The election of Benedict XVI, a man of firm faith and great wisdom, has already come into question.
Many have asked why the college did not select a cardinal from the third world. Doing so may have signaled a new evangelization. The third world, however, is not where a new evangelization is needed. Two-thirds of the world’s Catholics are found south of the equator. The largest Catholic nation is Brazil. Catholicism in the third world is healthy, vibrant, and growing.
In one of Christendom’s great ironies, the land in the greatest need of evangelization is the land from which Christianity drew its greatest strength. Catholic populations in Europe are shrinking. The influence of Catholicism in Europe is diminishing. Europe, not the Third World, is in need of a new evangelization. Selecting a European pontiff may be the first step – Ratzinger’s selection of his papal name may be the second.
Some liken this choice to the last Benedict, a moderate in the early 20th century. It seems probable that the new pope had the first Benedict in mind. Saint Benedict revitalized Christianity throughout Europe with the development of monasteries and an intellectual Catholicism rooted in the academic and intellectual life. European Christianity was in crisis before the first Benedict and many say that the sixteenth faces a similar situation. Saving the church in Europe may be a more pressing concern than aiding the growth of an already growing church in Latin America and Africa.
Many have asked why the college did not select a cardinal that was more progressive. It would be inappropriate to debate the virtues of either conservatism or progressivism in this column, yet we must always be careful never to confuse religion with philosophy. Ours must be a faith of wisdom and not one of whim. As Benedict has said, “How many winds of doctrine have we known in recent decades, how many ideological currents, how many ways of thinking? We must become mature in this adult faith; we must guide the flock of Christ to this faith.” In the regions where Catholic leadership has steadfastly defended church teaching as revealed over the centuries, true membership has risen. In regions where Catholicism has deferred to secular inclinations, true membership has fallen. A pontiff must shepherd – not simply preside.
Many have asked why the college did not select someone as charismatic as John Paul II. While Benedict’s predecessor was revered and honored and will surely be acclaimed a saint, the church did not belong to him. There will be significant differences. Where John Paul II lacked brevity, Benedict XVI is concise. Where John Paul II was frequently tangential, Benedict XVI is crisp. Benedict XVI has a remarkable ability to capture the brilliance of his conservative, scholarly thought into efficient and enlightening prose.
There will also be similarities. Both were intellectuals and academics. Both were religiously conservative and personally warm. Both saw the horror of Nazism and utterly rejected it. Benedict has signaled a desire to begin a new dialogue with other faiths – John Paul II’s commitment to that dialogue was well understood.
For the sake of Europe and a world yearning for faith and a lost spirituality, for the sake of the defense of a faith worth defending and promulgating, and for the sake of a church at the dawn of a new day, we have been given precisely the pope that we need.
-The writer is a senior majoring in history.