By James Hitchcock

Following the death of Pope John Paul II, I hoped that, whoever would be elected pope, it would not be a Western European. Although there are some outstanding prelates in Western Europe, the state of that culture seemed to me to make it unwise to make one of them pope.

The sole reason for this is the fact that the Western European Church is the most troubled of any part of the universal Church, in terms of a low (and continually declining) rate of Church attendance, religious vocations, and the acceptance of Catholic teaching. Western Europe, including the historically Catholic countries, now has the lowest birth rate in the world, and there is a pervasive secularity about the culture, as manifested in the refusal to include in the proposed European constitution an acknowledgement of Christianity as having been even a historical force in Western civilization. (Ironically, it now looks as though there may not even be a European Union, following the decisive rejection of that constitution by France and Holland.)

Those who disliked John Paul II, or at least his teachings (which were merely those of the Church itself), often attributed his “rigidity” to his being Polish, and it was indeed important that he was from Eastern, not Western, Europe, since he came from a country that had not been ravaged by the secularism of the West. Ironically, Communist rule in Poland helped preserve it from the worst aspects of modern Western culture.

I hoped that the new pope would not be from Western Europe because it seemed to me that Church leaders there over time accustomed themselves to presiding over what has to be viewed, in human terms, as a dying Church and that, perhaps unconsciously, they had imbibed a defeatist attitude that inhibited any bold proclamation of the faith. It seemed to me that it would instead be wise to elect an African or a Latin American, dramatic recognition of the fact that the future of the Church, insofar as we can see it, lies outside Europe.

But when it was announced that the new pope was a Western European, I, like many people, was ecstatic, because the man who became Benedict XVI seemed to me one of the few Western Europeans prepared to lead the Church at this time and that, paradoxically, his qualifications precisely grew out of the fact that he is a German intellectual.

Benedict’s critics sometimes regard him as a kind of traitor (less harshly, as someone who lost his nerve), because he is a highly accomplished theologian from the most theologically sophisticated country in the world (Germany) and at one time was considered a “liberal.”

And that is precisely the point. Because he is a German theologian, Pope Benedict understands the situation of the Church in the Western world better than perhaps any other person now alive. The things that made him at one time seem like a liberal — formidable intelligence, high culture, a vast knowledge of both Christianity and of secular thought — equips him to understand the modern world better than most non-Westerners. It is crucial to have an intellectual leading the Church at this time, because the great issues are, as they usually are, battles over ideas.

Put another way, Benedict was inoculated against the disease of secularism, which is farther advanced in Western Europe then anywhere else. He is a “traitor” because, while many of his fellow theologians embarked on the path of endless accommodation to the secular spirit, he understood quite early that this is a dead end. Thus he is one of the most acute diagnosticians of the modern spirit and of what is required to achieve genuine spiritual renewal.

Many pundits, in a spirit of ostensible good will, have been quick to advise the new pope that he “must” change various Church teachings (mostly having to do with sex), or lose Church members. No doubt, as the pope affirms Catholic teaching boldly, some people will indeed depart. But the pope realizes that the Church in Western Europe is in decline not because it is too reactionary but, on the contrary, because for decades it has been the most liberal Church in the world, and such a policy has had the catastrophic effect of robbing it of its spiritual vitality.

If I had seen an application from an unnamed person identified as a German theologian, he would have seemed to me the worst possible candidate for pope. But as it turns out, Joseph Ratzinger was exactly the man for the job.