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Rome Dispatch

SHORTLY BEFORE NOON on the day that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected Pope Benedict XVI, I was standing in St. Peter's Square with a smart young Carmelite priest from Ireland. We were watching black smoke pour out of what, for a few days at least, was the most famous chimney in the world. That meant no Pope, yet.

By chance, or perhaps thanks to the Holy Spirit's intervention, Father Simon Nolan was just the kind of Catholic who could give me faith in the Church's future. He is a philosopher who studies medieval topics, and he was orthodox, warm, and open. We talked about Ratzinger's attack on the "dictatorship of relativism" in his sermon at the Mass that had opened the conclave on Monday morning.

Father Nolan said he sympathized with what Ratzinger said, because relativism meant that there were no truths that mattered. That meant there could be "no real arguments." If parties in a discussion believed that truth existed, he said, they would care passionately about what the other was claiming. No truth, no serious arguments--a good Catholic position that has much to say to the world.

But Father Nolan also expressed his worries about those who would back away from engaging the world as it exists and from joining those arguments. (Let me put on the record, to ensure that the good Carmelite's career goes forward, that he did not say this in reference to the soon-to-be Pope Benedict.) He did not like the idea of a Church that closed itself off intellectually. He thought the Church could be firm in insisting on what was right and still learn things from its interlocutors outside. He believed that the most likely outcome of the conclave would be a compromise Pope, and he thought it would be good for the Church.

At about 6 p.m., I was writing at Rome's Associated Press bureau on the assumption that the next smoke out of the chimney would also be black. Suddenly, the Italian reporter on the television behind me burst out: "White smoke! White smoke! We have a Pope!"

I tore out of the office and joined the rush of humanity walking and running down the corso Vittorio Emmanuele to get to the Vatican before the habemus papam announcement was made. I was hoping that Nolan would be proved right about his compromise candidate. But I was anxious: An early result was favorable to a Ratzinger papacy, because he went into the conclave with, as far as anyone can tell, the one and only large bloc of votes.

Ten minutes after I arrived in St. Peter's Square, the red drapes at the window near the top of the great basilica parted, and figures emerged. Then the announcement came in Latin: It was Ratzinger, and he would be Pope Benedict XVI.

It would be far better to claim that my response was pure. It was not. As a journalist, I had to cheer the Ratzinger choice. Twenty years ago, I had developed a fascination with Ratzinger as the Pope's intellectual tough guy, the man who was enforcing Pope John Paul II's version of orthodoxy. I had written a long New York Times Magazine piece about Ratzinger, and he had granted a written interview that was remarkably frank about who he was and why he thought as he did. I had respected his honesty. Just that morning, my column in The Washington Post had declared Ratzinger to be the central figure in the conclave. A smart editor had written the headline "cardinal ratzinger's challenge," which made it appear that I knew everything in advance. God was looking out for me: We columnists are quite capable of looking very dumb, so I was grateful for this reprieve.

Yet, as a Catholic, I was petrified. Pope Benedict's vision of the Church is that it should comprise a tough band of orthodox believers who confront modernity and uphold the truths the Church teaches, without any hesitations. If that means a smaller Church, with squishy doubters or dissenters left by the wayside, so be it. He is skeptical of feminists and any changes in the nature of the priesthood. He used his power as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a Vatican office charged with safeguarding Church teaching, to condemn dissenters, such as the Reverend Charles Curran, a theologian who just happened to agree with the vast majority of American Catholic married couples that "artificial" birth control was morally acceptable.

Most troubling was his sense of the Church's trajectory since the 1960s. I am part of the generation of Catholics shaped by the Second Vatican Council of Pope John XXIII. Pope John and the Council abandoned the Church's absolute opposition to modernity--and to democracy, liberalism, religious toleration, and the Enlightenment. In his important new book, The Catholic Revolution, Father Andrew Greeley asks exactly the right question: "Did the Church really expect to survive the changes brought about by science and democracy and reason without altering itself in any way?" The answer is obvious. The Church under Pope John was not selling out. It was doing what had helped it survive for over 2,000 years. By absorbing lessons from other philosophical shores, the Church was making itself more, not less, Christian.

But Pope Benedict worries that more was lost than gained in this process. He has said that the post-Conciliar years were "decidedly unfavorable for the Catholic Church." In the '80s, he told the Italian journalist Vittorio Messori, "What the Popes and the Council Fathers were expecting was a new Catholic unity." "Instead, one has encountered a dissension which seems to have passed over from self-criticism to self-destruction."

The new Pope's rejection of a past in which he played a significant part as a young Conciliar theologian is, in large part, the product of his horror at the excesses of the '60s left. This sentiment is familiar to neoconservatives, and even to editors of this magazine. In that interview for the Times, Ratzinger declared, "I think that, in those years, I learned where discussion must stop, because it is turning into a lie, and resistance must begin, in order to maintain freedom."

I worry that Pope Benedict sees liberal Catholics primarily as products of the worst excesses of the '60s and not as people who are genuinely grateful for the Catholic tradition and the Church's efforts since Pope John to interpret it anew for our times. Many of us know that modernity urgently needs criticism and agree with the new Pope on the importance of asserting that truth exists. We remain Catholic precisely because we think that the Church's emphasis on the sacramental and the communal provides a corrective to a culture that overemphasizes the material and lifts up the narrowest forms of individualism.

But we also think that not all that is new is bad. Our Church was soft on slavery. It was terribly slow to embrace democracy. It still does not seem to understand that the desire of women for power in the Church reflects legitimate--and, yes, Christian--claims to justice, not weird ideological enthusiasms. Those who say that change in the Church is simply capitulation to a flawed culture must explain whether they really think the Church would be better off if it had not come to oppose slavery, endorse democracy, and resist anti-Semitism and other forms of religious intolerance.

As soon as Pope Benedict was elected, leaders and spokesmen for the Church understood they had a problem. The new Pope was on record as saying many things that liberal and moderate Catholics, especially in the United States and Europe, find troubling. Cardinals and bishops quickly went into damage control. They argued that the Pope's critics should give him a chance. They suggested he could be a Nixon-to-China sort, exceptionally sensitive to the range of Catholic opinion.

I have too much respect for Ratzinger's intellectual integrity to believe that he believes in this p.r. campaign. But he is now the leader of the Church, not simply a theologian or the previous Pope's enforcer. His choice of the name Benedict suggests he wants to re-evangelize the West, as the original St. Benedict did. But good evangelizers don't toss potential allies overboard. They don't assume that those to whom they preach have nothing to teach back. The Catholic Church can become a diminished sect of purists. Or it can retain a broad cultural and intellectual influence on a world that needs what it has to say. Pope Benedict XVI has to decide which it will be.

E.J. Dionne Jr. is a columnist for The Washington Post, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Georgetown University. He covered the Vatican for The New York Times from 1984-1986.

This article appeared in the May 2 & 9, 2006, issue of the magazine.