‘Lord, do not send us the pope we deserve’

‘Lord, do not send us the pope we deserve’

Pope Benedict XVI’s surprise renunciation of the Chair of St. Peter generated a tsunami of commentary usually reserved for events such as a presidential election or a Super Bowl. The pope’s struggles with scandal dominated most stories, some of which noted that while these scandals were not of his own makings, they created an enormous burden for him.

The announcement has been greeted with dismay, resigned sadness, and hope in the pope’s admirers, Catholic and not. David Goldman, a.k.a. Spengler, wrote, "As the shepherd of the founding institution of the West, Benedict personally embodied its best traditions. He is one of the last men living to have assimilated the fullness of European culture, a member of the ‘heroic generation’ of Catholic theologians that included Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar."

The analysis of Benedict’s papacy will roll on in the run-up to the conclave that will select his successor, and long beyond. The world’s fascination with this office suggests that a pope plays many roles with influence beyond the Roman Catholic Church.

One such role is diplomat. The Holy See is an international personality of long standing, recognized since the middle ages. (The State of the Vatican City is a more recent entity, established in the 1929 Lateran treaties to resolve the status of the pope and his former territories in Italy). The Holy See has its own diplomatic corps, formal relations with 179 countries (including the U.S. since the Reagan years), observer status at the UN, and it is to the Holy See and its head of state, the pope, that arriving ambassadors present their credentials.

Pope Benedict played this role effectively. Although some of his early trips were disturbed by awkward moments with the press, he learned. His 2008 visit to the United States, with stops in Washington and New York, was especially successful and was one of several encounters that cultivated a real friendship with President George W. Bush.

World leaders are eager to visit the pope. Certainly some of that eagerness is deference to Catholic constituencies at home. And, as probably the world’s biggest distributor of aid to the poor in every land, the Church has a hand in human development that gives it shared interests with both donor and recipient countries.

In other cases, the substance of the meetings is more geo-political, as the Church deals with the persecution and plight of Christians in China, the Middle East, Pakistan, and elsewhere; faces concerns about encroachments on religious liberty in the United States and Europe; pursues unity within Christianity, including especially with the Orthodox Churches; and generally seeks the space to continue its ministries and activities. The story of Cold War cooperation between President Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is well told in John O’Sullivan’s book, The President, The Pope, and the Prime Minister.

The Obama administration would be well served to consider all of this as it nominates a new ambassador to the Holy See, who will be received by a new pope.

But diplomat was not the role most cherished by Benedict. He was first a priest, second an intellectual force and phenomenally prolific theologian. He is one of the few people anywhere capable of debating, and changing the views of, a philosopher like Jurgen Habermas and co-authoring books with leading non-believing politicians such as Marcello Pera, former president of the Italian senate. Then a young priest, Benedict was a major influence in the Second Vatican Council and has spent much of his papacy clarifying the correct interpretation of that Council’s teaching. He has constantly emphasized the vital complementarity of faith and reason to overcome fundamentalist extremism and secular nihilism.

Perhaps Benedict’s most important legacy will be his writing during his papacy: his three volumes on the life of Jesus, his encyclical letters (especially Caritas in Veritate, or Love in Truth, and Spe Salvi, Saved in Hope) and his regular homilies. 

The betting has begun — literally and figuratively — on who will replace Benedict. The pope must be priest, teacher, diplomat, administrator, and reformer of a Church still recovering from self-induced tragedy and mismanagement, an arbiter of conservative and liberal viewpoints, authoritative yet gentle. As George Weigel writes in his recent book, Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st Century Church, no sane person wants the job, much like the American presidency. 

And as we look around us these days, those of us who are Catholics might recall the traditional prayer cited this week by David Warren: "Lord, do not send us the pope we deserve."