Since his election as Pope Benedict XVI last April, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has been watched very closely to see how he would lead the Roman Catholic Church after the long reign of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II. John Allen's book The Rise of Benedict XVI gives a solid background to the life of this eminent theologian turned pope. As the subtitle of the book says, it gives The Inside Story of How the Pope Was Elected and Where He Will Take the Catholic Church.
Cardinal Ratzinger had served as the prefect of the church's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith since 1980, when he came to Rome at the behest of John Paul II. As the church's chief doctrinal cleric, he was in a unique position to become the new pope. No other cardinal had such an "up close and personal" view of the church and what it takes to lead such a large worldwide body.
Even though he was a leading candidate, I remember the gasp of amazement from the reporters when we watched his introduction to the world that day in St. Peter's Square. The first words out of the reporters' mouths were that the new pope would need to turn his attention to the problem of a secularized Europe and the challenges to the church in its own backyard. Allen's book offers some insight into what this means.
Ecclesiastical winter in Europe
In recent months the church has lost a bitter fight to have the preamble to the now-failed European Constitution include a reference to God and the Christian roots of Europe . Spain has passed laws permitting homosexual marriages, in direct defiance of church teaching.
Allen lists several trends pointing to the lack of influence for the church in Europe.
• Low attendance rates at mass, in some cases in the single digits in northern European countries.
• Declining fertility rates, with the lowest recorded in traditional Catholic strongholds such as Spain and Italy .
• Declining cultural influence; for example, 12 nations have regularized same-sex unions, and three have granted full marriage rights to same-sex couples.
These trends created divergent opinions among the cardinals as they sat in conclave last April. Ratzinger seems to be among the group who believe that in the present moment Europe is post-Christian and is to some extent beyond evangelization. Ratzinger feels the church should encourage a "creative minority" who can defend church teaching rather than watering down doctrine to make it acceptable in a hostile culture. A new generation should be formed, one that is excited about the faith, which can emerge at a future time when the false promises of hedonism and secularism have been exposed.
This helps explain the choice of the name Benedict as his title. Ratzinger's explanation for his choice of name is, "Benedict lived at a time when the Roman Empire was collapsing, and he saw the role of the church as to preserve the best in human culture throughout the centuries. The whole world was crumbling, and Benedict helped ensure that human civilization survived" (p. 169). The last pope to use the title Benedict reigned during World War I. Benedict XV worked tirelessly to prevent the European powers from going to war and destroying European civilization. Cardinal Ratzinger's choice of this title says a great deal about his priorities.
In his first general audience, on April 27, the pope said of St. Benedict: "He constitutes a fundamental point of reference for the unity of Europe, and a powerful call to the irrefutable Christian roots of European culture and civilization" (p. 169).
Europe faces a grave threat from radical Islamic forces. The identity of Europe as a culture is under attack from several quarters, evidenced by last autumn's riots in France and this winter's episode with the cartoon depictions of the prophet Muhammad in European newspapers. The EU has begun talks to admit Turkey, a Muslim nation, into the European Union. Pope Benedict has gone on record as being against this move on cultural grounds. In an interview in August 2004, Ratzinger said, "Throughout history Turkey has always represented a different continent, always in contrast with Europe" (p. 188).
The latest Muslim riots against embassies will reinforce that view. Look for the pope to lead a movement to revitalize the Christian roots of Europe and remind Europeans of their historical and cultural identity.
Allen feels the frontline of Benedict XVI's work to turn the tide of relativism will be in Europe. It is felt that Europe is historically the cradle of Christian culture and "Europe is too big to fail."
The pope has a vision of Europe that stretches back to Charlemagne and is still important for the future of culture. In a 2004 book titled Europe: Its Foundations Today and Tomorrow, the pope spelled out his clear conviction that "Europe" is a cultural and historical concept before a geographic one. In the era of Charlemagne, the pope writes, the word Europe expressed both a political reality, meaning a group of states that formed a new Roman Empire, but also a mission—preserving the best of antique culture, and carrying it forward into history (p. 189).
Pope Benedict XVI heads the Roman Catholic Church at a critical time in Western civilization. The rising clash between the Islamic world and the West will present unexpected challenges for Europe's leaders. Understanding the thinking of the Roman pontiff is a key to knowing how the church will react. John Allen's book is a good place to start.