Saturday, April 30, 2005

There is no substitute for a new pope’s record, but his chosen pontifical name also provides useful insight.

When Albino Cardinal Luciano of Venice was elected pope in 1978, he took as his name the first compound name in papal history, John Paul I, as homage to his two immediate predecessors. When he died just 34 days later, his successor, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, the first non-Italian pope in 450 years, took the name John Paul II to signify continuity.

With the death of the pope many call John Paul the Great, it was probably too much to expect his successor, whoever it might be, would take the same name.

Now comes the election of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, who has taken the name Pope Benedict XVI. What meaning can we glean from this choice of name? Who is the new pope trying to emulate? What might the name Benedict say about the church’s immediate future?

The first significant Benedict of church history (a monk who lived circa 480-547) was not a pope or even a priest, but the Rule of St. Benedict laid the foundations for what we have come to know as religious orders — the Benedictines, of course, but also the Dominicans and Jesuits and Franciscans and the rest. Summarized by the Latin motto, “Orare est laborare, laborare est orare” (“To pray is to work, to work is to pray”), St. Benedict’s rule prescribed “common sense, a life of moderate asceticism, prayer, study, and work, and community life under one superior,” according to John Delaney in his Dictionary of Saints. The rule, Mr. Delaney continues, also “stressed obedience, stability, zeal, and had the Divine Office as the center of monastic life; it was to affect spiritual and monastic life in the West for centuries to come.”

There is one model for the new pope. How about some Benedicts who are anything but role models?

Benedict VIII (reigned 1012-24) has been described as a “ruthless soldier” while the “depraved” Pope Benedict IX (1033-45), according to William J. La Due in “The Chair of St. Peter,” “obtained the papal office through overt acts of bribery and treachery.” Benedict VIII also inserted the “filioque” clause into the Nicene Creed, which says the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. This belief conflicts with Eastern Orthodox Christianity, which holds the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son. To our contemporary ears, this may seem a minor semantic point, but the theological dispute ended in a schism between East and West that continues after more than 1,000 years.

Pope Benedict XIV (1740-58) was, according to Mr. La Due, “without a doubt the most capable and successful pontiff in the 18th century. He was open to the scientific advances occurring at that time, enjoyed a correspondence with Voltaire, did not play favorites, and avoided any tendency to nepotism.” (It says something about 18th-century popes that Benedict must be praised for lacking negative characteristics.)

Benedict XIV permitted the first translation of the Bible from the Latin Vulgate into vernacular languages. He promulgated reforms regarding liturgy, marriage and book censorship. Mr. La Due writes, “Even during his last years as pontiff, Benedict continued to radiate energy and vitality.”

Perhaps it was Pope Benedict XV (1914-22) who was closest to mind when the new pope chose his name April 19. In an interview with Robert Siegel on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” Thomas Groome, a Boston College religious education professor, called it “significant that he chose the title of Benedict XVI because Benedict XV was indeed a bridge-building pope. He came into the pontificate in 1914 and inherited a church terribly divided around theological issues between the conservatives and the ‘Modernists’ as they were called at the time. Benedict XV managed to bring the sides together and to be a real reconciler. Hopefully, in choosing this name, Cardinal Ratzinger now intends to do something likewise.”

In his book “A Concise History of the Catholic Church,” Thomas Bokenkotter agrees with that portrait of Benedict XV. The cardinals who elected him, Mr. Bokenkotter writes, “were looking for a peacemaker, and Benedict did not disappoint their hopes. Peace and conciliation were the objectives he unswervingly pursued from the first moment of his pontificate. Peace — first in the church, which was bitterly divided by the anti-Modernist zealots who had been allowed to run riot during the previous administration. And one of his first acts was to call a halt to the witch hunt after ‘Modernists.’ ” (The Modernists, I might add, primarily were Americans.)

This Benedict also helped bring the church into the modern world with his encyclical, Maximum Illud, which established, as Mr. Bokenkotter explains, the church missionary project’s three “fundamental principles”: “promotion of a native clergy, renunciation of all nationalistic attitudes, and respect for the civilization of the mission country” — no cultural imperialism.

It took a long time for the church to absorb this lesson. But the irrepressible growth of Catholicism in Africa, Latin America and Asia over the last several decades proves Benedict XV’s prescience as well as his sensitivity.

What qualities will Pope Benedict XVI inherit from his namesake predecessors? Only time will tell. After all, the shoes of the fisherman are hard for any man to fill.


Charlottesville, Va.

Richard Sincere’s commentary on political and cultural issues can be found at

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