Pope Benedict XVI: forward to the past

Michael Walsh
14 September 2007

Just in case then point had not been picked up, Pope Benedict XVI repeated it on 12 September 2007 at his customary Wednesday general audience in Rome. He reflected on his trip to Austria on 7-9 September, the ostensible purpose of which being a visit to the ancient Marian shrine of Mariazell, and spoke of meeting in Vienna representatives of the diplomatic corps.

Michael Walsh is a writer and broadcaster. He was librarian at Heythrop College from 1972 to 2001. Among his books are The Secret World of Opus Dei (HarperCollins, 2004) and The Conclave: A Sometimes Secret and Occasionally Bloody History (Canterbury Press, 2003 )

Also by Michael Walsh in openDemocracy:

"Cutting the Vatican down to size" (5 April 2005)

"From Joseph Ratzinger to Pope Benedict XVI" (20 April 2005)

"The Regensburg address: reason amid certainty" (20 September 2006)

"The Pope and the Patriarch" (4 December 2006)

"Aware of Austria's history and its close ties with the Holy See", he said, "as well as Vienna's important role in international politics, the programme of my pastoral visit included meetings with the president of the republic and the diplomatic corps ... Focusing on Europe, I renewed my encouragement to go forward with the current process of unification on the basis of values inspired by its shared Christian heritage. Mariazell, in the end, is one of the symbols of the meeting in faith of European peoples. How can we forget that Europe bears a tradition of thought that holds together faith, reason and sentiment? Illustrious philosophers, even outside the faith [he mentions Jűrgen Habermas], recognised the central role of Christianity in preserving the modern conscience from nihilistic or fundamentalist derivatives".

The visit to Austria began, as the pope recalled in the same address, with a visit to the Mariensaule, the monument to the Virgin erected in Vienna's Am Hof Platz. Similar monuments are a fairly common sight in south German and Austrian towns, but this one is special. It was erected in 1667 to commemorate, as the pope put it, the liberation of Vienna from great danger. The danger from which they had been freed was the Ottoman Turks. The pope is not, as Benedict proclaimed, a political figure, but there could be no escaping the political import of the visit to Austria. The Vatican wants the Christian roots of Europe written into any future European constitution, and it does not want Turkey to be part of the European Union. As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Benedict had said so explicitly. Now he is pope, the same message has to be conveyed rather more circumspectly, but it is nonetheless clear. It is all the more clear because it was delivered in Austria, the country which, more than most, resisted the opening of talks with Turkey about its entrance into the EU.

There was a second major theme to the pope's Austrian discourses. His controversial address in Regensburg was delivered a year ago, on 12 September 2006. He returned to the topic of that address, though without the seemingly slighting reference to Islam. He called for an adherence to truth, a dedication to reason in all forms of scientific endeavour. His manner on these occasions is donnish - unsurprising, perhaps, in a former university professor - but in stark contrast to the much more popular approach of his predecessor.

A signal of difference

It is inevitable that a comparison with the late John Paul II is made, but has to be embarked upon with care. There is a perception that Benedict has travelled out of Italy much less frequently. That is not entirely true. The visit to Austria was Benedict's seventh foreign trip. In roughly the same time John Paul had made a dozen - not all that many more. Benedict's journeys, however, have not been grand tours - in his seven journeys John Paul visited sixteen different countries, including, famously, Poland - but there-and-back-again excursions. At the same time, it must be remembered that when John Paul began his pontificate he was 58. Benedict was approaching 80, and had already suffered a stroke. Though he has seemingly made a full recovery, these trips are inevitably a strain on the pontiff's health.

He appeared to acknowledge this in an interview he gave in August 2006. He had, he said, "somewhat imprudently" undertaken to visit Austria. He had agreed, he went on, partly out of a desire once more to visit the countryside he had known as a boy growing up in Bavaria. As if to reinforce this point, his elder brother George accompanied him on the pilgrimage to Mariazell.

Also in openDemocracy on the politics of the Catholic church:

Neal Ascherson, "Pope John Paul II and democracy" (1 April 2005)

Austen Ivereigh, "Through the Vatican white smoke" (4 April 2005)

Timothy Radcliffe, "The Catholic church and democracy" (12 April 2005)

Andrew Brown, "Cardinal Chernenko?" (20 April 2005)

Faisal Devji, "Between Pope and Prophet" (26 September 2006)

Rodrigo de Almeida, "Benedict XVI in Brazil: raising the Catholic flag" (9 May 2007)

In any case, to view the current pope in the light of the frenetic activity of the early years of John Paul's papacy are a mistake, and not just because of the difference in age. Perhaps because the late pontiff lived so long - his was the second longest reign in the church's 2,000 years - it now seems to be expected that a pope will normally travel widely and travel often. It is not necessarily so.

Papa Ratzinger from the outset has adopted a style that is distinctly different to his predecessor's. The church had to wait for eight months for the first encyclical of the new pontificate since its inauguration on 24 April 2005, and is still waiting for the second. Meanwhile the pope has written a book on the person of Christ, carefully insisting that it is the work of a theologian, and disavowing any special authority for the author as pope. When the encyclical did arrive on 25 December, Deus caritas est ("God is love"), was warmly welcomed. Its tone was in sharp contrast that of the encyclicals of John Paul. The first part was abstract, but it was nevertheless clear and straightforward. The second half dwelt upon the history of the church's charitable activity in a manner quite unlike anything from the pen of John Paul - though it is thought to have been prepared during his pontificate.

A deeper continuity

The slow pace of the papacy has left considerable space for rumour and speculation. Much of the speculation has proved to be more or less true. The instruction from the Vatican that priests were to be allowed to celebrate the "Tridentine" liturgy according to the rite established in 1962 had long been expected. When promulgated it proved extremely controversial. Many had thought that this rite had been abolished, except in very particular circumstances, by the reforms which followed the second Vatican council in 1962-65. A top Vatican official claimed in 2006 that the post-Vatican II liturgy as it is currently practised is contrary to the wishes of the council - a pre-emptive strike, as it were, defending the Vatican's own interpretation against that of the church at large. It was a sure sign that change was coming.

The pope's motu proprio was published on 7 July 2007 and comes into effect today, 14 September. The revivalof the mass which owes its name to the Council of Trent (1545-63) has been seen as the clearest evidence to date that Benedict XVI is less than happy with the sweeping changes the 1962 council occasioned and most of the Church welcomed, and, like his predecessor, wishes to slow down the pace of change within the Catholic church, even to reverse it. This appeared to be his stance while serving under John Paul II as cardinal prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Yet it seemed for the first uneventful months of his pontificate that Papa Ratzinger was showing himself to be an altogether different character from Cardinal Ratzinger.

That, it now appears, was a misapprehension.

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