Comment on the Comments
William Oddie Faith Magazine November – December 2011
A Year of Papal Caritas
Which of us predicted, reading the sermon delivered after the death of Pope John Paul by the then (but only just) Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, with its frontal attack on relativism and the secularisation of modern culture, that the secularists would come to respond as violently as over the last two years - in England, then in Madrid and Germany - they have done to this Pope's steadfast anti-secularism?
The sermon looked at the time almost like an election manifesto: this, he almost seemed to be saying, ought to be the message of the next Pope. "How many winds of doctrine", he asked, "have we known in the last ten years? How many ideological currents, how many fashions of thought?.... Having a clear faith based on the creed of the Church, is often labelled as fundamentalism. Meanwhile relativism, which is letting oneself be tossed and swept along by every wind of teaching, looks like the only attitude acceptable to modern standards." He described the Church as a "little boat of Christian thought" tossed by waves of "extreme" schools of modern thought - Marxism, liberalism, libertinism, collectivism and "radical individualism.... We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism whichdoes not recognise anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one's own ego and one's own desires...." Great stuff, it was, I thought; And that's what I was expecting from his pontificate.
What I was not expecting was that he would begin to be seen by the secularists as such a threat to them and their values. Most Popes in the last century and in this (even John Paul II, despite the vast geopolitical importance of his pontificate) have increasingly been seen as ultimately irrelevant to modern times: so obviously out of tune with modern values that their utterances could be regarded as self-destructive in terms of any influence Catholics might hope they would exert. And at first, it wasn't clear where Papa Ratzinger was going. Many secularists (and Catholic liberals) really did suppose for a time that the Pope's first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, indicated that after all, he would settle down to be a low key liberal Pope, utterly transformed from the"controversial" and abrasive Panzer Cardinal of former years.
The Tablet had gloomily expected from the encyclical a "hammering of heretics and a war on secularist relativism". Instead, the paper gushed, "he has produced a profound, lucid, poignant and at times witty discussion of the relationship between sexual love and the love of God, the fruit no doubt of a lifetime's meditation". So, what did The Tablet think had happened? Had there been a transformation? Was this a different Joseph Ratzinger?
And that really is what they all imagined, Catholic liberals and the secular press, too. What they expected now was to see the Catholic Church return to the spirit of the sixties, to be more 'open' to the values of the modern world (and thus less uncomfortably critical of them). One liberal English churchman said that Deus Caritas Est was a 'wonderful document', which was 'much ... less prescriptive than some past encyclicals ... We are seeing the substance of the man as a pastor and shepherd of the flock. A cuddly Benedict? Well, well'.
But there had been nothing unpastoral about Cardinal Ratzinger as prefect of the CDF when he said "no" to one egregious heresy after another. And now as pope, this was no soft-centred "cuddly Benedict"; this was exactly the same Joseph Ratzinger as he had always been. There was no contradiction: "Christianity", he had written, "is at its heart a radical 'yes,' and when it presents itself as a 'no,' it does so only in defence of that 'yes'."
It was, I suspect, at the point when the penny finally dropped, that this Pope was as anti-relativist and anti-secularist as he had ever been, and that the battle against the secularisation of the modern world was going to be the great work of his pontificate, that the secularists began to think of actually organising against him. For, it was now becoming clear that he was going to be a serious problem: he was beginning to be taken seriously. In this country, that became very evident when Gordon Brown invited him here on an actual state visit, not just a pastoral one. And so, Protest the Pope (remember Protest the Pope?) was cobbled together, with such national treasures as Dawkins, Tatchell and Stephen Fry at its head.
The sheer venom of the campaign was one of the things which most undid it in the end I suspect. But as I wrote at the time, "Before this deeply unpleasant organisation retires from the field, licking its wounds, it is as well to reflect on what it really did achieve. First, in the media battle that raged before the Pope's arrival, the Protest the Pope coalition got a huge amount of coverage, so much, indeed, that some of us began to fear that the visit might turn out to be a disaster. They really did seem successfully to be whipping up an anti-Catholic hysteria which looked a lot more durable than in the end it turned out to be."
The sheer venom of the attack, at times, had me rattled. Remember Claire Rayner? "I have no language", she spat, "with which to adequately describe Joseph Alois Ratzinger, AKA the Pope. In all my years as a campaigner I have never felt such animus against any individual as I do against this creature. His views are so disgusting, so repellent and so hugely damaging to the rest of us, that the only thing to do is to get rid of him."
With the experience of the Pope's British visit behind us, we in this country were able better than some in Germany to assess the opposition to his visit there (very reminiscent of Protest the Pope) and how successful it was likely to be. The fact is that the penny hadn't dropped there as it has here, though now maybe it has. You would think, wouldn't you, that the anti-papal protesters, after their humiliating failure to get on to the national radar during the Pope's visit to England, and the stunning success of World Youth Day in Madrid, would have gone out of business, or at least shut up for a bit. But no: there they all were, German Tatchells and Dawkinses (there's a frightful thought) and of course including the Pope's old pal Hans Kung, salivating over the numbers they thought, intheir dreams, were going to turn up to protest against the Pope in Germany, and the number of Parliamentarians who were going to boycott his address to the Bundestag (in the end, 84\% turned up: a considerable success for the Pope, I would have thought, probably as many as turned up here). "The website Der Papst Kommt! [the Pope is coming]", excitedly reported something called The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason [pah!] and Science, "is the home for a coalition of now 59 and growing, organisations united in criticism of the Pope. It is the nerve centre (cor! A nerve centre, there's posh) for organising the upcoming protest which expects 15,000 to 20,000 demonstrators to protest during the Pope's speech to the Bundestag...". That kind of estimate was made, of course, about the numberswho were going to turn up to the Protest the Pope main demo in London: it turned out to be (police figures) more like a paltry 3,000.
What happened in Germany was all very reminiscent of what had happened here. According to the journalist Peter Seewald, author of "Light of the World," the Pope's visit to Germany was "a small miracle" because "shortly before there was a very aggressive, anti-clerical assault by the media." (What does that remind you of?) "All of this", said Seewald, "brings to mind George Orwell's '1984,' in which an imaginary enemy, a nightmare, is created in order to scare people:"
"And yet, despite all of this incredible effort by the media, an innumerable amount of people stood up and refused to be deceived."
"They said the Germans would turn their backs on him and all kinds of other stupidities. There appears to be nothing more offensive in our times than being Catholic. As the magazine Stern said, "The brief euphoria at the outset was followed by an irreparable distancing between the majority of Germans and their fellow countryman." It's as if they were saying that everything would be wonderful and orderly in the world if the Vatican just ceased to exist."
However, Seewald continued, "We were all witnesses to something much greater. Where were all the masses of critics and protesters? They never showed up. And yet 350,000 people made great sacrifices in order personally to listen to the Pope and to attend Mass with him. Millions watched on television. The Pope's books are selling faster than ever... And undoubtedly never before has so much intelligence, wisdom and truth, so much of what is fundamental, been heard in Germany."
Why is everyone so surprised when this happens? A noisy and vicious secularist campaign is, time and again, gently swept aside by the by the intelligence and sheer transparent goodness of this extraordinary man. The fact is that these people are on a hiding to nothing. This Pope is supposed, preposterously, not to be "charismatic". Well of course he's charismatic: he's a proven people magnet. He's also, in his quiet and
kindly way, a human dynamo. In Germany, he addressed the German parliament, met Jewish and Muslim groups, held a prayer vigil with young people and celebrated Mass in Berlin's Olympic Stadium (built by Hitler, nastily said all the non-German critics; and in use ever since, like the autobahns, one might riposte). Among very much else: that's just the headlines; I counted 34 events in four days, not including several internal plane and helicopter journeys. And we've seen here how visits by this supposedly frail old man go: they begin well, and then build up from there. He hardly had time to recover from Madrid before preparing for Germany: and immediately on his return to Rome he was preparing to be off again: Benin in November and Iraq in January. A man 30 years younger would find thisexhausting: my only comment is that nobody of his age could do it without the constant comfort (Latin cum fortis) and support of almighty God, for Whose existence this Pope is almost a one-man proof.