LONDON: Atheists should welcome the election of Pope Benedict XVI. For this aged, scholarly, conservative, uncharismatic Bavarian theologian will surely hasten precisely the de-Christianization of Europe that he aims to reverse. At the end of his papacy, Europe may again be as un-Christian as it was when St Benedict, one of the patron saints of Europe, founded his pioneering monastic order, the Benedictines, 15 centuries ago. Christian Europe: from Benedict to Benedict. RIP.
Europe is now the most secular continent on earth. The phenomenon of the last pope masked the underlying trend. We saw the great crowds of enthusiastic young people on St Peter’s Square, or at open-air masses on his many journeys, and half-forgot the plummeting figures for church attendance and the recruitment of priests. An American Baptist missionary website puts things in perspective. “Western Europe,” it states, “is ... one of the world’s most difficult mission fields. Most missiologists compare it to the Muslim-held Middle East when it comes to responsiveness to the gospel.” Voltaire would be proud of us.
This used to be less true in eastern Europe, where the pressure of communism helped to keep the churches strong. But an irony of John Paul II’s pontificate was that, by hastening the end of communism, he helped unleash those forces of capitalist modernization that contributed to secularization in western Europe.
Meanwhile, both immigration and the prospective enlargement of the EU are making Islam the most dynamic, growing faith in Europe. In Berlin, for example, Muslims are already the second-largest active denomination, after Protestants but before Catholics.
As everyone keeps saying, elderly popes can surprise us all, as John XXIII did by convoking the reforming Second Vatican Council. But I see nothing in the personality, biography, principles or strategy of Benedict XVI to suggest that he can reverse these trends.
Joseph Ratzinger has all the conservatism of Karol Wojtyla with none of the charisma. He can be charming, witty and persuasive in intellectual debate, as he showed recently when taking on the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, rather as Benedict XIV took on Voltaire in the 18th century. But for a wider audience his soft, precise voice, mildly professorial manner and uncertain wave cannot begin to compare with the communication skills of the great actor who was his predecessor. Nor do they compare with the potential appeal of some of the alternative candidates, younger men from Latin America who could credibly have made the Catholic church one of the strongest voices for the world’s poor. Paradoxically, a Latin American pope might have had more appeal to young Europeans than this European one.
How could he inspire the young? The Catholic writer Daniel Johnson suggests in the Times that Benedict XVI has the learning and intellect to get across to young people the last pope’s exciting reinterpretations of ancient doctrines. “In particular,” he writes, “the Theology of the Body, which sees sexuality as an emanation of divine love, has enormous unrealised potential to enthuse the young.” Well, I shall be watching that space.
This Bavarian theologian is not just old but old-fashioned. Like several German professors of his generation, he seems to have been traumatized by the student protests of 1968, which were led by figures like Gerhard Schröder and Joschka Fischer. On the day of Ratzinger’s election, Chancellor Schröder made polite claims of patriotic pride in the election of a German pope, but I can guess his pillow talk that night. It was striking to switch from Polish television, still mourning the greatest Pole in history, to German television, greeting their compatriot with faint praise and waspish worrying.
Unfair though it is to blame him for his compulsory enrolment in the Hitler Youth, his biography is hardly the asset that Wojtyla’s was. And not just in the extreme version presented by the Sun, which hailed his election with the memorable headline From Hitler Youth to ... Papa Ratzi, and described him as an “ex-World War II enemy soldier”.
His principles are very similar to those of his predecessor. It would be unreasonable to expect that he should change them. The Catholic church is not a political party, trimming to pick up votes. The strength of a rock is that it is not sand. None the less, there are a couple of important adjustments that a new pope could make without threatening the central core of Catholic dogma.
One is that he could allow the exceptional use of condoms to prevent babies being born with HIV/Aids. This would have a major life-saving effect in the developing world, but also a positive impact on public opinion in Europe.
Secondly, he could allow Catholic priests to marry. Perhaps he may yet surprise us on the first issue; it will be a miracle if he changes his position on the second.
Then there is his strategy. John Paul II was a welcoming, ecumenical, big-tent pope. In Benedict XVI’s view, if becoming smaller is the price of the Catholic church remaining true to its basic principles, so be it. The church will be smaller but purer. Klein aber fein, as they say in his native German.
His homily in St Peter’s basilica before the cardinals went into conclave made it clear that he intends to tackle the secularism, moral laxity and consumerism of contemporary Europe head-on. He has described homosexuality as tending towards an “intrinsic moral evil”. He was reportedly shocked by the rejection of the devout Catholic Rocco Buttiglione as a European commissioner. He rails against the “dictatorship of relativism”.
Rampant secularism is not the only danger he spies. This pope also has some decidedly old-fashioned views on Islam. In a sermon delivered in Regensburg in 2003, he sharply attacked the then German president for suggesting that the monk’s habit has as little place in European public life as the Islamic headscarf. He quoted with approval a German theologian’s response “that Europe was, after all, built not through the Qur’an but through the holy scriptures of the old and new covenant”. (That is, including Judaism as well as Christianity.) “I would not ban any Muslim woman from wearing the headscarf,” he generously declared. “But far less will we allow the cross, which is the public sign of a culture of reconciliation, to be banned!”
Identifying Europe with Christianity, he sees no place for Turkey in the European Union. In an interview with Le Figaro last August, he spoke of Europe as a “cultural” rather than a merely geographical continent, and said Turkey had “always represented another (cultural) continent in the course of history, in permanent contrast to Europe”. Turkey could, he suggested, “try to set up a cultural continent with neighbouring Arab countries and become the protagonist of a culture with its own identity”.
They are already calling the 265th pope a “transitional” figure. But so far as we know he has none of the serious health problems of John Paul II and, with the best of modern, scientific medical care, he could well survive another 10 years. That means he could live to see the European Union in 2015. This Europe would probably be more Islamic than now in its poorer parts, and more secular than ever in its richer ones. Whether that would also be a better Europe is a subject for another column.—Dawn/The Guardian News Service