B-16 in the house... and how we got there

Posted: Apr 20, 2005 12:00 AM

Habemus Papem!

That's Latin for "We have a pope!" With those words the College of Cardinals announced that the world's Catholics have a new spiritual leader, former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI.

As the Vatican's chief defender of theological doctrine, it's no surprise he's already being condemned as a "traditionalist" and a "hardliner." Of course, if some of the modernizers had their way, a new pontiff would be announced with the declaration, "We got pope!" Or maybe "The pizzy is in the hizzy!" Then Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake would bump and grind a bit before His Holiness rolled out in a newly pimped-out Pope-mobile.

But my guess is that won't be happening any time soon, and not just because Ratzinger's the new pope. Some believe there is a radical left wing in the Catholic Church that seeks to unravel the teachings of John Paul II, but this is an exaggeration of the Western - particularly, the American - press. The notion that you could find any cardinal eager to change church policy on abortion, for example, is simply a fantasy concocted by liberal journalists. Excepting, perhaps, the issue of  distributing condoms in Africa, it's hard to think of a hot-button social issue that divides the church's leadership a fraction as much as American editorial pages seem to suggest.

If a committee made up of Andrew Sullivan, Gary Wills, Andrew Greeley, Paul Begala and Nancy Pelosi were given the power to select a pope from the current College of Cardinals, we would still have a pope opposed to abortion and gay marriage.

The issues that truly divide the church have to do with questions of local autonomy, global economics and the like. It takes the solipsism of American liberals to imagine that simply because America is divided over certain issues, the Vatican must be, too. And it takes the ignorance of the American media to think that a "liberal" in America is a liberal in Rome, Buenos Aires or Lagos.

That said, there's still a good lesson for the American right and left to draw from Ratzinger's election. One of the most interesting aspects of his story is that he was, by all accounts, a liberal until the year 1968. But during student riots at Tubingen University, where he was teaching, he looked into the soul of the New Left and saw a deep void. "For so many years," he said in an interview years ago, "the 1968 revolution and the terror created - in the name of Marxist ideas - a radical attack on human freedom and dignity, a deep threat to all that is human."

Again, Americans tend to think of 1968 as a uniquely American upheaval during a uniquely American decade of unrest. Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and all that. But the reality is a bit different. The 1960s saw student uprisings not only in America but in France, Britain, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Germany, Senegal, Argentina, Indonesia and Mexico. Obviously, each had its own unique flavor, but there was also something in the global water in the 1960s. What it was, exactly, is still hotly debated today. But the violence of '68ers surely had something to do with the comfort and guilt that comes from being the prosperous offspring of the World War II generation.

Not everyone in the so-called New Left was physically violent, and by no means was every young person alive then a member of the New Left, but almost everyone in the so-called "generation of '68" was intellectually violent - to tradition, to old-fashioned notions of decency, to truth, etc. And a great many of them refused to draw principled distinctions between rhetorical violence and the real thing.

In America, students took over schools like Cornell University with rifles and threatened to kill professors they considered to be "reactionary." Many older liberals had minds so open, their brains fell out. Others recognized the threat posed by the new barbarians and almost instantaneously became "conservatives" or - shudder - neoconservatives because they chose to stand firm in support of American liberal institutions - institutions that, in the new climate, were defined as right wing and oppressive. Clinton Rossiter, the decent, humane liberal scholar of American politics, tried to reconcile these competing forces, and his failure made suicide all the more attractive as an option.

Cardinal Ratzinger is a veteran of similar struggles. Whether you think Pope Benedict represents a move toward steadying the civilizational pendulum or a major counter-swing depends on your own spot on the ideological spectrum. And while it is too soon to know whose version of Ratzinger Pope Benedict XVI will become - the radical Inquisitorial "enforcer" of cold steel doctrine or the humble and curious teacher - the lesson remains the same. Civilization is a balancing act. When you lose your balance on the tightrope, you must make great swings in your stance just to get centered again. And even then, the odds are you fall off. The real trick is avoid making sudden moves in either direction.