How has John Paul’s successor done since his election as Vicar of Christ, Servant of the Servants of God, Bishop of Rome? (Note that, since last month, the title of Patriarch of the West no longer applies to St. Peter’s heir.) The world’s best Vatican reporter, John Allen, has a robust, broad-shouldered take on Pope Benedict XVI’s first year. (Incidentally, Allen will recross the Atlantic after six years or so in Rome; he will still write his peerless roundup of Church news, an update of which is available every week, but this time also from the perspective of the Church outside the Eternal City. Hence, the change in title come July: from The Word from Rome to All Things Catholic.)
Benedict is a supple thinker, and unpacking his approach on any given question requires nuance. Because his points of departure are the 2,000-year tradition of the church, coupled with his own judgments about the character of people under consideration, rather than the ideological categories of secular politics, his decisions will sometimes strike the outside world as surprising and out of character. Nor has his direction over the first year been entirely uniform, as if one can generalize from a single document or papal act to explain everything else.
All this, however, constitutes an "insider" perspective, crafted from the point of view of devotees of the papacy and of Vatican politics. Generally speaking, that’s not what secular media outlets are after. What they want to know is, in the "biggest picture" sense possible, what are the most striking or surprising aspects of Benedict XVI’s first year, and what do they teach us about where things are going?
That’s the question I’ll try to answer here. I’ll organize my reflections under five broad headings:
- What Hasn’t Happened
- Who’s Paying Attention?
- The Dictatorship of Relativism
- Tough Love
- Benedict the Teacher
Insightful reading. One comes out of it (at least I did) feeling smarter than one really is. Under the third "broad heading" of relativism, for instance, Allen writes:
To put Benedict’s point in street language, it boils down to this: You may not like what we have to say, but at least give us credit for our motives. We’re not talking about truth because we want to chain you down, but because we want to set you free. It’s not a matter of love and joy versus a fussy, legalistic church. It’s a question of two different visions of what real love is all about — Baywatch, so to speak, versus the gospel. We too want happy, healthy, liberated people, we just have a different idea of how to get there.
"Benedict’s Wager" is that by reframing the debate in this way, the church can get a new hearing in a cultural milieu in which many people long ago made up their minds. Whether that’s the case remains to be seen, but judging from the reaction to Deus Caritas Est, he at least seems to have some people scratching their heads, reconsidering impressions of Catholic teaching they long regarded as settled.
As a footnote, for all the talk about Benedict as an Augustinian pessimist, he actually seems to believe there are still people out there who can be persuaded by unadorned argument — if you think about it, a rather optimistic stance.
Elsewhere in his lengthy post, Allen recalls a recent anecdote about Pope Benedict XVI, which illustrates the former university professor’s lucid teaching skills. (It’s really quite good.) But Baywatch versus the gospel? Allen is no slouch in the lucidity stakes.