- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 21, 2005

Since his election as the 265th Roman pontiff on Tuesday, Pope Benedict XVI has been labeled a “transition pope” by the media. Because he is the oldest pope chosen since the 18th century, it has been reported that Benedict is merely keeping the Chair of Peter warm while the hierarchy of the Catholic Church assesses the long papacy of John Paul II and decides what course to set for the next generation. This completely misses the extraordinary significance of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger becoming pope.

More accurately, the 26-year pontificate of John Paul II was a transition to Benedict XVI. To accept this bold assertion, it is necessary to grasp the ideological and political trends in the Roman Catholic Church over the past four decades. Since the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65, everything in the church has been justified or rejected, interpreted and translated based on what became known as “the Spirit of the Council.” That spirit was one of liberalization and accommodation to modern ideas.

When Pope John XXIII convened all the world’s bishops to Rome, he announced that the goal of Vatican II was to open the windows of the church to the modern world. The rhetoric was important because for centuries popes had declared that the role of the religion was to help guide the soul in rejecting the world for spiritual gain. At the outset of his pontificate, John Paul II stated that his mission was the realization of the goals of the council. In that commitment, he was consistent with the previous three popes of the Vatican II era.

Benedict XVI is the first pope of a new era because he has criticized Vatican II and its consequences. His views of the fruits of the council have been expressed clearly in his many books. In “Salt of the Earth,” published in 1996, he compared the “false zeal” of 1960s church reformers to Maoists. “What happened after the Second Vatican Council could itself be called a cultural revolution,” he wrote. In “The Ratzinger Report,” a 1985 bestseller, he reflected that with Vatican II, “There had been the expectation of a step forward, and instead one found oneself facing a progressive process of destruction.” Over and over, he has made clear that self-criticism passed into self-destruction as Vatican II cracked open church windows to the social mayhem of the 1960s.

People’s ways of worshipping are one of the clearest reflections of their beliefs. Thus, Catholic liturgy has been at the center of debate within the church since Vatican II. Over the years, Cardinal Ratzinger argued that liturgical changes after Vatican II were a disaster, and that slackening beliefs among the faithful were largely a result of the suppression of the traditional Latin Mass and related devotional practices. In the introduction to “The Reform of the Roman Liturgy: Its Problems and Background,” then-Cardinal Ratzinger called the new Mass created in 1969 by Pope Paul VI a “falsification.” Arguing against this new Mass, he wrote that, “What happened after the council — we abandoned the living, organic process of growth and development over centuries and replaced it with a fabrication, a banal on-the-spot product.” The actions of Benedict XVI as a cardinal also revealed that he thought the church should be stricter. Critical of the more than 100 apologies John Paul II made on behalf of churchmen of past centuries, then-Cardinal Ratzinger said that it might be more appropriate to apologize for the recent history of the church. He also made clear that Catholic teaching would not change on abortion, women’s ordination and other issues that the post-1960s church debated endlessly.

The new name a pope chooses at the beginning of his papacy is full of meaning. John Paul I and John Paul II picked those names specifically to honor John XXIII and Paul VI, the two popes who spearheaded the Second Vatican Council. It was a radically symbolic gesture for Benedict XVI to break with the trend of the Vatican II-era popes and instead grasp a traditional pontifical name from before the council.

It was said that only Richard Nixon could go to China because only a supposed redbaiter had the political cover to open relations with Mao’s Middle Kingdom. For similar reasons, only Benedict XVI could take the Catholic Church out of the Vatican II doldrums. As a former progressive council theologian who was mugged by reality, he understands the nature and appeal of leftist ideology and can explain why it is dangerous and misguided. Rome has entered a new age.

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