The noted American Catholic theologian Maureen Dowd has already served up the official talking points for the first wave of coverage of Pope Benedict XVI. This pretty much covers the terrain, which the MSM is covering with various degrees of depth and balance. Ready?
The white smoke . . . signaled that the Vatican thinks what it needs to bring it into modernity is the oldest pope since the 18th century: Joseph Ratzinger, a 78-year-old hidebound archconservative who ran the office that used to be called the Inquisition and who once belonged to Hitler Youth. For American Catholics -- especially women and Democratic pro-choice Catholic pols -- the cafeteria is officially closed. After all, Cardinal Ratzinger, nicknamed "God's Rottweiler" and "the Enforcer," helped deny Communion rights to John Kerry and other Catholic politicians in the 2004 election.
Has the Roman Catholic Church actually established a civil right to receive Communion? I thought that was linked, somehow, with going to confession and being in union with the Church's teachings. In other words, I think bishops and cardinals and folks like that do have a historic role to play in deciding who is OK and who is not OK.
But I digress. The key theme in much of the early coverage has been the new pope's status as an anti-modern thinker, which would make him a pre-modern thinker.
The irony, of course, is that this man comes out of the heart of liberal Catholic academia in the spiritually chilly confines of modern Europe. The man knows modernity inside out and probably speaks pretty fluent postmodernism, to boot. In other words, he is a traitor to his class.
The smoking-gun document in all of these discussions is the remarkable sermon -- a true statement, even if you hated it -- that then-Cardinal Ratzinger preached immediately before the start of the conclave. Here is the money quote:
How many winds of teaching we have known in these last decades, how many ideologies, how many ways of thinking. . . . The little vessel of thought of many Christians has often been rocked by these waves -- hurled from one extreme to another: from Marxism to liberalism, to the point of libertinism; from collectivism to radical individualism; from atheism to a vague religious mysticism; from agnosticism to syncretism and so forth. New sects are born every day and we see what Saint Paul says in terms of human trickery and cunning that tends to lead to error (cf Eph 4:14). To have a clear faith, according to the Creed of the Church, is often labelled as fundamentalism. While relativism, i.e. letting oneself be "swept along by any wind of doctrine", seems to be the only up-to-date way to behave. A dictatorship of relativism is taking shape which recognizes nothing as definite and for the ultimate measure is simply one's own self and its desires.
We, instead, have another measure: the Son of God, the true man. He is the measure of true humanism.
If you are looking for sympathetic commentary on the new pope, his beliefs and where those beliefs came from, you might want to check out this essay by Pope John Paul II biographer George Weigel, posted at the Ethics & Public Policy Center's homepage. Here is his take on the whole pre-modern issue, which notes what I predict is the main theme in the next, more serious, wave of coverage -- this pope and his take on the spiritual crisis of modern Europe and, thus, the future of North America:
Benedict XVI has long been concerned that the West risks the possibility of a new Dark Age. What he described in a sermon on the day before his election as a new "dictatorship of relativism" is one dimension of the problem. If there is only "your truth" and "my truth" and nothing that we understand as "the truth," then on what principled basis is the West to defend its greatest accomplishments: equality before the law, tolerance and civility, religious freedom and the rights of conscience, democratic self-governance? If the only measure of us is us, isn't the horizon of our aspiration greatly foreshortened? (And if you want to see what that kind of metaphysical and spiritual boredom can do to a once-great civilization, look around Western Europe, where self-absorption and a stubborn resistance to saying that anything is "true" has led a continent to the brink of demographic suicide.)
Weigel notes one event for the media to carve on the calendar as a must -- World Youth Day, in Pope Benedict's homeland. That is 117 days away, according to the event's press-friendly homepage.
The other must-cover scene has not been put on the calendar yet, but I think it is safe to assume it will come relatively soon. If it does not, then that is a huge story.
Think about it: What will this pope say when he addresses a gathering of European Union leaders? This is the mind behind the Vatican's harsh critique of the EU's entire approach to faith, secularism and the post-Christian reality of Europe. Watch for that tense media dance to begin -- pronto.
We thought this conclave would center on the Third World. It may end up sending shock waves -- if modern Catholicism still has the power to trigger shock waves -- through postmodern or pre-Muslim Europe.