A version of this essay ran in the German newspaper Die Welt.
As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger remakes himself as Benedict XVI, by what measure will he be judged a success or a failure? What is the great crisis that awaits him? As the papal conclave concludes its deliberations, I find myself thinking back to a moment in my own Catholic past when, as a young Jesuit seminarian, I was recruited in Berlin to deliver documents from the Second Vatican Council to a priest in Prague whom Paul VI had secretly named a bishop. Along with the Latin documents, I smuggled in a West German radio without the signal-jamming device that rendered all Czech-built radios useless for monitoring Western broadcasts. My own country, which chose not to intervene when East Germans and Hungarians rebelled in the 1950s, seemed then to have conceded Central Europe (which we Americans wrongly called Eastern Europe) to the Soviet Union. The Catholic Church had made no such concession. I was proud to take my stand with the church.
By the early 1970s, however, I was back in the United States and on my way out of the church. In 1968, setting aside the considered advice of a commission he'd convened to review the matter, Paul VI had declared all forms of artificial contraception to be as sinful as murder in the encyclical Humanae Vitae. In a public debate about the encyclical that became a moment of truth for me, Charles Davis, a British Catholic theologian, asked what part of the great Christian patrimony was available only under the auspices of the Roman Catholic Church? Would it be sacraments, scripture, monasticism, devotion to Mary? Patiently, Davis moved down a long list and easily showed that every item on it was available under other Christian auspices. The one exception was the pope-centered, intensely hierarchical Roman Catholic form of governance: Romanitá. It was this that made the Roman church not just Catholic but also Roman—and unique. But if Humanae Vitae had now demonstrated that this form of governance was harmful to the church and to the world, why would a serious Christian not look elsewhere?
Charles Davis did look elsewhere, but many Catholics continued to hope that the problem was not in the church's structure of governance but only in the anxiety-ridden personality of Paul VI. Surely the next pope would return to the trusting and open spirit of John XXIII, the pope of aggiornamento, the pope who famously said that he wanted to throw open the windows of the Vatican. John Paul II soon enough dashed all these hopes.
Today, the election of Ratzinger—a German and a conservative—is a clear answer to two questions asked as John Paul II slowly succumbed to Parkinson's disease. First, would the next pope's election prove comparable in geopolitical boldness to the choice of John Paul II? The news of John Paul II's election echoed with electrifying clarity from Lithuania to Croatia. The election of a Latin American, African, or even a Middle Eastern or Asian cardinal today could have equally electrified regions that are even more important to the church's future. But the cardinals chose instead to elect another European.
The second question was whether the church would liberalize its stance on sexual morality and whether, in particular, it would soon take the step of allowing artificial contraceptives—as it came close to doing in the mid-1960s, before Humanae Vitae. That 1968 encyclical reaffirmed ultraconservative sexual morality and reversed a trend toward collegiality in church government. Today, condoms have helped to slow the spread of AIDS in Brazil and elsewhere. But in Africa, where the AIDS crisis is worst, the church is identified more than ever with the most adamant opposition to the condom. Meanwhile, church governance remains more tightly centralized than ever. The election of Joseph Ratzinger announces that in both these regards—sexual morality and church governance—the status quo will remain unchanged.
How will ordinary Catholics greet the election of an elderly, conservative, European pope? I find myself thinking back to 1979. When John Paul II made a typically spectacular visit to Chicago that year, I heard a sad little story from my mother. A cousin of mine, a widow with five children whose life was a long struggle with poverty, had been thrilled to hear that she would be among the lay Eucharistic ministers who would distribute Holy Communion when the pope celebrated an outdoor Mass in Grant Park. * For years, she had cherished nothing more than her weekly role in the liturgy. Every Sunday morning, reality receded for an hour as she put on a white surplice and assisted the priest in distributing the consecrated bread and wine. Doing this at the papal Mass, she said, would be the greatest moment of her life. But then a heartbreaking message arrived: In deference to the pope's sensibilities, no woman would be allowed to take part.
Television loves a star and is only too ready to turn the Catholic Church into a star vehicle. Television paid no attention to our cousin or to any of the other excluded women, much less to their children. The media in general blur "the faithful," a phrase they dearly love, into a single, undifferentiated, uniformly loyal mass, brushing aside dissent as a minor irritant. Yet 26 years of such snubs begin to add up. I am reminded, recalling this small episode, of a moment in the Gospel of Luke when Jesus prays: "I bless you, Father, Lord of heaven and of earth, for hiding these things from the learned and the clever and revealing them to little children." The Chicago hierarchy surely had clever and learned reasons why the women of the city could not be permitted to perform the same function in the presence of the pope that they would resume performing as soon as he left. But God may have revealed to those women and their children something about the church and its pope that he concealed from the archdiocesan authorities.
On the interminable train ride from Prague back to Rome, so many years ago, I read my way through The Clown,by the Catholic novelist Heinrich Böll. The novel tells the story of a Catholic man whose wife has left him for a more prominent Catholic, more active in the church, more interested in theology. How can she do this? the bereft husband asks. According to church teaching, she is and will always be his wife. If she had left him and the church as well, he could perhaps understand, but how can she leave him and insist on remaining in the church? Needless to say, his objections are met on all sides by suppressed smiles. The poor fellow becomes a pathetic joke, a clown in real life as well as by profession.
Heinrich Böll should be living now. When the allegiance of First World Catholics to the pope is steadily hollowed from the inside, when brilliant and loyal priests like moral theologian Charles Curran of the Catholic University of America or Jesuit Congressman Robert Drinan of Georgetown University Law Center * are cast aside without ceremony or apology (I mention just two American examples, but no Catholic country is without a few comparably dismaying cases), papal authority silently loses some of the strength that huge Catholic numbers once seemed to lend it.
A few years after Charles Davis, I left the Roman Catholic Church and became an Episcopalian. Those of us who left then have sometimes been faulted for making too much of a mere sexual controversy. Perhaps, but I have always seen us as more like Böll's clown, trying, pathetically, to take church authority seriously, exquisitely aware of the danger that by issuing ever more absolute prohibitions that are ever more widely ignored, the pope may only undermine his own authority. Benedict XVI, as we now know, has a lovely singing voice for a man of his years. But the question surely does arise: Is he singing to the choir?