Saturday, February 11, 2006


By Michael S. Rose

Spence, $22.95, 192 pages


It is doubtful if any other pontiff in modern times ascended to the papacy facing the number of hostile prejudices that Pope Benedict XVI did last year when he succeeded his longtime chief and friend Pope John Paul II, whom he served so well.

First, the personally shy, scholarly and retiring former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was not the exceptional John Paul, the most charismatic and popular pope in at least half a millennium and one who directly interacted with more people than any other pontiff ever.

Nor could he match the extraordinary life odyssey of John Paul II. Anyone who steps into the shoes of a giant knows that he will be in for a rough ride.

Second, Benedict XVI is German — and his elevation to the papacy was followed by truly ugly xenophobic outbursts in the British tabloid press. Conspiracy theorists who love to rave about the Church, about the direction of modern Europe or about Germany could therefore be expected to have a field day.

Third, as Cardinal Ratzinger, the new pope had labored for more than two decades in the thankless vineyard of being prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a position he assumed in 1981.

That meant he was the chief enforcer of John Paul II’s efforts to defend the traditional theological positions of the Church against a wave of liberal intellectuals who wanted to dismantle them. It was all too easy therefore for such enemies to try and falsely stereotype him as a modern Torquemada.

Fourth, the new pope is an outspoken and courageous social conservative — and is unabashedly proud of it. His unrelenting opposition to weakening the Church’s moral stance against permitting abortion in particular was sure to outrage his liberal foes.

Michael Rose’s deceptively slim but solidly researched, documented and robustly argued book coming hard on the heels of Benedict XVI’s election to the Throne of St. Peter comes therefore as a rapid and welcome corrective to dispel so many hostile and wildly inaccurate and even contemptible clichs.

Like the religious leader it celebrates, this book does not indulge in any cheap sentimentality but is both substantive and admirable. Anyone looking for a colorful account, however sympathetic, of the life of the new pope will not find it here.

Mr. Rose concentrates rather on the vast and compendiously documented public record of the man — the dominant conservative theologian and intellectual thinker in the Church of his generation. He makes a strong case for his contention that this pope indeed may be the most imposing intellectual ever to have been elected to the papacy.

However, the greatest value of Mr. Rose’s book is in his documentation of where Benedict XVI’s papacy will contrast with that of his legendary predecessor and where it may even prove to be far more substantive and long-lasting in its effects on the Church — effects which, Mr. Rose argues, will be entirely beneficial. “There will be continuity in the papacy, but that continuity will likely come by way of translating the guiding lines of the Wojtyla pontificate into institutional reality,” he writes.

Mr.Rose makes his case somewhat dryly. This book, like its subject, is intellectually demanding and austere. It eschews color, padding and length. But it amply rewards its readers with a careful, thorough documentation of the new pope’s thoughts and positions on a host of major issues confronting the Church.

The record of the early months of the new pontiff’s rule appears to support Mr. Rose’s arguments.

Here is a pope who upholds the traditional theological positions of the Church, who remains determined to maintain celibacy for priests and who also continues his predecessor’s passionate struggle against the horrors of abortion on demand.

Benedict XVI has shown his readiness to take clear and uncompromising positions on public policy issues of great controversy. He opposes the full entry of Turkey into the European Union but he also was critical of the U.S. decision to go to war in Iraq.

Yet he has seen eye to eye with President Bush on moral issues. Within a few weeks of entering the papacy he became only the second pope in history to visit a Jewish synagogue. He has shown himself determined to clean the priesthood of pedophiles. His commitment to protecting the young and the innocent has been passionate and consistent.

Mr. Rose’s conclusion therefore, appears compelling: “Without a doubt the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI will go down in history as one of tremendous significance. Whatever the Holy Father does is it is likely to carry weight for many decades to come.”

Martin Sieff is national security correspondent for United Press International.

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