By James Hitchcock

The election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as pope, although often predicted, came as a surprise, particularly because of the speed with which the cardinals reached their decision. Conventional wisdom considered him “controversial”, which was thought sufficient to prevent his election.

The address that Cardinal Ratzinger gave to the cardinals at the beginning of the Conclave, if it was a campaign speech, was a highly unusual one, in that it offered no concessions, did not hint at compromise, merely proclaimed in effect, “If you see the situation facing the church in the way I do, then perhaps I am suitable to be pope.” He did not seek, and certainly did not want, the papacy under any other terms.

In a religiously ignorant culture, a condition that affects most church-members as well as the unchurched, it is almost impossible to get beyond the “bottom lines”: will the new pope agree to ordain women, rescind Humanae Vitae, accept homosexuality?, etc. Without quite formulating it in that way, the new popeÕs critics in effect demand that he simply conform the church to modern culture, that he acquiesce in the programs of various dissident constituencies, and that, to the degree that he fails to do this, is actually unfaithful to his duties.

Cardinal Ratzinger, one of the most important Catholic theologians of the late twentieth century, was intellectually the best qualified man to be pope, and he defines his role in a way exactly opposite to that of his critics: a confrontation with modern culture in order to assert the primacy of the Gospel in all aspects of human affairs. Such a confrontation need not be abrasive, although it may often have to be, but it does recognize that the values of the world are in many ways in fundamental conflict with the Gospel and that the world always needs redemption.

In general, modern intellectuals conceive their role in the world as that of being antithetical to enduring truths. They are predominantly men of the left, in the broadest sense of that term. This is true of many Christian intellectuals as well, and some of the harshest criticisms of the new pope come from professional theologians who regard him as a kind of traitor, a member of the theologiansÕ guild who broke ranks.

But if intellectuals are habitual dissidents, and if it can be said that often they are incapable of governing in practical situations, it is also true that the needs of the time require that the leader of the church be a kind of intellectual. While practical men can recognize specific disorders when they encounter them, only an intellectual can see the whole cultural pattern, the way in which the disorders of modern civilization are emanations of deeply rooted and systemic patterns.

Some of those who oppose Benedict XVI can see this very well and have simply thrown in their lot with modernity in all its manifestations. Most, however, reject his judgments about modern civilization because they have not thought about it nearly as deeply as he has. For forty years it has been customary in the media to equate “thinking Catholics” with dissenters, and the new pope annoys his critics in part because they cannot dismiss him as intellectually deficient. Not only he is more learned and intelligent than practically all of his critics, he also understands modernity better than they do.

I met the new pope about thirty years ago, before he was a bishop, at an editorial meeting in Munich of the international journal Communio. I recall a modest and friendly man, for all his formidable intellect. Communio was founded by the Swiss theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar, probably the single most important Catholic theologian of the twentieth century, and it is significant that now two popes in succession have been men who in some sense could be considered Balthasar’s intellectual colleagues, even in important ways his disciples.