When Pope John XXIII was elected in 1958, he was 77 and widely expected to be a “caretaker” pope after the nearly 20-year reign of his predecessor. And when Pope Benedict XVI was elected in 2005, he was 78 and also expected to be relatively short-term pope after John Paul II’s 27-year papacy.
But John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council and revolutionized the Roman Catholic Church. Benedict, meanwhile, served as the caretaker pope that John XXIII could never be, leaving the church not much different than when he started.
Benedict’s election in 2005 was swift and stunning as cardinals elected a longtime and prominent member of John Paul’s papacy on just the second day of the conclave. News of the familiar Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s election, received mixed reviews — especially from internationally-minded Catholics, who were dismayed to discover that the overwhelmingly European College of Cardinals had chosen yet another European pope.
Catholic liberals who had longed for the election of a theological moderate were also disappointed to learn that, the new pope was the longtime prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith whose job was enforcing Catholic orthodoxy. There would be no discussion of women’s ordination, for example, when the architect of the current policy now leading the church.
No one knows for sure what was on the minds of the cardinals when they elected Ratzinger — and the survivors of that conclave are unlikely to ever tell us. Some things, however, seem clear.
Above all, the cardinals opted for continuity. No one was closer to John Paul theologically than Ratzinger, and in electing him, the cardinals signaled they were not interested in reversing course on Catholic teaching. With Ratzinger at 78, the cardinals also voted for what they expected would be a short pontificate that would allow the church to take a breath after the John Paul whirlwind and consider its future.
Other considerations may also have played a role. The new pope, like John Paul before him, was photogenic and seemed to be in good health, even if didn’t have John Paul’s warm persona. His first blessing in St. Peter’s Square stood in marked contrast with John Paul’s painful and silent last blessing on his last Easter Sunday.
In fact, ill health may have played an important, if unspoken, role in Ratzinger’s election. During the last years of John Paul’s life, the Vatican was largely adrift and the increasingly frail pope was too infirm to manage the business of the church with the vigor that had marked his early papacy. Ironically, ill health now plays a role in Benedict’s retirement.
Anyone might reasonably have concluded in 2005 that Ratzinger, because of his long experience in Rome, could bring the unwieldy and bumbling bureaucracy of the Catholic Church under firmer control. Unfortunately, under Benedict the Vatican has lurched from one managerial crisis to the next.
The new pope was first, last, and always a teacher. He loved to read fresh interpretations of the Bible and to savor an evening alone, reading St. Augustine in Latin. But he was always, alas, a weak manager of personnel.
If Benedict has any regrets as he nears the end of his pontificate, it may be tied up in the name he chose. The last Pope Benedict (1914-1922) was a peacemaker, who attempted to end World War I. Maybe the choice of this name, in 2005, was a signal that the new Pope Benedict would have liked to be a peacemaker as well — a reconciling figure, who attempted to bridge the deep divisions within the Catholic Church that threatened to compromise its mission and witness in the world.
Unfortunately for Benedict’s aspirations, the deep divisions in the church still remain. Addressing them is now the business of Benedict’s successor.
(David C. Steinmetz is the Distinguished Professor Emeritus of the History of Christianity at Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C.)
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