While Pope Benedict was visiting the U.S. in 2008, I was doing a radio interview during which I was asked the standard questions about the pope’s personality and how he compared to John Paul II. I tried to give an appropriate sound bite, but I went on a little too long. The radio interviewer cut me off and ended the segment by saying, “Well, I think everyone wishes we had John Paul II back.”
That seems to be the conventional wisdom now that Benedict XVI’s papacy is ending. While people look at Benedict with respect, they really loved John Paul II. Surveys confirm this attitude among most rank and file Catholics.
And so, while Benedict has served in the Chair of Peter for almost eight years, he still is leaving under John Paul’s shadow.
In my teaching and writing, I always try to challenge conventional wisdom—usually in the self-important way that professors are prone to do. But in this case, I can honestly say that I prefer Benedict XVI’s papacy to John Paul II’s.
Karol Wojtyla was elected to the papacy when I was beginning high school. He had a dramatic flair from the start and soon my bedroom wall was covered with his pictures—he was the Catholic equivalent of Elvis.
As I got older, I actually began to read his writings. Although I struggled with his complex philosophizing, I learned much from it. But what always impressed me most about John Paul was the mystical core of his spirituality: his Marian devotion, his love of the cross, and his underlying sense of the movement of God’s purpose over and through time.
Mystics can make impressive philosophers. Mystics also become great saints—as John Paul most certainly will. But they often are not best suited to the mundane administrative tasks of office. It was during John Paul II’s pontificate that the horrific scandal of the Legion of Christ reached a level of seriousness that could no longer be ignored. But ignored it was, and this was due in part to the fact that the order’s founder, Marcial Maciel Degollado, was a personal friend of John Paul’s. Mysticism can produce remarkable insights into the human condition, but it can also lead to naïveté and credulity.
The appointment of bishops under John Paul’s tenure also left much to be desired. John Paul insisted upon full conformity to the teaching authority of the church. While any pope would also insist upon the same qualities, the difficulty is that any commitment to orthodoxy must be informed by appropriate pastoral discernment—which is to say simply that there is an interpersonal quality to how a bishop should exercise his teaching office. But in the Western world, John Paul’s tenure was marked by an increasing distance of bishops from diocesan laity and by growing disputes over proper governance of the church on a local level.
When he was elected in 2005, Joseph Ratzinger inherited many of these problems. And many of them persist, particularly a dysfunctional Vatican bureaucracy. But to his credit, as Benedict XVI he did move to pursue the case against the Marcial Maciel and to investigate the Legion of Christ. The Pope has also spoken about the “humiliation of the church,” which is a far more open admission of the true nature of the sexual abuse scandal than was ever made during John Paul’s pontificate. Clearly, there is much work to be done, and it is also the case that early on, both as a bishop and a cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger failed to realize the extent of the crisis. But as Pope, Benedict has shown an ability to honestly grapple with the implications of the crisis, and many of the bishops and cardinals he has appointed have done so as well.
Benedict’s writings do not have the imaginative flair found in John Paul’s phenomenological investigations. But they have a clarity that forthrightly engages crucial questions of our time: the role of authority, the nature of truth, and the possibility of faith and hope. I do not agree with some of Benedict’s most dire assessments of our current age or the human condition. But I will say that his theology has prompted me to radically rethink my conventional assumptions about the continuing relevance of the Christian faith. Benedict’s encyclicals demand attention--and multiple readings--but by engaging them carefully, I have found a remarkably challenging teacher and dialogue partner. I find it particularly revealing that both Catholic conservatives and liberals have found much to criticize about Benedict and his papacy. Clearly, his theology and his personality call us to envision different configurations of the Catholic faith than are attractive to the most ideologically driven groups of Catholics in the Western world.
Benedict has also revolutionized the papacy in a different but no less significant way than John Paul II. As I have written numerous times, I was always struck by how Benedict included the bishop’s mitre on his coat of arms. I always understood this as a more humble interpretation of the papacy, especially when compared to associations that come with the imperious and regal tiara that is the usual symbol of the pope. Benedict has sometimes cut a rather uncomfortable figure on the international stage, but he placed his faith in the power of ideas rather than the power of his personality.
Catholics may long for a figure like John Paul II who joins the force of personality with the force of ideas. But all too often the force of personality comes to dominate and shut out everything else. Benedict XVI was particularly aware of this dynamic. Sometimes a human-sized Pope can provide a refreshing challenge to our expectations, as well as an important counter-balance to the larger-than -life quality of the papacy itself.