Maybe Big Ben's not so bad after all

BenedictThank you to all the readers who sent along their favorite or least favorite stories published this past weekend. There are too many to get to, but I'll begin with The New York Times Sunday Magazine's cover story on Pope Benedict XVI. Good timing on that piece, as it ran on Easter Sunday. The author is Russell Shorto, who has written previously for the magazine on people who oppose contraception and people who oppose gay marriage. Both of those pieces took a liberal view not out of place in the Sunday Magazine. But Shorto is a good writer who researches his topics better than, well, the average New York Times Sunday Magazine author. Not that that's saying much. Anyway, I'm sure there are many legitimate quibbles or gripes with the piece, and I'm curious what readers thought about it, but color me impressed. The piece is long (8,294 words!) and covers so much. Its main focus is The Pope Formerly Known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's emphasis on the threat of secularism -- but it hits New (lay) Movements, Ratzinger's background and the worldly and church context into which Benedict speaks. I kept wishing each aspect was its own piece since Shorto took the time to read the Pope's speeches, visit actual congregations, and consider nuance. Shorto says Benedict's papal theme is that Europe is moving toward a dictatorship of relativism that recognizes nothing for certain. It's nice to see such a thoughtful retrospective on the second anniversary of his election, and one that doesn't bring out the tired old tropes.

It must be said that Shorto seems only to know how to contact liberals since they are more or less the only people quoted in the piece. That's a deficit. He also seems to continue with his "theological conservatives are wacky" approach, but I don't mind that so much since he is explaining them to an audience that doesn't naturally understand them:

"Dogma" wasn't a dirty word -- it was the ground. "Dogma was conceived not as an external shackle but as the living source that made knowledge of the truth possible in the first place," he wrote in his memoirs. Ratzinger rose rapidly through the ranks of Bavaria's intensely rigorous Catholic institutions, holding the chairmanship in dogma at the University of Regensburg from 1969 to 1976, until he was appointed archbishop of Munich and Freising and his career focus shifted toward Rome.

It's just so funny to me. The assumption that dogma -- meaning a a system of principles or tenets -- would ever be considered dirty. But on the other hand I appreciate that he quotes Ratzinger -- and quotes him well -- to provide an alternate view.

Here's another good sample from the piece. It shows the breadth and scope that Russo is trying to cram into this one article and it works around obstacles such as the Vatican's long-practiced refusal to grant interviews to reporters. It also demonstrates his reliance on liberal church figures and sums up the point of the piece:

As a longtime university professor, the pope is well known for his collegiality, his reaching out to, and exchanging ideas with, a broad spectrum of Catholics as well as with nonbelievers. This may explain why, despite the fact that his core conservative convictions are unchanged, he has managed to get many left-leaning church figures to rally around his central focus. Notker Wolf, abbot primate of the worldwide Benedictine order, himself a Bavarian who has known the pope for decades, was critical at the start, based on Ratzinger's actions in his previous job. But Wolf, too, was won over. As we sat in the serene Sant'Anselmo monastery on the Aventine Hill in Rome, which serves as the headquarters of the Benedictines, he distilled the pope's core message for me this way: "Western society has become detached from the roots of its creator. This is the basic view of the pope, and it is my view also. What the Muslims say about the decadence of Europe is partly right, and that's because we think we have to set up everything as if God doesn't exist. On the other hand, faith also has to be reasonable -- it has to stand in front of reason. I would say that he means this not just regarding terrorism but also charismatics. He says we have to remain sober in this religious way of thinking. The old Occidental tradition has been a fruitful tension between faith and reason."

There is much to analyze in a piece that long, and there were aspects that I found troubling, such as the supposed conflict between Ratzinger as chief enforcer of doctrine versus Benedict as Pope. Ratzinger was "God's Rottweiler," of course, while Benedict is nice and broad-minded. First off, I'm not sure there's as much of a difference there as some like to see it. I think the fact is that people in the mainstream media didn't know Ratzinger terribly well when he was chosen as Pope and now they know him better. But even if there is a difference, I think some context is in order. The job of the doctrinal enforcer is different than that of the Pope. Is the dichotomy between upholding doctrine and being loving or evangelical false? At the very least I think it shouldn't be assumed.

I loved the piece's broad and sweeping scope, but that was also its major problem. It seemed to lack a bit of focus or enough details on each of the subsets. But there is also a sense that the stories were shoehorned into the piece. But you'll have to go read it. All 8,300 words of it. There are fascinating tidbits about Benedict's interest in the schism with the Orthodox, as well as a look at how the Vatican has continued to handle priestly sex scandals. Read it and let us know what you think.

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