of Wojtyla for pope, then, was no simple act of deference to a cardinal older and more magnetic than himself. It was a placing of his gifts in the service of a man who was in many ways still a question mark—but who would emerge in the short term as greater than he.
There was no surprise in John Paul's appointment of Ratzinger as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in 1981. John Paul had made clear that his pontificate would seek to right the listing ship of the Church by putting forth a conservative interpretation of Vatican II, and in Ratzinger he had both a top theologian and one even more conservative than himself.
It was John Paul's practice to choose bishops according to orthodoxy, pure and simple, even if it meant disregarding more worldly indicators of talent or achievement. Matthew, the scholar, believes that in other circumstances John Paul's suspicion of strong thinkers might have led him to pass over Ratzinger. "What if Döpfner [Cardinal Julius Döpfner, Ratzinger's predecessor in Munich] hadn't died young, allowing for Ratzinger to be named archbishop by Paul VI?" Matthew said. "What if Ratzinger was still an academic theologian when John Paul was elected pope? Would John Paul have ever made him an archbishop? I doubt it." Once Ratzinger was in Rome, though, "John Paul could see that he knew more than anybody else, and so made heavy use of him," Matthew told me. "Then, because of the poor quality of John Paul's episcopal appointments, Ratzinger stood out even more among the bishops, and John Paul leaned on him even more."
For the next two decades he and John Paul represented the Vatican to the world from their offices on opposite sides of St. Peter's. While John Paul received bishops or drafted encyclicals from his desk in the papal apartments, Ratzinger supervised the CDF's thirty experts from behind the gated iron fence of the Palazzo Sant' Uffizio, scrutinizing forthcoming Vatican documents as well as the work of suspect theologians. Sometimes the prefect would correct the pope's theology; when John Paul seemed to declare the restriction of the ordained ministry to men an infallible teaching, for example, Ratzinger, though no supporter of a more open priesthood, made clear that this was not permissible.
Their Tuesday lunches and Friday-evening meetings became fixed points in the turning world of John Paul's pontificate. Describing these appointments a few years ago, Ratzinger made himself and John Paul seem relative equals, though in different roles. "We shake hands, sit down together at the table, and have a little personal chat that doesn't have anything to do with theology per se. Normally I then present what I want to say, the Pope asks whatever questions he has, and this starts another conversation going." He dispelled the idea that they were in lockstep; there were differences—about ecumenism, for example—within an "inner harmony." At the same time, he dismissed the notion that he was the architect of John Paul's thought: "I've had a say in the Pope's official teaching and contributed something that has also given shape to the pontificate. But the Pope has very much his own course."
Over time the differences between the two men became clearer. They could be seen as complementary types. Wojtyla was an actor, Ratzinger a writer. Wojtyla seemed born to wear white, whereas Ratzinger seemed most natural in a black cassock and beret. John Paul traveled the world on a never-ending pilgrimage; Ratzinger made a ritual of the daily walk from his office to his apartment in a drab modern building in the cramped and tourist-ridden neighborhood just outside the Vatican walls, literally in the shadow of the papal apartments. He would stop en route to buy light bulbs, feed stray cats, pose for a snapshot with some tourists, or browse in the window of the Ancora bookshop, where new works of theology were displayed alongside treacly portraits of John Paul. Once home he would drink a glass of Orangina and settle at the piano, playing Mozart from six-thirty to seven each evening, and then read or write into the night.
If John Paul's outlook was defined by his nationality, Ratzinger's is best understood through his vocation. He is a theologian the way John Paul was a Pole: wholly, intensely, at once proud and embattled. Whereas John Paul, formed by Polish nationalism, sought truth in history—the dying arc of communism, the end of the second millennium—Ratzinger sees the challenges of the Church as finally theological, not historical. In his view, human society is always changing; civilization is entropically prone to decline. It is the task of theologians to make the substance of the Catholic faith clear amid this continual change, not to make it relevant to their place and time. This explains his distaste for such innovators as the liberation theologians of Latin America.
Inspired by the providential strain of Polish Catholicism, John Paul read back into his earlier life the signs that he was destined to become pope and to lead the Church into the third millennium. Ratzinger, in contrast, is nearly an existentialist in his view of the Christian life as a series of decisive actions for or against God. His life, his books, and his tenure at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith all bear the imprint of such an outlook. A policeman's son, he moved to the head of the class through devotion to his studies. A gifted young German in a generation thinned by war, he grew up expecting to serve as a leader in the Church in his country. Educated in the shadow of great theologians—the Protestants Karl Barth and Rudolph Bultmann, the Catholics Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar—he came of age convinced that theologians could guide the Church and change the world, and the theologically rich work of Vatican II emboldened him further. Once established as a theologian, he emphatically asserted his position against those who sought to blunt the sharp edges of Christian truth with the idea that the progressive forces of history were on their side.
He acted decisively, finally, through his service to John Paul. He was John the Baptist to the older man, making straight the path for the arrival of a figure whose sandal, as Scripture would have it, he was not fit to untie.
At the far end of John Paul's long pontificate the pattern was turned around. Now John Paul, for all he had done, was bent double by illness, while Ratzinger, though past retirement age, was invigorated by the challenges placed before him. Now John Paul became the lesser man and Ratzinger the greater.
In February of 2000 Ratzinger left Rome to spend a long weekend at the Benedictine abbey at Montecassino, a ninety-minute drive away. The abbey, which dates back to the sixth century, is the motherhouse of the order of monks founded by Saint Benedict, the architect of Western monasticism. During World War II the Nazis—turning the monastery's prestige and hilltop location into strategic advantages—made Montecassino into a staging ground, but the Allies bombed it anyway, almost destroying the complex.
This double history of exaltation and destruction, of divinity and depravity, makes Montecassino a formidable place for reflection. Ratzinger's objective on this visit was something other than peace and quiet, however. A journalist was with him. At Montecassino in 2000 Ratzinger would sit for a book-length interview, talking for three days straight.
Two previous books of interviews had defined him as both John Paul's brilliant sidekick and a man with his own distinctive voice. With its bright-red cover and tabloid-style title, The Ratzinger Report (1985) suggested that some intrepid journalist had found a breach in the Inquisitor's silence. In fact Ratzinger had carefully vetted the text (written by the Italian essayist Vittorio Messori), and it seemed crafted to counter the image of him as a fearsome reactionary. Certainly he was dogmatic: "It is not the Christians who oppose the world," he declared, "but rather the world which opposes itself to them when the truth about God, about Christ and about man is proclaimed." But his account of the conflict between Catholicism and modernity was eloquent and forward-looking. He was no throwback but a "realist" who simply thought that the reforms that followed Vatican II went beyond what the council fathers had called for. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was not a new Inquisition but an institution charged with "the defense of right belief." As prefect he was not an enforcer so much as a kind of physician treating "the pathology of faith."
The Ratzinger Report was a big seller in Italy, and Ratzinger followed with Salt of the Earth (1997), the best expression of his point of view. This time the interviewer was the German journalist Peter Seewald, and Ratzinger's voice, even in translation, sounds out across the pages: at once gentle and forceful, now lofty in its impersonality, now candid, even intimate. The book made Ratzinger, and by extension the Vatican, seem surprisingly humble and open to criticism.
Now, at Montecassino, Ratzinger sat down with Seewald again. He said little about doctrine in the sense of the formulae of faith. Rather, he spoke in plain language about what Catholics believe. "When it comes down to it, everyone has to undergo his own Exodus," he explained. "He not only has to leave the place that nurtured him and become independent, but has to come out of his own reserved self. He must leave himself behind, transcend his own limits; only then will he reach the Promised Land, so to speak—
In the previous interviews Ratzinger had cited John Paul continually and spontaneously. This time he referred to John Paul only a dozen times in three days, and rather distantly at that, calling him "the pope," "this pope," "the present pope," or "the Holy Father." At one point he even referred to John Paul's pontificate in the past tense: "It was occupied in dealing with all the basic questions of our time—and over and beyond this, it gave us a running start, a real lead." It is a startling moment. ("He really said that?" my friend John asked in astonishment.) Ratzinger's "us" no longer included Wojtyla, and John Paul's long pontificate was a thing of the past; Ratzinger was looking beyond John Paul to the Church's next stage.
John Paul was still alive and still pope, however, and as if to emphasize the point, he had made dramatic plans for 2000—plans that placed him at the center from start to finish. According to a long tradition, the fiftieth and the last years of a century are Jubilee years, in which the Church settles old debts and starts anew, urging the faithful to come to Rome on pilgrimage. Throughout his pontificate John Paul had looked forward to the Great Jubilee of 2000, seeing the advent of the third millennium as a chance for the Church to purify itself from within and at the same time to advance its standing in the world. "Everything had to get the Jubilee spin," one Vatican official told me. "It was a little much."
John Paul's schedule for the first six months of 2000 included trips to Mount Sinai, in Egypt, where in the Bible God speaks to Moses from the burning bush; to Jerusalem, where he would visit the Western Wall and the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial; and to Fatima, in Portugal, where, according to popular devotion, the Virgin Mary appeared in visions to three peasant children in 1917. The Fatima visit meant a great deal to him, for it was Our Lady of Fatima, he believed, who had protected him when, on her feast day in 1981, he survived a gunman's attempt on his life.
John Paul saw the Jubilee festivities as the "hermeneutical key" to his pontificate. They presented complications, however. For one thing, they threatened to overwhelm him physically. Already his hands shook and his speech was slurred—the effects of Parkinson's disease (though this illness had yet to be acknowledged)—and he was still feeling the effects of hip-replacement surgery and of the removal of a giant tumor from his abdomen. At the Vatican his secretary, Stanislaw Dziwisz, and the papal staff had found ways to cover for him: keeping meetings short, clearing blocks of time for him to rest before his trips, and delegating many decisions to the heads of the various Vatican departments, called dicasteries or congregations.
His public appearances could not be delegated, though, and the first Jubilee events weakened him to the point where his true condition could no longer be disguised. During a mass for the sick at St. Peter's in January of 2000 he was obviously one of the sick himself—his face sunk into his chest, a stream of saliva dribbling from his mouth. He was often in bed by six in the evening. Ratzinger had once cited a Scripture verse to the effect that John Paul knew what it was to be dressed by others. He knew what it was to be fed by others, too. An aide had to cut his meat for him and, taking hold of his shaking hand, guide the fork to his mouth.
The other complication of Jubilee 2000 was theological. John Paul was conservative but not cautious. Wary of innovation in others, he was himself inclined to make grand symbolic gestures whose meaning was either ambiguous or just plain confusing—
That was what happened soon after John Paul, draped in a glittering cope (a vestment so ornate as to suggest both the biblical Joseph's coat of many colors and one of Liberace's getups), opened the "holy" door of St. Peter's to signal that the Great Jubilee had begun. The pope arranged to repeat the gesture at St. Paul's Outside the Walls, one of the four basilicas on the itinerary for Jubilee pilgrims. The basilica is set in a grassy area where the apostle Paul is said to have been buried—a favorite picnic ground for Roman families. It is often used as a setting for ecumenical services, so that the Vatican can ask other Christians to join in common prayer without, in effect, giving them the keys to St. Peter's.
John Paul had invited George Carey, the archbishop of Canterbury, leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion, to join him. The two leaders approached the holy door, each clad in cope and miter and carrying a crozier, the hooked walking stick that symbolizes the bishop's role as shepherd of the faithful. John Paul opened the door, and they strode through side by side.
John Paul would later single out the event as one that "has remained impressed upon my memory in a special way." But the episode made Cardinal Ratzinger uneasy, because strictly speaking the Catholic Church doesn't consider Anglican orders valid—meaning it doesn't consider Anglican priests priests or Anglican bishops bishops. In his view, a photo op at St. Paul's was no less significant than a high mass at St. Peter's, and a Sunday in the park with George Carey was no picnic. "Sometimes these ecumenical and inter-religious gestures were seen as suggesting something other than what was meant—and would be troubling to Ratzinger, who doesn't like ambiguity," Cardinal Avery Dulles, an American theologian, told me. "The opening of the holy door is an example of the sort of thing that makes him nervous. He would say, 'If we don't recognize Anglican orders but we treat them with all the honor of the episcopal office, then something is wrong here.'"
Speaking from a prepared text, John Paul replied to Ratzinger, agreeing that "our ardent desire to arrive one day at full communion" with other churches "must not darken the truth that the Church of Christ is not an utopia, to be reassembled from present existing fragments with our human forces." The grim lyricism of the reply (echoing a Ratzinger gibe about "the 'laboratories' in which Utopia is distilled") suggests that it was actually written by Ratzinger—that the pope's concession to the prefect was scripted by the prefect.
"During the Jubilee, Ratzinger was counterbalancing the pope," a man long in Rome as the head of his religious order explained. "In some ways he was resisting the pope, in some ways he was restraining the pope, in some ways he was responding to an inclination of the pope to the dramatic. John Paul thought in terms of big gestures—like going to the Wailing Wall. The trouble with a gesture is that anybody can put their own interpretation on it."
My friend Matthew, the scholar, made the same point more sharply, arguing that sometimes the Vatican departments actively worked against the pope. "Some of the stuff coming out of the dicasteries actually seemed to undermine what John Paul was trying to do," he told me. "John Paul was a phenomenologist, interested in the whole range of experience. Take a look at Redemptor Hominis [his first encyclical letter]: he must use the word experience a dozen times. He talked about experience, he relied on it, he never had any inhibition about it—and yet they censored him. You could see other people correcting him, checking him." In particular Matthew saw the hand of his old colleague Ratzinger, holding tight to the pope's wrist.
March 12, 2000, the first Sunday of Lent, was the Jubilee's day of "memory and reconciliation." "Let us forgive and ask forgiveness! … We cannot fail to recognize the infidelities to the Gospel committed by some of our brethren, especially in the second millennium," John Paul declared from behind the lectern at St. Peter's. Then, one by one, seven archbishops rose, lit candles, and asked forgiveness for offenses against other Christians, against Jews, against native peoples, against women, against "the little ones." As the prefect of the CDF, Cardinal Ratzinger rose and asked forgiveness for offenses against truth. At his behest, the language of all these pleas had been crafted so that it was clear the cardinals were seeking pardon from God, not from special-interest groups, and confessing the sins of Catholics, not of the Church. Nevertheless, the moment was dramatic, even by John Paul's standards. The New York Times called it an "unprecedented moment in the history of the Roman Catholic Church."
Later the same day John Paul resumed writing his spiritual testament, which he had been composing in installments since 1979. In it he mused on death, made provision for his burial (which he envisioned in Kraków, not Rome), and described his gratitude for the "gifts" in his life: Vatican II, the end of communism, the failure of the assassination attempt, and a long papacy. He likened himself to Simeon in Luke's gospel, an old man who sees the child Jesus and declares that he is now ready to die.
Joseph Ratzinger, too, was surveying his life and times. Before coming to Rome to run the CDF he had gained John Paul's assurance that he would be free to keep writing as a theologian, and he reserved the early mornings for "personal work" in his apartment before crossing the square to the Palazzo Sant' Uffizio.
Now Ratzinger bore down on an essay of real consequence: a preface to a new edition of Introduction to Christianity, his most admired book. Based on a series of lectures he gave to large audiences at Tübingen in 1967, the book is evidence that he is no stranger to unbelief—that despite his strict Catholic upbringing and constant faith he knows unbelief from the inside. In long, learned chapters he marries the searching orthodoxy of the great preconciliar theologians to a modern existentialist's concern for what can be called the situation of the unbeliever. Belief in our time, he proposes, is formed in the crucible of unbelief, and unbelief is formed in defiance of the yearning to believe. The unbeliever is the believer's secret sharer, and vice versa.
Ratzinger prefaced the new edition by telling a story about the course Christianity had taken since the book came out. He focused on two dates: 1989 and 1968. Upon the fall of communism, in 1989, he argued, Christianity had "failed to make itself heard as an epoch-making alternative." It failed, he suggested, because it had failed earlier, in 1968, when it became captive to Marxist ideas of revolution, which obscured the truth of the Gospel. This was clearest in liberation theology, which promised to free the poor peoples of Latin America but instead left them with no true alternative to dictatorships, only the theories of Marx-addled professors.
Ratzinger went on to describe the ill effects of Western society's loss of faith. Cut off from God, he warned, humanity flounders, even though at first "everything apparently goes on as before." Technology makes the human person into an object rather than a subject. Crime flourishes in a climate of relativism and self-aggrandizement. In time civilization comes apart. "Without God," he declared, "nothing is safe."
In many ways Ratzinger was making a standard argument for religion as the basis for civil society. But the preface's difference in tone from the book it introduced was striking. Gone was Ratzinger's solicitude toward the unbeliever. Unbelief, once the shadow side of the human yearning for God, was now an outgrowth of noxious social forces. Where John Paul saw the forty years just past as a time of gifts, Ratzinger saw them as a time of despair. Where John Paul was soldiering on despite his ailments, Ratzinger in his study was a professor grown impatient with his students' lack of understanding.
That September Ratzinger held a press conference to release the document Dominus Iesus, which the CDF had begun to prepare after his warning to John Paul. It concerned the Catholic Church's relations with other religions, and in approach it was graceless. Contrary to Vatican procedure, the CDF pushed it through without giving key curial officials the chance to sign off on it, and Ratzinger himself signed the document on August 6, as Rome was emptying for the summer holidays. In a sharp departure from Vatican II, it treated other Christian denominations as essentially equivalent to non-Christian religions—implying that Christian faith that is not Catholic is not Christian faith at all. And it used wounding words, declaring that the other churches and other religions—the religions whose leaders John Paul was going out of his way to greet during the Jubilee—were "in a gravely deficient situation."
"We all had a lot of explaining to do," Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the archbishop of Westminster, told me. "If Cardinal Cassidy's office [the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity] had seen it, they never would have let it go out. Cassidy would have gone to John Paul and said, 'You can't do this.'"
In particular, Bishop Walter Kasper, then the secretary of the council, challenged the document. The day after the Vatican announced that Kasper was to be elevated to cardinal—a sign that he was likely to succeed Cardinal Cassidy as the head of the office—an Austrian magazine published an interview in which Kasper found fault with the document's "doctrinaire" tone and its "clumsy and ambiguous" treatment of other Christian bodies. The prefect of the CDF was not pleased. "The closest I've ever seen Ratzinger to pissed was over Kasper's response to Dominus Iesus," Mark told me. "We were in his office, just the two of us, and it came up. Now, 'pissed' for Ratzinger—I'm not sure 'pissed' is quite the word. 'Pissed' for him is a raised eyebrow and a roll of the eyes. But he was pissed. The eyebrow was raised. The eyes rolled. 'That is nonsense,' he said—and that, from him, is the equivalent of an outright condemnation from somebody else."
If Ratzinger's intention with Dominus Iesus was to wave a red flag, he was successful. From its title onward it served to cast aspersions on the Jubilee road show, as some in the Vatican called it, and to make Ratzinger more prominent than ever as John Paul's alter ego, a cleric who was more Catholic than the pope.
Seventy-five is the retirement age for Catholic bishops, and as Ratzinger's seventy-fifth birthday drew near—April 16, 2002—the word from Rome was that retirement would suit him just fine. In a letter to John Paul (who was about to turn eighty-two) he offered his resignation as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Ratzinger's resignation was not accepted, however. It was no time for the doctrinal prefect to step down. The papal schedule for 2002 rivaled that for 2000—as if, having survived the Jubilee road show, John Paul was determined to extend its run indefinitely. There were the canonizations of nine saints, ranging from Juan Diego of Mexico to the little-known Pauline of the Heart of Jesus in Agony, keeping up a pace of saint-making that had led Ratzinger to suggest that John Paul was canonizing profligately. There were three foreign trips, including a triumphal return to Poland. The scandal of priestly sexual abuse in the United States had reached a point of crisis. And John Paul's Parkinson's disease had become common knowledge.
Meanwhile, another Vatican official was ailing. This was Cardinal Bernardin Gantin, a native of Benin and the dean of the College of Cardinals, a largely honorific role with one definite responsibility: that of directing the cardinals during a papal conclave.
Gantin would turn eighty in May of 2002. As his birthday approached, he made known his wish to resign as dean and go back to Benin. He had sought to resign twice before. This time his resignation was accepted. In late November the six cardinal bishops (one of three groups within the College of Cardinals) met to elect a new dean from among themselves. They chose Ratzinger, who had been the vice-dean. John Paul affirmed the choice.
In some respects it was hardly unusual that the vice-dean would succeed the dean. But several people in Rome told me that the election of Ratzinger rather than Angelo Sodano, the secretary of state, resolved a conflict among the cardinals in ways that came to bear directly on the conclave.
John Allen, the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, has called Gantin the "inadvertent architect" of Ratzinger's election as pope, and characterized the change in deans as "perhaps the single most decisive moment in the chain of events" leading up to the conclave. He expanded on these remarks over lunch at his favorite ristorante in the Borgo Pio. As an ashtray was brought out, in defiance of Italian law but in deference to his taste for Nat Sherman cigarettes, he explained the situation. "With Gantin stepping down, there are only two logical choices for the new dean"—Ratzinger and Sodano, who is seven months younger. "But too many people at that level dislike Sodano. The feeling is that he is what the Italians call gonfiato—he has an inflated sense of himself. So it would have to be Ratzinger. Certainly Ratzinger would have been aware of this—and with a conclave in the offing, he would have seen the implications of getting elected dean sooner rather than later."
Did Gantin step aside so that Ratzinger could run the conclave? My conversation partners in Rome would say only that Ratzinger and Gantin have been allies ever since they were elevated to cardinal on the same day in 1977. "That Gantin should be succeeded by Ratzinger is something you should give real attention," I was told by a Vatican official who has worked with both men. "Here are two men from backgrounds as different as can be imagined: one a European to the core, the other said to be descended from African tribal royalty. Each is called to Rome by John Paul and serves loyally for twenty years as the head of a congregation—the two that you hear called the 'major' congregations. Each asks to retire and return to his homeland several times. And when, on his third request, Gantin's resignation is accepted, Ratzinger, with whom he had worked so closely, is elected to succeed him. Surely there is something to this."
Ratzinger was a natural next dean: a senior man, under eighty, and relatively healthy. His election put him front and center in the planning for the Church's future. It put him in place as the celebrant of the funeral mass for John Paul when the time came. It gave him responsibility for eulogizing the dead pope and setting John Paul's long pontificate in context for future generations.
Election as dean also enabled him to take a strong position on one of his key issues: the priority of the Church's doctrinal or teaching dimension—represented by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Congregation of Bishops—over the political dimension, represented by the Secretariat of State. This distinction, which might seem at first glance to be religious hairsplitting, is fundamental around the Vatican. "For Cardinal Ratzinger it's a theological issue," my friend John, the curial official who has had many dealings with Ratzinger, told me. "As a living entity, acting in the world and in history, the Vatican has to have a state which has diplomatic relations with other states. Cardinal Ratzinger doesn't question this. But it's his view that the Vatican state isn't part of the essential nature of the Church as it has come down to us from the apostles. It's not biblical, and theologically its relationship to the Church as a whole is somewhat ambiguous."
We were speaking on the Monday after John Paul's funeral, two weeks before the conclave. John explained that the distinction between the Vatican's congregations, such as the CDF, and its other departments was at the root of a long struggle between Ratzinger and Sodano—a struggle that would most likely be played out in the conclave. "The people over at State are terrified that he will wind up pope," he told me, speaking of Ratzinger. "He thinks they're perfectly entitled to do their job, which is to vigorously represent and uphold the Vatican's diplomatic presence. But to represent the Church as a whole? To lead the Church? Not a chance."
Ratzinger himself had come to be recognized as a leader of the Church, and not just at the Vatican. Though his public image was unappealing, he was the only cardinal most ordinary Catholics would recognize. His pronouncements—about same-sex marriage, the United Nations, Catholic politicians, or Turkey's bid to join the European Union—were reported around the world as the statements of the pope's second-in-command. A series of photographs of the two men suggests a shift in their relationship as John Paul's health went into steep decline. At the altar of St. Peter's on Easter in 2002 prefect and pope are collaborators, bowing their heads together over the bread and wine. Five months later Ratzinger looks on fretfully as John Paul, propped up by a lectern, seems about to topple over under the weight of the miter on his head. By early 2004 Ratzinger is caring for John Paul, looking out for him: as he proffers a giant crucifix for John Paul to kiss, he might be extending to the bent and wrinkled pope a means of support.
My friend John remembers clearly the first time he thought that Ratzinger would become pope. It was during a grand mass on October 16, 2003, marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of John Paul's election. The mass was held in St. Peter's Square at twilight, so as to recall the evening in 1978 when Karol Wojtyla stepped out onto the central loggia of the basilica and introduced himself to the world as the new pope "from a far country." But the effect was to suggest the twilight of his pontificate. After several hundred cardinals and archbishops strode in procession to an altar outside St. Peter's, John Paul was rolled out on a special conveyance, a cross between a throne and a wheelchair that was now his principal means of getting around in public. Then Ratzinger gave a stirring encomium to his great co-worker. He likened John Paul to Paul the apostle, who also had "tirelessly traveled the world" and had suffered bodily at the end of his life. It was then, as the standing Ratzinger addressed John Paul, who was slumped in his chair, that John felt Ratzinger would be the one. "I can't give you a reason why I thought this. I just remember sitting there, watching and listening to him, and suddenly it hit me: He could be pope. He may be pope."
Avery Dulles took part in that mass, and what he remembers is how sick John Paul was. "The Gospel reading was the passage in which Jesus tells the apostles to 'feed my sheep,'" Dulles recalled, "and in his homily it was almost as if John Paul was asking us, 'Have I fed your sheep? Have I fed you?'" But even though he was reading from a prepared text, John Paul couldn't make it through the homily. He stumbled over words, gasped for air, and struggled to keep his eyes open and on the text. An aide had to help him by reading the very passage in which he asked the faithful to help the pope.
"He is in a bad way—we should pray for the pope," Ratzinger had told some German pilgrims a few weeks earlier. There was ample evidence of a turn for the worse. John Paul had faltered before a huge crowd during an open-air mass in Slovakia—"and everybody who was there was afraid he wouldn't make it back to Rome alive," Mark recalled. He fell asleep during an audience with the president of East Timor. He sat through a meeting with the new archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, apparently without knowing who Williams was.
The combination of John Paul's worsening health and his propensity for pageantry created a blockage in the daily operations of the Vatican. The problem of a senescent or debilitated pope was not a new one. In the months before his death, in 1958, Pius XII struggled with a case of the hiccups so severe he could scarcely breathe. Paul VI stopped traveling seven years before he died. But the problem was compounded in John Paul's case by his strained relationship with the curia, the 1,500 or so people who carry out the work of the Vatican. "John Paul was just a terrible administrator," as Mark, known to all as an ardent admirer of John Paul's, told me. Even at his physical peak he had always been indifferent to the operations of the Vatican bureaucracy; now he was barely capable of keeping track of them.
"The Vatican was being run by a few key people," one curial official told me in the sitting room of an otherwise deserted Vatican department late one afternoon. With the administrative staff gone, this official had come to the top of the high staircase and opened the big door himself, his Roman collar loosened in the summer heat. I asked him who those key people were. Some Italians and some Poles, he explained. They would work out the appointments of bishops and curial officials among themselves, trading candidates ("I give you one of yours, and you give me one of mine"), with the result that often an Italian and an Eastern European would be appointed together.
"Ratzinger wasn't one of those people—he wasn't a person John Paul would pick up the phone and ask about an appointment," the curial official said. "He never wanted to be the kingmaker in the Congregation of Bishops and get his people appointed. He preferred to stay within his competency, which was doctrine." Yet for Ratzinger doctrine was the competency of competencies. Through the CDF he made sure that doctrine bore on every aspect of the Church. He didn't even have to leave his office to take a position. He let prospective allies come to him.
This was most obvious in the ad limina visits, in which the world's nearly 5,000 bishops come at five-year intervals for face-to-face meetings with the pope, followed by meetings at the CDF and other Vatican departments. The tempo of everyday life in Rome is set by these visits. But poor health had made it hard for John Paul to receive the bishops—several dozen in some weeks—and had reduced those receptions he did have to pro forma affairs, often consisting of little more than a handshake and a blessing.
A curial official who has been in Rome since Vatican II became greatly agitated as he told me the story of one archbishop's visit, specially scheduled because of an urgent problem in his diocese. "The archbishop traveled to Rome, coming from a very long distance, and went to the papal apartments. Less than an hour after the appointed time I received a call saying he was at the portinería downstairs. I was afraid that something had gone wrong—that I had not prepared him properly. I went down and found the archbishop very upset, nearly apoplectic. He asked if we could take the conversation to my office so that no one would hear him in this state. So we came upstairs, and he sat right there where you are sitting now and told me what had happened. First of all, he was not pleased to see that the pope's private secretary would take part in the meeting. He began to explain the matter that concerned him to the pope. After only a few minutes the private secretary addressed the pope and indicated, 'I can take care of this.' The pope shook his head, and the archbishop continued. Only a few more minutes later the private secretary made the gesture again: 'I can take care of this.' This time the pope nodded yes. At that point the archbishop rose, collected his case, and said to the secretary, 'I have not come all this way to discuss this matter with you, but with the Holy Father!' He went out of the papal apartments and down to the street, without shaking Dziwisz's hand."
As John Paul's meetings grew more ritualized, Ratzinger made his own meetings with the bishops more substantive. Men long in service to the Church had been meeting with him during their ad liminas since the early 1980s. A number of them told me that the Ratzinger they met on their most recent visits seemed more alive and engaged than before. "In December , when I made my ad limina visit, I became even more impressed by his warmth and his listening presence," Harry J. Flynn, the archbishop of Minneapolis—St. Paul, told me. His ten-minute meeting with John Paul, in the company of eleven other bishops from Minnesota and the Dakotas, was followed by a much longer meeting with Ratzinger at the Palazzo Sant' Uffizio, and the contrast between pope and prefect struck him powerfully. "The Holy Father was quite ill—he had weakened considerably in the last years," Flynn recalled. "Cardinal Ratzinger really stood out from the times I'd seen him before, though I can't say that I understand why. He greeted us warmly and individually, looking right into our eyes. Then he sat us down and asked, 'Now, how can we help you?' He was curious about the challenges facing the Church in the United States and in our individual dioceses. He had a beautiful peace about him, and gave the sense that here is a person who truly values my opinion." As they left the palazzo, Flynn turned to the other bishops and, as he remembers it, "expressed the hope that Ratzinger would be elected pope when the time came."
Inevitably, John Paul's failing health called forth prognostication about who the next pope would be. The favorite papabili—the press's favorites, at any rate—were Dionigi Tettamanzi of Milan, Cláudio Hummes of Brazil, and Francis Arinze of Nigeria. Ratzinger was sometimes mentioned as a "kingmaker" or a "compromise" candidate. In truth, though, his candidacy was by then well advanced, and several people of influence were actively trying to bring his election about.
Three cardinals took the lead. A protégé of Ratzinger's, Christoph Schönborn, the archbishop of Vienna, called on the cardinals—many of them from Eastern Europe—who could be considered Ratzinger's base. Alfonso López Trujillo, a Colombian who is the president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, worked on the Spanish-speaking cardinals; he and Ratzinger had been allies since the early 1980s, when Ratzinger, the new CDF prefect, and Trujillo, the new archbishop of Medellín, had suppressed liberation theology.
Ratzinger's advocate among the English-speakers was George Pell, the archbishop of Sydney. Although little known outside Australia, Pell had served for ten years as an adviser to the CDF, and had been named by John Paul to head Vox Clara, a Vatican working group charged with refreshing the language of the liturgy in English. My friend Mark, the controversialist, confidently referred to Pell as "Ratzinger's campaign manager," though he quickly added, "not at Ratzinger's instigation." He recalled how, over dinner one night, Pell had waxed eloquent to him about all the qualities that would make Ratzinger an ideal pope. "He was so over-the-top enthusiastic that at first I said to myself, 'He must want something out of it.' What he wanted, I decided, was to be named prefect of the CDF if Ratzinger was elected." But when Mark saw Pell's enthusiasm for his work as archbishop in Sydney, he changed his mind. "I decided that he didn't want anything in particular out of it. He did it because he was convinced that Ratzinger was the man for the job—and because that's the kind of person he is."
Pell is a large, blunt, colorful Australian who wears a bush hat with his clerical garb to ward off the sunshine, and he plays the role of ecclesiastical outrider to the hilt. One day after the conclave, over caffè granita in Trastevere, I asked him about his efforts for Ratzinger. He said, "How can I be the campaign manager when there are no candidates and no campaign? Who am I going to influence—the other two cardinals from Oceania?" He chuckled dismissively, but denied nothing.
W as John Paul even aware of the jousting for posi- tion taking place outside the papal apartments? For years he had joked that he had to read the papers to find out how sick he was. Now he had to follow the foreign news to find out what his closest associates were saying about the Church. A photograph from that time shows him slumped in front of a television set in the papal dining room, looking like any elderly shut-in.
His Friday meetings with Ratzinger continued. So did his foreign trips. In June of 2004—the day after George W. Bush, on the campaign trail, paid a visit to the papal apartments to give him a Presidential Medal of Freedom—John Paul went to the Swiss city of Bern. He might have been visiting the post-Christian future. Though linked to the Vatican through the Swiss Guards, who stand at attention outside St. Peter's, Switzerland is now a bastion of secularism in Europe. Its most prominent Catholic is one of Rome's fiercest critics: the theologian Hans Küng, a peer of Ratzinger's at Tübingen. Commenting on the Gospel passage in which Jesus raises a child from the dead, John Paul urged Swiss Catholics to rise again, to "welcome my invitation to get back up!" But the passage served to call attention to his own weakness.
Two months later he went to Lourdes—the shrine in southern France that has become a place of pilgrimage for sick people from all over the world. If Switzerland suggested the secular future, Lourdes—a site of neo-primitive folk devotion—represented Europe's Catholic past. Beforehand Vatican officials dismissed the idea that John Paul's visit to a place devoted to faith healing and miracle cures had any special significance. But while celebrating mass at the shrine's famous stone grotto the pope struggled to breathe, and in a murmured homily he acknowledged the obvious: that he was "a sick man among the sick." After only twenty-four hours in Lourdes he returned to Rome.
The pope who had made 104 foreign trips was now largely restricted to the papal apartments: the corner bedroom, the office, the bathroom with its low tub, the library, the clunkily modern chapel.
His best times were spent with his closest friends, many of them Polish, around the big table in the dining room. The regular group included Stanislaw Rylko, of the Congregation for the Laity; Cardinal Marian Jaworski, once a fellow priest with John Paul in Poland, now the archbishop of Lviv, in Ukraine; and Edmund Szoka, once the archbishop of Detroit, who was called to Rome to run the Vatican state and was drawn into the papal circle because he speaks Polish. It had become customary for John Paul to have his Polish friends at his side during Christmas and Easter, the Church's great feast days. Now they were there all the time, and the mood was something other than festive. "It was very sad to see—his servant bending over and cutting his food for him, as for any elderly person," a Roman layman told me. He went on to recall the day when he and some colleagues from one of the Vatican's media offices climbed the stairs of the Apostolic Palace to celebrate a senior employee's retirement. As a going-away present, a reward for long service, the employee's colleagues had arranged to give her a party in the papal apartments, with the pope himself as a special guest. "He was practically lying down—it was horrible to see him slumped over among people it seemed he hardly knew," this man recalled.
A rumor emerged that at one of those meals in the papal apartments John Paul had addressed the matter of a successor. I heard an almost biblical account of a last supper with the disciples from my friend Mark, who was a regular at the pope's table over the years: John Paul summoned his Polish friends and told them that he knew he would not live long and that he could envision either of two men as his successor, making plain that he would prefer one over the other. Neither one was Joseph Ratzinger.
Meanwhile, Ratzinger's supporters had begun to pray for his candidacy—if, that is, the will of God was behind it. For ten years John Paul's death had been thought imminent. As 2004 drew to a close, these men hoped that the present state of suspension at the Vatican wouldn't last too long: the older John Paul got, the older Ratzinger got, and at some point he would simply seem too old to be elected pope. He might pass eighty and be kept out of the conclave. He might fall ill or lose his senses. He might die—for as John Paul liked to jest to friends who spoke of carrying on his legacy, "How do you know that I will die first?"
Did John Paul want a particular man to succeed him? Did he tell anybody? Asked these questions, most of the people I met at the Vatican refused even to begin to answer them. No one had anything to add to the legend of the last supper or knew what might have occurred there. Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia curtly replied, "What is gratuitously asserted is gratuitously denied"—a Roman way of saying that a rumor is a rumor. But another cardinal elector, to my surprise, readily assented to the idea that John Paul had someone other than Ratzinger in mind. "I don't think Ratzinger would have been John Paul's candidate—I think he would have wanted a younger man, one who could take the Gospel to the world the way he did," he told me. Rather coldly he added, "But of course John Paul had no vote in the conclave."
Ayear ago—in January of 2005—John Paul caught the flu and took a turn for the worse, one from which there would be no return. So long anticipated, his final decline was no surprise. The surprise was in the way his last days were presented by the Vatican—not in Catholic terms but in the terminology of modern medicine and the images of media-age drama.
He was taken by ambulance to the Gemelli Polyclinic, up a hill behind St. Peter's, on the night of February 1. In the weeks that followed, the Vatican spokesman, Joaquín Navarro-Valls, who has medical training, related the pope's health with the precision of a team doctor reporting on a sports star's condition. John Paul had been taken to the hospital because of "acute laryngeal tracheitis"—an inflammation of the larynx that made it hard for him to breathe or speak. He was receiving visitors and keeping up with Church affairs. He was back in the papal apartments, having returned in the popemobile along a route lit up by floodlights and the cameras of Italian state television, which broadcast the trip live. He was back in the hospital, this time with a flu "complicated by new episodes of acute respiratory insufficiency." This time it was serious. He could hardly breathe.
One night in late February a tracheotomy was performed. "What have they done to me?" John Paul wrote on a pad the next morning.
The same day, eulogizing the Catholic leader Luigi Giussani at the Duomo in Milan, Ratzinger evoked the plight of his ailing co-worker in Rome. "In the last period of his life, Father Giussani had to pass through the dark valley of sickness, of infirmity, of pain, of suffering," he told the congregation. "Now your dear friend Father Giussani has reached the other world … The door of the Father's house has opened."
Two weeks later John Paul was again discharged from the Gemelli Polyclinic and returned to the Vatican, this time by minivan. Again his trip was broadcast live on television. A camera mounted in the back of the van showed his view of the approach to St. Peter's Square. It was an effect at once dramatic and tactical, serving to keep the viewer's sights off the pope, who was pale and drawn.
The following Friday, Ratzinger addressed a conference held at the Vatican to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of Gaudium et Spes, the Vatican II document on the Church's relations with the modern world—a document that Karol Wojtyla had helped to shape. After the council Ratzinger had announced his displeasure with it; now he met the document halfway, praising the "beauty" of its account of the Church's role in promoting earthly justice while stressing the need to render justice to God first. Was he reconciling with John Paul or correcting John Paul? Probably both.
With the pope supposedly convalescing, the Vatican held out the prospect that he would lead the rites of Holy Week, as he had every year since 1979. As Holy Week approached, though, Navarro-Valls announced that five cardinals, including Ratzinger, would stand in for him.
On Good Friday, Ratzinger delivered fourteen meditations on the suffering of Christ and the shortcomings of Christians during the Way of the Cross procession at the Colosseum. "Lord, your Church often seems like a boat about to sink, a boat taking in water on every side," he lamented, denouncing "filth" in the priesthood, lack of faith throughout the Church, and a lack of vigor in Christian opposition to worldly ideologies. John Paul watched the proceedings on a big-screen TV set up in the chapel of the papal apartments. A camera had been brought in so that he could be shown on television clutching a crucifix.
It is not uncommon for cardinals to celebrate masses in the pope's stead, but the Easter urbi et orbi address is a pope's personal message "to the city and to the world." This Easter the urbi et orbi was read out by Cardinal Sodano. Unable to appear on the loggia of St. Peter's, John Paul sought at least to greet the crowd in the square from his apartments. He was dressed in the white papal vestments, propped up in his wheeled wooden chair, and rolled to an open window marked on the outside as the pope's by a piece of crimson cloth. A sheet of paper was placed on a Plexiglas lectern. With all eyes on him—the Vatican's cameras over his shoulder, looking out; the world's cameras outside, focused in—he tried to read, and then to speak, but he could not make a sound. He put his hand to his throat, as if to say that the words were there, or to indicate where the pain was.
Three days later he tried again to address the crowd in the square. Again he was wheeled to the window. Again he could not speak. He clutched the microphone. He held his mouth shut, even when it twisted into a frown. Then he raised his right hand in a gesture that could have been a blessing, a farewell, or an involuntary spasm, an expression beyond his control.
The end was near. Edmund Szoka, the American governor of Vatican City, recalled the pope's final hours for me last July. We were in Szoka's office at the Governatorato, a large stone building set in the sculpted gardens behind St. Peter's. Several dozen framed photographs of Benedict XVI, in different shapes and sizes, were stacked in a hall, ready to replace the photographs of John Paul on the walls. Szoka, seventy-eight and nearly hairless under his cardinal's red biretta, proudly showed me a bookcase that contained the teachings and writings of John Paul—forty-plus volumes bound in red cloth—and nothing else.
"I got a call from Dziwisz in the morning, saying, 'Can you come over?'" It was Friday, April 1. John Paul had concelebrated mass at dawn and had followed a recitation of the Stations of the Cross. He lay clad in a white dressing gown, an echo of his official vestments. His closest friends were there: Dziwisz and an aide, Mieczyslaw Mokrzycki; Stanislaw Rylko; three Polish nuns; and three doctors. "I knelt and kissed his hand," Szoka said. "I said in Polish, 'I am praying for you day and night.' He was fully aware, though he could not speak. After a few moments I got up, and as a priest I am used to giving a blessing to sick people. So I gave him a blessing"—moving his right hand over the bedridden man in a sign of the cross—"and in reply he made the sign of the cross. And I thought, Who am I to give a blessing to the pope?"
John Paul had already been given the last rites, but he clung to life for a full day more. On Saturday tens of thousands of pilgrims made their way to St. Peter's Square. In the papal apartments the pope's intimates kept vigil as he slipped in and out of consciousness. Cardinal Sodano came to the bedside. John Paul's temperature spiked. As the afternoon turned into evening, the sound of the swelling crowd down in the square grew steadily louder in the papal apartments. Stanislaw Dziwisz led the others in the celebration of mass. They sang hymns in Polish and the Te Deum, the Latin hymn of thanksgiving.
And then John Paul was dead. A candle was lit and placed at the foot of the bed, according to Polish custom. The time of death was recorded as 9:37 p.m. Navarro-Valls, with a hagiographer's instincts, would put out word that the dying pope had spoken of the faithful gathering in the square: "I have looked for you. Now you have come to me, and I thank you." The pope's chief doctor would report that John Paul had "passed away slowly, with pain and suffering," unable to "utter a single word."
Joseph Ratzinger did not take part in the deathbed vigil in the papal apartments. He was not even in Rome. After making a visit to John Paul's bedside at midday Friday (it was only his second visit in the eight weeks of the pope's illness), he left the city to go to the Benedictine monastery at Subiaco, an hour's drive north of Rome, where he was to receive the Premio San Benedetto—the Saint Benedict Prize for the promotion of life and the family in Europe.
Some of the people I met in Rome were appalled that Ratzinger had left the city. "Imagine it: the pope is dying, is nearly dead, and Ratzinger goes to Subiaco to pick up a pretty insignificant prize created by the abbot to get publicity for the monastery," Robert Mickens, the Rome correspondent for The Tablet, the English Catholic weekly, said to me. Others said the excursion was in character for Ratzinger, a man who keeps his appointments. "He told them he would go, so he went," Cardinal Szoka told me. "There is nothing unusual in it. The pope was very ill, but there was no knowing that he would not live on for days or even weeks." When I pointed out that the day Ratzinger left Rome, Szoka went on television to dispel rumors that the pope was already dead, Szoka simply said he hadn't realized Ratzinger had left town that day.
In character for Ratzinger, the visit to Subiaco was also characteristic of his relationship with John Paul. He had served the pope without ceasing but not without reservation; he had maintained a certain distance, for he was not a friend or a follower of Wojtyla so much as a co-worker in the truth. John Paul's illness had prompted him to stand apart more emphatically, to work the margins of the papal office. With John Paul's death he was, in important ways, on his own. More than ever he had things to do. As dean of the cardinals he had to prepare himself, practically and spiritually, for what was next: the funeral, the meetings of the cardinals, the conclave. As a presumptive pope he had to uphold John Paul's legacy while keeping clear of the clannish folk who had encircled the dying pope. "That whole devotional aspect of the Polish mafia made him uncomfortable," my friend John told me. "He saw the cult of personality around John Paul as a big problem. And they knew it. Those Polish people knew that once John Paul was dead, it was all over for them."
As the pope lay dying, then, the prefect left town. He was driven to Subiaco in the usual car, a Mercedes sedan. A slim briefcase was on the seat beside him. He arrived, prayed vespers with the monks, and joined them in the refectory for a supper of soup, spaghetti, and Orangina. Before an audience of monks and local worthies he received the prize from the abbot. He gave a speech evoking "the city on the mountain" where Benedict of Nursia had gone on sojourn from Rome 1,500 years earlier—the place where, at a dark time for the Christian faith in Europe, he had "gathered together the forces from which a new world was formed." He likened Benedict's epoch to the present, "a time of dissipation and decadence" in which the world has lost its way. He suggested that the precepts of Benedict's monastic rule, as a distillation of Christian faith, "demonstrate also to us the path that leads to the heights, out of the crises and the ruins."
Then he climbed into the waiting car and was carried off into the darkness. This was the significance of Joseph Ratzinger's trip to Subiaco that night last April: it put him, a Roman churchman par excellence, on the road to Rome once more, placing him among the pilgrims who would set out for the city in the hours to come in order to witness the funeral of one pope and the election of another.
On Monday, April 4, John Paul's body was transferred from the Apostolic Palace to St. Peter's Basilica. In the two days since his death the body had been cleaned, clothed, and set out in a grand room for viewing by VIPs ranging from cardinals and heads of state to the flight crews from his foreign journeys. In those same two days the crowd of pilgrims had swollen to several million people. Now the body, strapped to a board, was carried into the crowd, as though into a mosh pit, while a double line of cardinals capped by Ratzinger and Sodano looked on—a triumph of the organized splendor for which the Church of Rome is legendary.
Four days later the body was carried into the square in a plain wooden coffin. In a silence broken only by the rotors of a surveillance helicopter the coffin was lowered onto a carpet. A clergyman placed a slim book on top and opened it to a page marked with a red ribbon. For the next two hours, as Cardinal Ratzinger celebrated the mass of Christian burial and eulogized the dead pope, the coffin sat beneath the clear Mediterranean sky, a reminder that all the pomp, and the religion that gave rise to it, was finally concerned with the fate of a human soul after death.
From atop the right colonnade, where I was seated, Ratzinger looked like a pope in the making. His thick white hair made him appear more vigorous than the men behind him, most of them gray-haired or balding. His red robes whipped this way and that as he circled the altar. Most striking of all was his speaking voice, as he began the homily by extending a greeting, in delicate Italian, to his "fratelli e sorelle"—his brothers and sisters.
"This is not the time to speak of the specific content of this rich pontificate," he said. Instead he sketched the outlines of John Paul's life in reference to Christ's exhortation to "follow me": youth, wartime, ordination, life as a bishop, and the calling to the papacy. In conclusion Ratzinger stepped out of his role as cardinal prefect and spoke as if for the whole Church and for the whole world watching. "None of us can ever forget how, in that last Easter Sunday of his life, the Holy Father, marked by suffering, came once more to the window of the Apostolic Palace and one last time gave his blessing," he told the crowd. "We can be sure that our beloved pope is standing today at the window of the Father's house, that he sees us and blesses us. Yes, bless us, Holy Father."
Some analysts have said that the homily got Ratzinger elected pope, by showing both the College of Cardinals and the public that the judgmental German could touch people's hearts. But it can't have won over all the skeptics, at least not right away. For one thing, it was scarcely audible to much of the crowd. For another, it was given in Italian, a language foreign to many of the people whose minds it supposedly changed: the Polish pilgrims interrupting Ratzinger to wave banners demanding sainthood for John Paul; the press, which clamored for translations; the television audience, which encountered the homily through the commentary of the Anderson Coopers of the world; and a good number of the other cardinals.
An hour later the crowd fell silent as Ratzinger approached the coffin. So personal during the homily, now he was appealingly impersonal; and as he sprinkled holy water onto the coffin with a few flicks of his right hand, it was clear that the funeral had been transformed from a requiem for a pope into the simple funeral mass offered many times a day in churches all over the world. It seemed uncommonly, authentically religious: at once grand and stark, celebratory and solemn, attentive to the invisible and yet finally oriented outward toward the lives of the people who were taking part in it. For a few moments—until the silence was broken by chants of "Viva il papa!"—John Paul was forgotten.
One evening after the funeral I went for supper with my friend Matthew, the scholar. When I arrived at the residence for priests of his order—not far from the Corso Vittorio Emmanuele, the gritty street that runs through central Rome—he had just finished taping a segment for a television newsmagazine. In a spotlit library full of video gear the anchor, a woman of fifty nipped and tucked to look a decade younger, had asked my friend a series of questions. Now, with the priest out from under the lights, she read her questions into the camera again, improving her delivery—and inadvertently offering a synopsis of the questions being asked all over Rome. "What kinds of choices do the cardinals have to make?" Pause. "Is there lobbying?" Pause. "Is there politicking among the candidates?" Pause. "John Paul was criticized for being too harsh on issues like birth control, abortion, and homosexuality. Do you think the cardinals will be considering such issues?" Pause. "The issue of women in the priesthood: non-negotiable?" Pause. "How important is the challenge posed by Islam?" Long pause. "I'm not asking you to tip a winner, but are there obvious favorites? Could it be a dark horse?"
That morning I had met with Cardinal Dulles at the Jesuit headquarters in the Borgo Santo Spirito, an ancient road that runs to the left of St. Peter's. Dulles is the wise man among the American cardinals. A World War II veteran who converted to Catholicism while a student at Harvard, he was trained as a Jesuit priest while his father, John Foster Dulles, was serving as President Dwight D. Eisenhower's secretary of state. Born in 1918, he would have no vote in the conclave, which was restricted to cardinals younger than eighty, but he has always been a man worth listening to. He settled into a chair, hooked a cane over one arm of it, folded his long legs awkwardly, and offered a grim prognosis. "The breakdown of traditional societies and the indifference of modern people to religious faith have left us with a burden of re-evangelization," he explained. "People don't believe the Gospel because they don't know it, and they don't know it because they don't hear it. Even in the historically Catholic countries people are minimally Christian at best. Germany and the Low Countries give us no reason to be optimistic. Quebec is a desert. Ireland is very nearly lost to prosperity. Only Poland has never fallen away." What about the United States? "With our society's freedom of choice come our selfishness and competition, which are now being exported all over the world. We are not immune to the forces of secularization that are being felt in Europe. Is the Christian residue in America strong enough to resist them? I worry that it is not."
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.
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.
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.