Eamon Duffy of Cambridge University is one of the church’s great historians. He is also, at times, one of its most disappointing. The problem with Professor Duffy—maddening, to those who admire his books—is that he has no feel for contemporary Catholicism. As long as he is writing about the Church and papacy before, say, the pontificate of Leo XIII, he shows a superb clarity which helps clear away many prejudices and mistaken views. But as soon as he steps into the twentieth century, and especially the twenty-first, his usual powers fail him.“Man of Sacristy Walks in Shadow of John Paul II.” John Paul II, writes Professor Duffy, had a “mesmeric personal presence and mastery of crowds” which made him “formidable even to those who rejected his religion”—as if self-adulation, and star appeal, were more important to John Paul and his supporters than the Catholic faith itself. Benedict, in contrast, “is an altogether smaller figure, a man of the sacristy and the lecture room,” we are told. Actually, the start of Benedict’s pontificate saw him drawing bigger crowds than even John Paul (whose were huge), and these have continued including half a million people at Fatima last May, and another 100,000 in Rome to show their support, a brief time later. Is Professor Duffy perhaps spending too much time in the lecture room himself to notice these epic events?
Duffy then praises Benedict, only to diminish John Paul II, then reverses himself yet again, to belittle Benedict: “Kindlier, probably more intelligent and certainly a better theologian than his predecessor [Benedict] is also shyer, more anxious, less willing to engage with a culture which he perceives as in denial of its Christian roots. . . .” Could an academic get both men more wrong in a single sentence? The towering intellect and legacy of Karol Wojtyla has been developed by his outstanding biographer, George Weigel, particularly in his latest work, The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II-The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy. Joseph
Ratzinger, who assisted and now complements John Paul’s pontificate, is indeed an exceptional thinker; and a major reason why is because he has “engaged” the culture—ever since his university days—most famously by his philosophical and cultural discussions with non-believing thinkers such as Jurgen Habermas and
Marcello Pera. These have been heavily publicized. How could Professor Duffy possibly overlook them?
The Cambridge scholar then comes to the crux of his complaint against Benedict: “An ongoing campaign to downplay the novel and reformist dimensions of the Second Vatican Council, and to emphasize continuities with the attitudes and ideas of the age of Pius XII, appears to have his support.” Other than Sacred Scripture, no source is invoked more often in the documents of Vatican II than the now venerable Pius XII; and both John Paul and Benedict are the great champions of the Council, though not confusing its “reform” with rupture and revolution. As I said, Eamon Duffy’s vision of contemporary Catholicism is a bit blurred.
A much more clear-sighted historian, at least when it comes to religion and politics in the present age, is the gifted Michael Burleigh, author of the new book, Moral Combat, and a series of highly-praised works before that.
Employing sharp observational skills, with a rapier wit, Burleigh comments:
The stations of Joseph Ratzinger’s life are almost guaranteed to make unthinking liberals recoil, just as his classical European erudition does not sit well with a local culture that has taken irony and philistinism to levels whose self-satisfied provincialism are not hard to parody. Britain may be bankrupt, but we have ‘comedians’ aplenty.
To anyone with an open mind, continues Burleigh, Benedict is a transcendent figure, a pope who “brings an entirely unique perspective to things that are routinely reduced to the political moment.”
Benedict’s real strength, says Burleigh, is that he refuses to subjugate truth to an increasingly aggressive “relativistic multiculturalism.” He asks whether Britain will be able to “tune out” the noise of the protesters and “hear what the Pope will be saying. . . . Let’s hope that this serious man’s message about the West in the world manages to come across clearly, despite all the efforts that will be made to obscure it by liberals whose ears have long been closed.”