Catherine Pepinster: A German Pope chosen to save Europe

The fact that Ratzinger chose not to be John Paul III shows he will be keen to be a distinctive Pope


Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger - Pope Benedict XVI - is a Pope for Europe. It cannot be by chance that he has taken the name of Benedict, patron saint of Europe, for his papal title.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger - Pope Benedict XVI - is a Pope for Europe. It cannot be by chance that he has taken the name of Benedict, patron saint of Europe, for his papal title.

As prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a post he held under the late Pope John Paul II for 23 years, Joseph Ratzinger became increasingly concerned about the secularisation of Europe, the threats to its very Christian soul. This was a European, after all, who was both steeped in Bavarian piety, and as a child had grown up in Hitler's shadow.

Later, reflecting on the war and on Nazism, he had rejected the lesson drawn by other German theologians, who perceived that its central lesson was the dangers of blind obedience. Instead, he decided that only a faith based on a Church with sound doctrinal values, and a strong central authority could withstand a hostile culture.

It is of course his work in confronting hostile culture for which he has become best known. The enforcer, the panzercardinal, the rottweiler - these are the nicknames by which he has become known by the press in recent years. Joseph Ratzinger was the architect of many of John Paul II's most controversial issues. He has cracked down on liberation theology in Latin America; rejected any idea of gay marriage; countered feminists in the Church, put limits on dissent, and of course, in tandem with his rejection of secularisation, been hostile to pluralism.

Will this be a man in John Paul II's shadow, a man who was chosen to continue his work? The fact that Cardinal Ratzinger chose not to be John Paul III is probably indicative of the fact that Joseph Ratzinger will be keen to assert himself, to be a distinctive Pope.

It seems highly likely that the cardinals in the conclave, of which the majority were Europeans, will have wanted someone who would address their own great concern - that Europe, once the Catholic Church's heartland, is now its lost continent. While some observers suggested the time had come for a Pope from Catholicism's thriving African and Latin American nations, the cardinals and bishops of Europe have been convinced that Europe needed renewed guidance.

They have watched with alarm the falling Mass attendances, the empty seminaries, the laity's disinclination to accept the Church's teaching on contraception, and the failure of Catholic marriages, which have all served to bring about a crisis of confidence.

Not that such a crisis is new in Europe. The Church has faced the Reformation, the Enlightenment, liberalism and capitalism, Marxism and fascism. It has lost some of the battles, and won others. Joseph Ratzinger will have watched John Paul II face down Communism. But in postmodern Europe, the problems have been more insidious. Today not only Catholicism but Christianity has been perceived as little more than a lifestyle option.

The crisis over Christianity was made apparent by the dismay expressed by the Church at the proposal to exclude a reference to Christianity in the European Constitution. And Joseph Ratzinger's views about Europe were made apparent when, last year, he came out against the candidacy of Turkey to join the European Union.

But the fears for Christian Europe are far more profound than concerns over a constitution. There is a sense that the affluent, materialist continent has lost its soul.

Can Benedict XVI help it find it again? This is a Pope who is more of a theologian than a pastor. But the Pope is not just a man of theory. He has to be a shepherd of his flock, guiding one billion Catholics throughout the world. Perhaps this Benedict will take as his mentor the last Pope Benedict - Benedict XV - elected in 1914 as Joseph Ratzinger's own country went to war. Under Benedict XV the papacy had its own war aims - the defence of Austria-Hungary, the last great Catholic power, and the prevention of orthodox influences into Europe. Above all, Benedict XV sought peace, seeking to support peace initiatives from different sides, trying to dissuade the United States from entering the conflict.

Benedict XV found a way to work with people of many opinions. The Church, including those progressives who will have been viewed this election with some dismay will be looking to the new Pope to bring its many disparate strands together, to reveal a talent for understanding the position of those not just on his side, but those who at first glance perceive the Church in a very different way.

Those who know Joseph Ratzinger say he is a man of kindness, of sharp intelligence, who could sometimes be a moderating influence on John Paul II. After all, it was he who opposed John Paul II's desire to make teaching on birth control infallible.

And for those of us who want, not a Church of fashion, but one of compassion, a Church that can start to understand, for instance, why using birth control is surely not a sin, or the use of condoms to counter Aids in Africa should not be seen as an evil, we should take heart that Joseph Ratzinger has taken the name Benedict. For the first word in the Rule of St Benedict, father of Europe, is the most important. It is Listen. Listen, Benedict XVI, to the people of the Church, the people of Europe, and the people of the world.

The writer is editor of 'The Tablet', the Catholic weekly

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