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Four Myths About Pope Benedict XVI
1. "Benedict XVI 'campaigned' for the papacy, outmaneuvering the liberal faction to win the job."
Unfortunately, it's a tendency of the American media to project the styles and categories of U.S. politics onto every other kind of election. Such is the case here. Following this model, the former Cardinal Ratzinger is said to have maneuvered his way into the papacy, through behind-the-scenes campaigning and deft use of his prominence as the Dean of the College of Cardinals. His magnificent homily at John Paul II's funeral and his no-nonsense criticism of moral relativism preceding the conclave are offered as evidence.
But this is simple nonsense, and it ignores several well-established facts:
First, in the modern era at least, the vast majority of cardinals do not want to be elevated to the papacy, and the few who do are not elected. The life of the Supreme Pontiff is a difficult one. His life is no longer his own. Gone is his privacy, his freedom, his leisure, and his regular contact with friends and family.
Second, it's well known that Benedict XVI did NOT want to be pope. By his own admission, he was never completely comfortable in his role as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and tried to resign several times (John Paul II would have none of it). Furthermore, it was Benedict's dream to leave the Vatican to return to the slow-paced world of teaching. In an interview with Matthew Schofield of Knight Ridder, the pope's brother, Father Georg Ratzinger, recalled a conversation with him over Christmas where they discussed his retiring to a quite life back in Germany.
But what about his strong homily taking on moral relativism at the opening of the conclave? Much of the secular media has described it as though it were a kind of campaign event (one particularly clueless journalist referred to the homily as a "stump speech").
The truth is quite the opposite. Most informed Vatican observers recognized the homily as Benedict XVI's last attempt to avoid election to the papacy. After all, if he were actually campaigning, he would have delivered something softer that appealed to the moderates within the College of Cardinals... not the no-holds-barred assault on secularism that he delivered instead.
Even Fr. Richard McBrien recognized this, managing to get it both right and wrong at the same time. Just after the conclave opened, he noted: "If Cardinal Ratzinger were really campaigning for pope, he would have given a far more conciliatory homily designed to appeal to the moderates as well as to the hard-liners among the cardinals. I think this homily shows he realizes he's not going to be elected. He's too much of a polarizing figure."
In short, a homily is not a stump speech, a conclave is not a polling station, and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger had no ambitions to become Benedict XVI.
2. "Pope Benedict XVI was chosen as a transitional pope."
To a partial degree, this is true. After all, at 78 years of age, the Holy Father won't have the same lengthy reign as his predecessor. Nevertheless, there's an important difference between a transitional papacy and a short papacy. Blessed John XXIII had a short papacy, after all, but it was hardly the slow-paced transition his electors might have been expecting. His decision to convene the Second Vatican Council, after all, forever changed the face of the Catholic Church.
Make no mistake -- none of the cardinal electors at this conclave had any notion that Benedict XVI would sit around the Vatican, issuing the occasional unremarkable document. As those who have worked with him can tell you, Benedict XVI gets things done. This will be an active and productive papacy. And given the prolific writing career of the former-Cardinal Ratzinger, we can expect a small library of encyclicals from him, now that he occupies the Apostolic See. Please Lord, may it be so.
3. "Benedict XVI has a dark, Nazi past."
This one is almost too ridiculous to address. But since the ridiculous is no disqualifier for some, we must answer it. The charge stems from the pope's childhood in Nazi Germany. At the time,
membership in the Hitler Youth was mandatory for young men. And so, against his wishes, he was enrolled.
By all counts, he was a very unenthusiastic member -- indeed, his family had been outspoken in their opposition to Nazism, to the point where they actually had to move to a different town out of safety concerns.
When the pope turned 16, he was drafted into the German army to serve with an anti-aircraft unit. He never saw combat and subsequently deserted (an action that would have meant summary execution had he been caught).
And that's the sum total of his involvement with the Third Reich. Does this constitute a "dark past"? After all, he describes all of this himself in his book, "Salt of the Earth." The interesting thing is, none of his critics actually believe he had any affection for the Nazis. Furthermore, the "Nazi Connection" charge was ably refuted a few days ago in the Jerusalem Post -- hardly a haven for Hitler apologists. And other prominent Jewish leaders, like Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, have come to the pope's defense.
As for his attitude towards Judaism, it's well known that he was a key participant in and supporter of Pope John Paul II's historic outreach to the Jewish people. And anyone who reads his wonderful book, "Many Religions, One Covenant: Israel, the Church, and the World," will discover his affection for our elder brothers and sisters in the Jewish Faith.
So, is Benedict XVI an anti-Semite? No. A man with a suspicious Nazi past? No. In the end, the pope's sole mistake was being born in the wrong nation at the wrong time.
4. "Pope Benedict XVI is a doctrinal hardliner who opposes the reforms of the Second Vatican Council."
It's almost difficult to know where to start. Since when, after all, does standing behind that which has always been believed and taught make one a "hardliner"? Furthermore, can the term itself be understood as anything other than an insult? Have you ever heard it used as a compliment? And what if the position one stands behind is true? If I defend the existence of gravity against someone who denies it, does that make me a gravitational hardliner? How silly.
Happily, the main portion of the charge -- that he opposes the reforms of Vatican II -- is much easier to address. As anyone familiar with his life or work knows, Benedict XVI fully supports the documents and decrees of the Council. Indeed, he attended as a theological advisor and, along with Henri de Lubac, was a chief proponent of the Council's return to Scripture and the Early Fathers as the prime sources of Catholic theology.
What Benedict XVI does oppose, however, is the misuse of Vatican II to justify things the Council Fathers never proposed. Abortion, contraception, women's ordination, acceptance of homosexual behavior -- all are paraded by dissenting Catholics as natural outgrowths from the documents of the Council. But such claims are only convincing to one who has never actually read those same documents (which are thoroughly orthodox and bear no support whatsoever to such radical positions).
That's when the "Spirit of Vatican II" makes its entrance. You see, since dissenting Catholics cannot actually find their wish list anywhere in the actual conciliar documents, they're forced to imagine a kind of trajectory from the Council -- almost as if Vatican II were a perpetual, unending event. Given enough time, the theory goes, the Fathers would have eventually embraced the theological fascinations of the Catholic Left.
Don't be fooled. One of my favorite former theology professors -- certainly no conservative -- used to say that the phrase "The Spirit of Vatican II" really means, "This is what Vatican II would have said if Vatican II were me."