April 18, 2006

It's Difficult to Love a German Pope

This is a most remarkable article from SPIEGEL ONLINE, which I put up here in its entirety.
Ratzinger's Quiet Non-Revolution
By Alexander Smoltczyk

A year into his papacy and the radical shift many had expected when Pope Benedict XVI became pope last spring has yet to arrive. Instead, he has chosen discretion.

The newest entrance to the Vatican is 3.7 meters (12 feet) wide and 5 meters (16.4 feet) tall. It's a four-paneled bronze gate that looks like a row of book spines, and it's the German pope's first construction project. It looks almost as though one must go through the Word to get to the Church -- or at least into its underground parking garage.

The papal palace is empty on this Monday morning. Outside, on the other side of the Leonine Wall, the polling stations assembling votes in the Italian general election are about to close. The only sound inside is the ticking of a clock, surrounded by the silent turmoil of the allegorical frescoes covering walls and ceilings. "The one with the anchor around his neck is St. Clement," says the guardsman in the silence. Then he points to an elevator and says: "Pius XII." The clock continues to tick away.

The elderly prelate, who prefers to remain anonymous, sits in one of the palace's damask-lined offices and says that he remembers the days when Joseph Ratzinger was still making headlines as a pale "grand inquisitor." "There is a difference," he says, speaking almost completely accent-free German, "as to whether you play defensively with a strong team to back you up, or play a more individual game. He hasn't changed, but now he can show a side of himself that wasn't needed in the past."

One year ago when Joseph Ratzinger was elected to the papacy, both friend and foe expected different things from the former head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. A shift would affect the entire church state. But when Pope Benedict XVI presented his encyclical, it was no reactionary manifesto, but a declaration of love: "Deus caritas est."

The German pope, once known in Italy by his German nickname, the Panzerkardinal, or "battle tank cardinal," spoke of the God-given gift of eros, of love and of good deeds, and managed to do so without mentioning the evils of contraception. The crusader against liberation theology left it up to the Italian bishops to handle the day to day and instead immersed himself in the psalms.

Everything is different, and yet nothing has changed. Every Wednesday, at 10:30 a.m. sharp, the pope gives a lecture. His topics are the same as those he addressed during his days in Tübingen. But today his lectures are open-air events attended by crowds numbering in the thousands and growing by the week.

It's difficult to love a German pope, but the Romans like him. Perhaps especially for the amount of attention he clearly devotes to his appearance. As born Catholics, Italians know full well that one's appearance and essence are inseparable. No detail is accidental. A pope's accessories say as much about the man as his writings. Don't they?

The prelate molds his face into an indulgent expression. He would put it differently, he says: "Small signs often have great significance. At least for those who see clearly. Watch out for such signs; they exist."


One of the first to discover this pope's intolerance for breaches in etiquette was Massimiliano Gammarelli. The Gammarelli family has been tailoring for the Vatican since 1793. But Benedict XVI decided to change papal tailors and went to Euroclero, across the street from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Sant'Ufficio. The pope was apparently irritated over having to give his first audience wearing a cassock too short to cover his silk stockings.

"I would call it a new style," says Notker Wolf, who plays electric guitar in a Christian rock band and is Abbot Primate of the Order of St. Benedict. The windows of his office on Aventine Hill look out on the city of Rome. "Benedict is cautious with his health. He gives few audiences and he protects himself. He is wise enough to tell people not to trouble him with unnecessary things."

Ever since April 19, 2005, the date of Pope Benedict's election, Ratzinger has been treated in the curia -- often something of a hotbed of intrigue -- with distanced and amazed admiration, says Wolf. It's a demeanor that Italians often reserve for Germans, but it shouldn't be confused with affection. "I heard them saying: Finally we have a German again. He'll clean things up," Wolf reports.

But the new pope took his time. The first nine months of his papacy passed without any fundamental personnel decisions or statements of position. It was almost as if the infallible ex cathedra wanted to take a few steps back and carefully study the machinery. "Many were frustrated that so little actually happened, but many were also pleased." Benedictine monk Wolf cheerily blows his nose. Since February, he says, things have begun speeding up. The reform of the curia has been decided. The encyclical has been published, and one and a half million copies have already been sold. The number of members of the papal council was reduced, a high-ranking member of the curia was sent to Egypt as Nuntius, and 15 new cardinals were appointed, including -- to the horror of the papal bureaucracy -- only three veterans from the curia.

"Reform," says Ratzinger, "consists in the removal of the unnecessary."


Vatican chief herald and Tuscan nobleman Andrea Cordero Lanza di Montezemolo received a call only two days after the conclave which elected Ratzinger to the papacy. "The Holy Father and I discussed the elements of his personal coat of arms. The shell of St. Augustine, the moor's head, the bear and the bowl of St. Peter -- all were to be expected. But he also insisted on an innovation."

Benedict wanted the "tiara" -- the triple-layer papal crown in the coat of arms -- replaced by a mitre, the headwear worn by bishops, specifically the mitre he owns and that Paul VI wore on December 7, 1965, when he proclaimed the last reforms decreed by the Vatican II council.

It's a heraldic shift that points to an agenda. The three rings of the tiara originally represented the pope's universal claim to power, as "father of princes and kings, ruler of the world and representative of Christ on earth." Benedict wanted it one size smaller, as a sign of good will toward the Orthodox Church. Indeed, this pope seems to be seeking out dialogue with the East. As an icebreaker, he sent Cardinal Walter Kasper -- who is not only head of the papal committee responsible for relations with Judaism, but who also helps look after the Church in the Orient -- to Moscow as his personal representative.

Benedict's relationship with China is also changing. "We are experiencing a thaw in relations," says a church diplomat who travels to Beijing on a regular basis. "The government isn't afraid of the current pope. It was a different story with his predecessor. After all, he brought down Eastern Europe."

The Vatican is apparently considering moving the Apostolic Nunciature -- the Catholic Church's equivalent of an embassy -- from Taipei to Beijing before the 2008 Olympics. The church will likewise continue its policy of not appointing any bishops without first consulting informally with the Chinese. Beijing accepted the elevation of the Bishop of Hong Kong, who has been critical of the Chinese regime, to the post of cardinal without any serious objection.

Some would doubt that all of this is somehow reflected in Benedict's coat of arms. But omens and miracles are daily bread in the Catholic realm. March 24, the day that chief herald Andrea Cordero Lanza di Montezemolo was elevated to cardinal by Ratzinger, a former member of the Hitler Youth, was also the anniversary of a massacre in the Ardeatine Caves, in which the SS murdered Corderos's father after days of horrific torture. A coincidence? Not likely.


The Organization for the Protection of European Animals and Nature staged a protest against the pope shortly before Christmas. "The blood of innocent animals," said the group's (German) director, clings to Benedict's "medieval headdress." He was talking about the "Camauro," a small red cap lined with ermine, which first appeared in Renaissance paintings by Raphael.

Because he has always suffered from cold ears and can't afford to catch cold, the head of the church wore the cap to a general audience on December 21. But warding off the winter weather wasn't his only reason. The cap was also a signal, a reference to the Second Vatican Council 40 years earlier. It was a sign of reverence for the father of the council, John XXIII, who had reintroduced the Camauro look into the Vatican and took the cap with him into his glass-enclosed grave, where he is on display in a corner of St. Peter's Cathedral. The Sacrosanctum Concilium for some a sort of "1968" of Catholicism, was Ratzinger's fundamental theological experience. He was the only member of the conclave left who had played a leading role in the Second Vatican Council. As a result, the election of the pope was also a referendum on the "faithful interpretation" of the council's resolutions, on critical questions such as: How far can the church open up to the present? Hasn't it already gone far enough?

As a cardinal, Ratzinger repeatedly spoke about the "mistakes" of the post-council debate, of exaggerations and misinterpretations, especially among his German colleagues.

But in the sermon in which he wore the velvet cap, and during a Christmas address a short time later, Ratzinger professed his faith in the council, saying that an incorrect interpretation was responsible for the uproar within the church. The council, he said, was about "reform," not "separation."

Ratzinger was elected for this ability to set things straight, and he owed his election to the Italian "main electors" associated with Cardinal Camillo Ruini. They believed that no one but a professor from the land of Martin Luther could be trusted to focus attention on the church once again in a Europe of transcendental illiteracy. In Italy, Ratzinger had led the dialogue with agnostic intellectuals for 20 years.

"One couldn't discuss things with Wojtyla," says one cardinal. "Within a few minutes, he had already risen to visionary heights." But Benedict is a different story altogether. He understands non-believers. Unlike his predecessor, his solution is not to urge the non-faithful to kneel and pray. Instead, he believes that the Enlightenment needs some enlightenment. He is an intellectual who, instead of replacing the rational with the mystic, uses it in the service of faith.


Last summer, to everyone's surprise, Benedict XVI had himself driven through Rome in a convertible. During the outing he wore designer sunglasses by Serengeti, which, according to the manufacturer, filter out short-wave light, helping prevent eye fatigue. And that's important for Ratzinger -- his eyes are vital for his writing.

Pope Benedict XVI writes and writes and writes. Letters, sermons, speeches, circulars and books. He is already the most-published pope in church history. This supreme shepherd is even capable of inserting a fundamental theological thought into the accreditation of the ambassador of Andorra. For him, truth can be found at his writing desk. If John Paul II was the pope of images, Benedict is the pope of words.

He writes all of his major sermons himself, and he completely rewrites prewritten speeches in his tiny academic handwriting, dubbed "picture books" by his office staff.

Being named the head of the Catholic Church has not truly separated Ratzinger from his lifelong work. He continues to struggle with his fundamental conflict, contrasting "truth" with the "relativism" of the modern age. At the center of his philosophy is man as a godly creation, not man as a replacement for God.

One of his talents is to switch planes in worldly debates. Instead of talking about condoms, Benedict XVI condemns sexuality without love. Instead of becoming explicitly involved in the Italian bishops' summer campaign against artificial insemination, he spoke about the founders of the church.

Although he continues to turn his attention to the dogmatic foundation, he also wants to be able to feel confident that there isn't too much bungling and tinkering going on elsewhere in the Vatican. This explains the curia reform and the removal of the unnecessary. "The rivalries over responsibilities," says one source from the Apostolic Palace, "resulted in a lot of back-biting."


The devil is in the details, the quartertones and the nuances. This explains why the director of music at St. Peter's Cathedral was replaced, supposedly at the urging of the pope. His successor will direct the choir for the first time on Good Friday, and he'll know that Benedict will never miss even a single discordant note.

Ratzinger watched his predecessor's stage-like appearances -- theatrical works of art drenched in color -- with almost Lutheran-esque suspicion. After all, a mass is no opera; and it's especially not an Italian opera. It's a belief that runs completely counter to the creed of Archbishop Piero Marini, the Vatican's event manager, who says: "At the beginning of the third millennium, the church must revel in beauty."

Ratzinger has already offered Marini three dioceses in an effort to get rid of him, but to no avail. For Ratzinger, who mistrusts the image, anything baroque is suspect. Pope John Paul II loved large-scale masses. Pope Benedict XVI does not.

It's no secret that Ratzinger regrets the disappearance of Latin from the mass, and that the mere thought of guitars being played in the church gives him hives. He wants the focus to be on the liturgy and not on how the message is imparted. Indeed, the structure of the liturgy was the main topic at the first bishops' synod led by Ratzinger in October.

"There is evidence of quiet shrinkage in the papal liturgies in St. Peter's Cathedral," says church historian Monsignore Walter Brandmüller. "The folklore elements have been pushed into the background, replaced by more of the sacral, more theological depth and tradition." Of course, Brandmüller adds, the council calls for the Latin liturgy and the celebrant's turning to the East instead of to the people. The only problem, says Brandmüller, is that actual practice has diverged from policy over the years.


Tarcisio Cardinal Bertone, the Archbishop of Genoa, sat next to Ratzinger in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for years. He knows the man. This is what he had to say about Benedict on "Telepace," a program aired on Vatican television: "The church has found its Beckenbauer," a reference to Germany's "emperor" of soccer. "He pushes us forward with his passes. He knows how best to use his teammates' talents. He is a reserved director and a reliable midfield player."

Instead of jetting from continent to content, from one gigantic mass to the next, this pope prefers to till the church garden. He wants to leave a dogmatically and organizationally strengthened Vatican for his successor, as long as he has enough time left to achieve his goals. In other words, anyone still hoping for a papal shift on issues such as contraception, ordination of women or granting Holy Communion to those who have been remarried will have to wait for Ratzinger's successors.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
To some he is "God's Rottweiler" (I say, have you ever read a more moronic bit of journalism than THAT? Oh wait... it's coming from the Beeb, so maybe you have. I am always suddenly and miraculously turning into a fiercely proud German, when the teabags can't get over the fact that we are better at grabbing Mallorcean sunbeds and at making cars as well and don't get me started about soccer!), others are disappointed that he hasn't found a more definite stance yet regarding the imminent threat of Islam to Christianity and Western culture. Fact is, it is not the Pope's duty to be liked, it's his duty to defend The Faith. If the above article is an indication of reality and a certain trend, may he live hundred years and more.