Another Perspective

Conversing With Pope Benedict

So much to talk about.

By 2.17.09

Send to Kindle

Personally I never met the pope, Benedict XVI, nor any of his predecessors. I would have liked to talk to them. John Paul II is one of the titans of the past century, one of the principal causes of the collapse of Soviet communism and its accompanying imperialism, and he was a man of deep faith and a writer, a poet, a man you'd want to know. In a conversation with him, there could be no false notes, talking to him would be as rich an experience as -- another man I wish I'd known -- talking with Rabbi Menachem Schneerson.

I know this sounds a little trite, but seriously, there are only so many people you can meet and since you cannot meet them all and even if you meet them you and they may not have the time (but why not?) for the conversation you hoped for, you have to learn to find in everyone the riches you would have liked to find in famous people you never got to know. Dostoevsky knew Tolstoy and said some of his richest encounters were with ordinary criminals he met in Siberia, when he was imprisoned and exiled out there. I am not partial to famous people or anything like that. I just meant I would have liked to know Schneerson, and Karol Wojtyla.

Benedict interests me, among other reasons, because he is the first German pope since, I believe, the late Middle Ages. I am not sure there were any German popes in the high Middle Ages. There was a Holy Roman Empire, which was run by Germans, and they were often in conflict with the popes, who were usually Italian.

You must not generalize, even with regard to the Irish, with whom I have some acquaintance thanks to Mr. Tyrrell and Mr. McElhone, whose sister-in-law, Mrs. Maggie Gallagher, was my neighbor and the loveliest soul on that decrepit New York block I used to live on. I never generalize about anybody, even Nigerians. It is a fact, however, that as to the Germans of a certain generation, of which Benedict XVI, partakes, you perhaps cannot generalize but you can ask. You can ask where and when and what.

Well, as it happens, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, former archbishop of Munich, is, by the historical record, a good and honest man, I will not say a holy man because then you get into all these controversies and I do not want to inadvertently say anything that might offend my Baptist friends, some of whom I have to admit are kind of anti-papist and I would even say irrationally so. You could not have the Baptist faith were it not for the Catholic faith, but try to explain that to them. I say let bygones and the 95 Theses and all that be bygones, okay for the University of Chicago Divinity School bigheads, but we, we can all come together, we can all come together and be in solidarity, at least until we disagree, as the Republicans so nobly did the other day with regard to the latest Washington pork barrel. Especially given their own record as porkers.

This is his record: Hitler youth at 14 -- all 14-year-old German boys were automatically enrolled -- and stint in the army in the last year of the war, then a life devoted to the service of his Church and his fellow-man. Learned and polyglot, an academic and an intellectual as well as a community organizer as active priests perforce must be. A conservative in a conservative institution -- I am not neglecting the worker-priests, the theology of liberation, the option of the poor, the men who served with the Abbé Pierre in France and the Emmaus organization, but generally and without undue generalizations, I follow Mr. McElhone in viewing the Catholic Church as a conservative organization. Mrs. Gallagher and I used to discuss this matter. "It is a fine and grand thing," I would say, and sometimes her gentle laughter sounded just a bit like a snicker. But more specifically, Cardinal Ratzinger, as bishop and as head of the doctrine department at the Vatican, which is sort of like the editorial page at the Wall Street Journal I suppose, always came down on the conservative side.

So I think and my sources tell me basically and obviously it is none of my business, but I think he favored the Latin mass. As personally I do too, not as a Catholic, since I am not, but as a teacher. Anything that advances literacy I am in favor of and let me tell you, state and local guidelines requiring the teaching of Latin in our public schools would do a lot more for literacy, and cost a lot less -- and be a lot less destructive of our educational institutions -- than the No Child Left Behind Act, Titles one two and three, and every other boneheaded reform idea that since the Great Society has sprung from the pork-lined brains of education racketeers.

Benedict also favors the Tridentine Mass, which is not highly regarded among Jews because of an appeal for their conversion (to Christianity.) Frankly, I never mind non-coercive arguments that I should change my ways. You always do what you want, anyway, and you are always trying to sell people or this or that, so what's the big deal? More profound, it seems to me, is the issue of just what Benedict thinks of the Jews, and what he thinks is this: no Jews, no Christians. This is standard Catholic doctrine, I believe. It is also a deep reflection on history and on the nihilistic trends in modern history.

And yet, it is also the case that the Tridentine Mass seems to find favor with people like Richard Williamson, an English bishop whom Benedict XVI recently rehabilitated, touching off a scandal. The man had been excommunicated many years ago. He was a supporter of the schismatic and possibly heretical -- what do I know? -- bishop of Dakar, Marcel Lefebvre. They opposed most of the currents of thought and liturgical and institutional reform given expression during Vatican II. Well, disagreement is the stuff of progress, but it was more than that. They also seemed to always get enmeshed with underground networks that harbored Nazis. This was not a cause and effect relationship, but you still knew these were not pleasant people. They were, are to the degree they still are around, anti-Semites.

Why rehabilitate Williamson? Internal Church politics? Possibly. Benedict wants to cover his right flank. Keep in mind that the effort to bring the anti-Vatican II Catholics led by Lefebvre (who died almost 20 years ago) back into the fold is not news. John Paul II made some stabs in that direction. If the Church finds it possible to make a decision to heal this particular breach, can it discriminate on the basis of whether or not you are cuckoo (and despicable) with regard to the gas chambers? In other words, if you say the priests who were excommunicated due to their adherence to Bishop Lefebvre's anti-Vatican II views (technically, if I am not mistaken, they were sanctioned because they were ordained by him) are now being tentatively welcomed back, then logically other issues are… other issues. It would not make sense to say some are rehabilitated but others are not -- the whole rehabilitation would seem capricious, whereas clearly the whole effort over the past three or four decades has been to come to terms on a number of doctrinal issues, not historical issues. I plan to defer to Mr. McElhone on this one, or my old teacher Bernard McGinn, but at least that is how it strikes me as a problem of logic.

Anyway, maybe it has to do with nothing of the kind, Benedict is simply feeling charitable, a normal, I gather, normative, Christian attitude, and since he was being kind to some of these guys, he felt he had to be kind to all of them. As a Church matter, by the way, it is of some importance. The Lefevrists number about 500 priests and while that is not a mass movement, it is not negligible, either. However, it was kind of insensitive, since Richard Williamson is a Holocaust-denier. Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, was understandably outraged. It was bad enough under any circumstances, and I do not think she had in mind these ancient quarrels of papacy and empire, but with the pope a German, she could not remain silent. So she did not. She is Lutheran, daughter of a Lutheran pastor, and you have to admit the Lutherans always have been good at telling the papists what-for, so that was fine. However, the pope has made it quite clear that he finds Holocaust-denial repugnant, mendacious, and sick. He is due to visit Israel in a few months and doubtless will make his position clear again then.

Meanwhile, what is going on in the world is that we see state-sponsored anti-Semitism in Venezuela, anti-Semitic vandalism in France and elsewhere in Europe. Israel is condemned in international institutions without regard for civilization as we know it. The test of an institution, a nation's foreign policy, a school system's credibility, a community's commitment to liberty, is whether it takes seriously the fight between freedom and tyranny. In the present time, this fight takes many forms but one of the most desperate concerns Israel's survival. The position you take on this matters more than catfights within your own house, however revealing these may be. I would very much like to talk to Benedict XVI. We would talk about our mutual affiliations. We could talk about European civilization and Israel and the editorial line of the Suddeutscher Zeitung, the big Munich paper. We could talk about Robert Musil and Thomas Mann, Günter Grass, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, André and Magda Trocmé.

We could return to the subject of his visit to Israel, whom he met there, what he saw, what he enjoyed or disliked. I believe Mr. Tyrrell is working on getting me Vatican press credentials and then we'll try to set up an interview. It would be better to just run into him in the cafeteria, but you know how these things work.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

Roger Kaplan, a Washington-based writer, covers the Middle East and Africa (and tennis) for The American Spectator.