Catholics across the tired old left-right spectrum — a dichotomy much disdained by sophisticated observers, yet somehow apropos — were astounded at the election of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI last month. Yes, one or two optimists predicted this. But we who knew better humored them indulgently, and prepared ourselves for a centrist Italian who smiled a lot and called himself John Paul III.
As Benedict emerged from the balcony of St. Peter’s, stricken liberal clerics were actually seen by friends of this writer turning on their heels and shaking their heads in disbelief.
Meantime, jubilant conservative bigwigs like Rev. Richard John Neuhaus and George Weigel celebrated that same night at Armando’s Ristorante on the Via Plauto, just down the street from Ratzinger’s old Vatican apartment. The new Pope had dined there himself the week before. Armando and his wife jested with their famous customer that he would be elected. “If I am,” he jested back in fine German style, “I won’t ever be able to come here again.”
Okay, let’s be frank: he’s not Jackie Mason.
Neither is he Pius XIII. A tone has already been set by Benedict — plus a giant hint of the substance of his pontificate, too. And it varies from the expectations of both left and right, no matter what the clueless Big Media types tell you (here we exempt Delia Gallagher of CNN from any criticism).
Let’s step back a second. First: the elation and sheer relief of the Catholic right at the sight of Benedict belied a tad their praise of John Paul II and all he was said to have “done.” The plain truth is that we all worried that despite John Paul’s personal goodness and media magnetism, the Church had been rudderless and tilting to port. Cardinals complained privately about this drift all the time.
Until the moment Benedict XVI emerged, the shock most of us were prepared to handle was a Third World pontiff. Not a Bavarian who spent the months before the conclave throwing down the gauntlet with rebukes about clerical abuse of children and the moral relativism killing Western society. Not a Bavarian just after a Pole.
So when Ratzinger himself emerged, we sensed (did we not?) dramatic changes to come — and curiously welcome changes, to those conservative Catholics who seemed so immensely pleased with John Paul II. That meant at a minimum some new faces in the papal entourage, for sure.
We are 30 days into Pope Ratzinger’s reign, and he has not been indecisive. Quick appointments, bearing out the cliche that personnel is policy.
So who is new, under Benedict? No one. It is the same team we had under John Paul. Everyone was asked to stay, the rough equivalent of a new president asking pre-election cabinet officers to stay on.
OH, BUT THERE IS ONE lone fresh face. The appointment of an unremarkable American archbishop from the Catholic wasteland of California (a confrere of Roger Mahony no less) with light scholarly credentials to the most important post in Rome, Ratzinger’s old job as prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. San Francisco’s William Levada came from nowhere to get that post. Leftist Jesuit chaplains of the Democratic Party groaned, naturally. But who is Levada, and why should they be upset?
Press reports that he is an old friend of Benedict’s or that he is a clone of the new Pope are as usual imprecise. Friend? He did work for Ratzinger 24 years ago, as a secretary, for less than two years. Comrades in arms? Certainly Levada is a company man, yes. But he gave the game away at a press conference after his appointment when he said that he would be more like God’s “cocker-spaniel” than his “rottweiler,” the nickname the press gave Ratzinger in that post.
Indeed, it is impossible to imagine Ratzinger as archbishop of Munich compromising on the question of giving benefits to homosexual couples under diocesan employ. Levada as archbishop of San Francisco cut a deal with Willie Brown on that issue. He weakly cast his capitulation to the city as an endorsement not of homosexuality but of wider health-care coverage. Nor is it thinkable that Benedict would have allowed the rector of his seminary in Munich to write scandalously about homosexuality. Levada’s rector, whom he had inherited from his disastrous predecessor John Quinn, did. “Some homosexual persons,” wrote Gerald Coleman, “have shown that it is possible to enter into long-term, committed and loving relationships, named by certain segments of our society as domestic partnership…I see no moral reason why civil law could not in some fashion recognize these faithful and loving unions with clear and specified benefits.”
Benedict XVI has already mapped out what he predicted would be a short pontificate. He has done so with his many books (Ignatius Press has them all in English, and they’re not dull), with several new addresses, and, not least, with personnel choices like the old team and William Levada.
Joseph Ratzinger is a man of many parts, a powerful mind with an astonishing memory and an ability, say friends, to listen to a group for an hour, then synthesize their points in whatever language they happen to be speaking. He is probably the most-credentialed pope in 1,500 years, with a far better resume than his predecessor at the time of his election in 1978.
So it may come as a surprise that, as the Levada choice has illustrated, the best description of Benedict from the political lexicon is a rather standard moderate, by which is meant that he is more than capable of factoring Church politics into his decisions.
THIS DOES NOT MEAN HIS pontificate will be like the presidency of Richard Nixon, full of half-measures, bobbing and weaving. But it is how to explain the Levada choice, which has baffled some who expected a tougher man.
My theory: during the conclave, Cardinal Ruini of Rome, said to have been the kingmaker, suggested to the crucially important American cardinals that the time had come for one of their own to be in one of Rome’s top two dicasteries. Naturally, Ruini would go on, the new Holy Father had to decide the details and it would be wrong, very wrong, for him to even mention this to his man during the conclave.
Were this arrangement to have taken hold in the imaginations of the American cardinals, they could well imagine that Ruini would also deliver the Italian vote. Not being a dumb man, Cardinal Ratzinger would have caught wind of these thoughts without ever speaking to Ruini and without ever feeling bound in conscience to implement any such plan.
And as long as none of those involved in the recent conclave felt bound or pressured, such arrangements are human and perfectly proper.
Ten years ago I had a long conversation with Cardinal Silvio Oddi, a power in the Vatican during the 1980s whose career was made by John XXIII and Paul VI. Oddi had participated in both 1978 conclaves and left little doubt that in the end he voted for Karol Wojtyla — but little doubt that he had others he voted for in previous ballots too. By the time we spoke, Oddi had retired, and among other things expressed his displeasure at having been frozen out of the next conclave (he was nearing 80). As long as we were being so frank, I put it to him bluntly about his mentor John XXIII’s election: had a deal been brokered whereby John would name X as his secretary of state?
“It is not forbidden,” Oddi replied in that wonderful Italian deadpan, confirming everything.
It is not forbidden. It is not terribly inspiring, either. But Benedict still is. More anon.