Reading room > A Great and Able Successor

1 Aug 2005

A close collaborator of Pope Benedict’s believes the pontiff’s simplicity, humility and effectiveness as a teacher will help him and inspire others

David L. Schindler, dean of the Knights of Columbus-backed Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America, met Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger 20 years ago in September. Since then, they have worked together on several projects, and Cardinal Ratzinger was a guest lecturer at the John Paul II Institute in Washington, D.C. Columbia asked Dean Schindler for some insights into who Pope Benedict XVI is and what Catholics and the world might expect from his papacy.

COLUMBIA: You have known Pope Benedict XVI for several years and collaborated with him. Can you describe when you first met him and what your working relationship is now?

SCHINDLER: I was first introduced to then-Cardinal Ratzinger in September of 1985, on the occasion of a celebration he hosted at Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome, in honor of Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar’s 80th birthday. Balthasar was a theologian much loved by both John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger. At the birthday celebration, Ratzinger and Balthasar each talked in appreciation of the other’s work. Because of the tensions of that time associated with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s (CDF) teaching on liberation theology, then at the height of its influence in Latin America, Balthasar’s words of friendship for Ratzinger were particularly moving.

These two men had a long friendship and collaboration; in 1972, together with French theologian Henri de Lubac and others, they founded the theological journal Communio, which now has editions in 14 countries. The Polish edition was brought about by the archbishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla. My own contact with Cardinal Ratzinger over the years was through Balthasar and in association with Communio, of which I became editor of the North American edition in 1982. The American edition of the journal, now housed at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, has published some 40 articles by Ratzinger over the years. Ratzinger lectured in Washington at the institute in 1991 and delivered the keynote address on the 20th anniversary of Communio in Rome a year later.

What is the idea behind Communio and what role might it play as Benedict’s papacy unfolds?

To put it in the simplest terms, Communio was founded in the wake of the controversies that followed the Second Vatican Council, to help Catholics clarify the meaning of their faith and of human existence itself in light of the teachings of the council.

The term “communio” captures in a summary way the authentic meaning of Vatican II, which is to recover the centrality of the reality of God in the Church and in our lives. That may seem a strange way to put it. But there has been a tendency to think of the Church as something we construct and we make up, as though the People of God were a kind of democratic congregation. The Church, on the contrary, is first a “convocation,” from the Latin for “being called.” The Church is first called into being by God. This being-called is a being-called to share in the divine life of God revealed in Jesus Christ as a Trinity, a communion of persons. Man is created, in Jesus Christ, in the image of this communion, and thus in the image of love.

The point, then, is that all of creation is a gift from God meant to reveal God as love. The call to holiness emphasized at the council is a call to realize this meaning of God as love, and of our own reality as a gift from God, and to respond in gratitude. Mary is the archetype of this holiness. The missionary task of the Church, responsibility for which is now also assumed in a special way by laypersons, is to build a God-centered civilization of love and culture of life. All of this is implied in “communio.”

Theologian Joseph Ratzinger, who, although he was only in his mid-30s, served as an adviser at the council to Cardinal Josef Frings of Cologne, emphasized these themes already at the council. We can trust that he will continue to do so as pope.

Many commentators have tried to compare him to Pope John Paul II, noting their close working relationship during John Paul’s papacy. Do you see similarities in their backgrounds or styles? What have you noticed immediately that marks him as his own man?

I’ll start by stating the obvious: John Paul II and Benedict XVI follow the same Gospel and believe the same creed. They had a close personal relationship, and their community of theological vision is profound. But within that deep unity, of course, each is his own person. John Paul II was comfortable before crowds, whereas Benedict XVI is more reserved. What is striking about Benedict’s person is his simplicity, his humility, his almost childlike wonder at things. All of this will become evident, and people will find it attractive.

Benedict XVI is very much a teacher, but he is effective as a teacher not just because of his intelligence but because of his self-effacing nature, which is what undergirds and makes possible his firm but gentle courage in defending the integrity of the faith. He is never defensive because he has no ego to protect. What he defends is not himself but the faith he has received and the Church he is meant to serve. His serenity is palpable, and I think that is a large part of what moved people about his celebration of the funeral Mass of John Paul II. We will see more of his genuine humanity and his remarkable gift for friendship.

Cardinal Ratzinger’s pre-conclave homily, with its reference to the “dictatorship of relativism,” has drawn ongoing discussion. Why is what he said important and what, if anything, do you think that statement means for such issues as the separation of church and state and the role of Christians in the public square?

First, what is interesting to note is the act of courage involved in making a statement of such clarity and strength in that context, in which it was sure to attract the attention of the media and the world. Benedict showed his characteristic willingness to make unwavering judgments about the meaning of the Catholic faith and to speak forthrightly about our profound cultural problems.

Some want to interpret a statement like this as implying an intrusion of the Church into matters of state. The pope certainly accepts the legal separation of the institutions of Church and state as a legitimate development in the Church’s understanding. He understands, however, that this does not imply a separation of faith from life, especially public/political life.

The theme of relativism is one that Joseph Ratzinger has returned to often over the years. In his recent statement he is referring to the increasing incapacity of our age to see that authentic freedom involves being bound to a truth that transcends myself. Relativism does not acknowledge any such truth because this being-bound seems to restrict my freedom. But when we deny that freedom is committed to something — some truth — outside of oneself, freedom necessarily swings back and becomes self-centered. Here we see the link between relativism and consumerism and all forms of selfish hedonism.

Cardinal Ratzinger’s warning about the “dictatorship of relativism” is only a restatement of John Paul II’s statement in The Gospel of Life that contemporary democracies are in danger of inverting into a form of totalitarianism by marginalizing all who say that there is a truth. Without objective truth, there is no safeguard for the weakest in society. Thus relativists, in the name of compassion, end up imposing themselves on the voiceless, those who do not have the strength to speak for themselves and defend themselves. It is not surprising that, in relativist societies, we find widespread abortion, euthanasia and the like.

In this context, we can see why the pope, as Cardinal Ratzinger, made it clear that things like cloning and embryonic stem cell research represent the greatest dangers of our time. In fact, he identified these recently as “weapons of mass destruction.”

What kind of significance do you put in his choice of names? It invokes St. Benedict, the co-patron of Europe, who battled the secularizing forces of Europe in his day, and Pope Benedict XV, who reigned during the first modern war and tried to bring peace to the world.

One of the first things that came to mind when Pope Benedict’s name was announced was the well-known statement of Notre Dame professor Alasdair MacIntyre that our age needs a new St. Benedict, one who both understands the gravity and the roots of our cultural problems and who has the capacity to lead us in the face of these problems. We have this man in Benedict XVI. As he has stated, the crisis we face today is not only about this or that particular problem but about the foundations of truth and morality: Who is man? Who is God? What is the meaning of existence? St. Benedict responded to the problems of his own day by founding a monastery, not to withdraw from the world but to recuperate a life in community in a way that would assist in preserving and transforming the tradition of Western culture. It is well known that the Benedictines transmitted and indeed rescued so much of the ancient cultural inheritance, transforming this through a life of prayer and service to the Church. Our age also requires some similar transformation of culture in light of the Gospel, some way of preserving what is authentically human. The form this will take in our own age is not necessarily a new monastery but some renewed form of a life of holiness directed to the revitalization of civilization.

Looking at his coat of arms, he replaced the traditional papal tiara with a bishops’ miter with three stripes representing the Church’s mission to teach, sanctify and govern. Will Benedict’s papacy be more “administrative” than devotional?

The replacement of the tiara with the bishop’s miter seems to indicate an emphasis on the pastoral character of the papacy. Following his election he stressed that the pope is the servus servorum Dei, which emphasizes his presence among the bishops as bishop, as the “servant of the servants of God.” Also striking, in the homily of the inaugural Mass, is the fact that Pope Benedict, always the teacher, took the time to explain the pallium, which is the characteristic liturgical insignia of the pope, but which does not usually appear on other papal coats of arms. The pallium symbolizes the yoke of Christ, and in particular the shepherd’s mission. Made of lamb’s wool, it represents the lost sheep the shepherd carries, the weak and the sick and the abandoned. Pope Benedict is a man who does not say things lightly or without reflection, and we can take it from the example of the pallium that he intends his pontificate to be quite the opposite of “administrative,” with its usual connotations.

In his first Sunday noon blessing and remarks on May 1, he spoke about the need for peace, especially in Africa. He defended workers’ rights, a traditional theme for the feast of St. Joseph the Worker. And he also talked about the need for unity among Christians and the need for dialogue and evangelization in the spirit of Vatican II. Do you think these are themes that will mark his papacy?

It is appropriate, in considering the thought of Benedict XVI, to see the link among the various themes you raise, the intrinsic relation between the problems of the world and unity among Christians. Social problems ultimately have a theological and spiritual dimension. A new evangelization is necessary in the face of such problems, and this task entails renewing man’s relationship with the Creator and Redeemer of reality and allowing his Gospel to penetrate the structures of our culture. But we cannot have a new missionary task without recovering the unity among Christians themselves. As asked in John Paul II’s encyclical Ut Unum Sint and constantly repeated by Cardinal Ratzinger — What hope can Christianity hold out to the world when it remains divided re-garding the meaning of Christ and his cross, and thus regarding the final meaning of existence? People will see in Benedict XVI a depth of understanding and also a clarity that derives from his patience and courage and that does not impair but rather heightens his openness. We will be surprised by what he is able to do in the area of ecumenism.

As dean of the John Paul II Institute, the themes of marriage and family are particularly important for you. What do you expect from Pope Benedict with regard to these themes?

Pope Benedict has the same fundamental mentality as John Paul II with regard to the importance of marriage and family. If communion is at the heart of reality, it only makes sense to look to the basic human community in and through which every one of us is born into reality. It is in the warmth and love of parents that we come to know the deepest sense of reality as a matter of love and gift. And what is a child if not a revelation of being itself as a gift from another? If the integrity of the family is destroyed, we will lose the proper understanding of what it means to be a creature, of the human person as the image of (Trinitarian) love. Pope Benedict emphasized all of this in his June 6 address to the Ecclesial Congress of the Diocese of Rome regarding marriage and family. Without the family’s sense of love and gift, we can have no civilization of love or culture of life.

This August he will travel to his homeland for World Youth Day. What do you expect will happen?

Along with everyone else, I hope that this will be an occasion for the renewal and revitalization of the Church and of Christianity in Germany. I hope that there will be an outpouring of joy and gratitude in the German people at seeing one of their own as pope, that they will be moved to ponder anew the meaning of their faith. This will be an opportunity for thousands from all over the world to meet Pope Benedict, whose comments, in their gentleness, have already made his love for young people transparent. Surely the youth of the world will welcome him as a great and able successor to John Paul II.

Tim S. Hickey is editor of Columbia.

Tim S. Hickey - Editor of the Knights of Columbus Columbia magazine