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Three cheers for Ross Douthat’s spirited defense of Benedict XVI as the uncharismatic successor who had to clean a set of messes left by his great predecessor John Paul II is heartening. Douthat writes:

. . . the high-flying John Paul let scandals spread beneath his feet, and the uncharismatic Ratzinger was left to clean them up. This pattern extends to other fraught issues that the last pope tended to avoid — the debasement of the Catholic liturgy, or the rise of Islam in once-Christian Europe. And it extends to the caliber of the church’s bishops, where Benedict’s appointments are widely viewed as an improvement over the choices John Paul made. It isn’t a coincidence that some of the most forthright ecclesiastical responses to the abuse scandal have come from friends and protégés of the current pope.

Has Benedict done enough to clean house and show contrition? Alas, no. Has his Vatican responded to the latest swirl of scandal with retrenchment, resentment, and an un-Christian dose of self-pity? Absolutely. Can this pontiff regain the kind of trust and admiration, for himself and for his office, that John Paul II enjoyed? Not a chance.

But as unlikely as it seems today, Benedict may yet deserve to be remembered as the better pope.

As a non-Catholic, I have admired Joseph Ratzinger for thirty years—first because of his impassioned defense of Western classical music (in 1985 he was generous enough to comment on a manuscript I had sent him of a study of Nicholas of Cusa and music theory, later published in the Vatican’s music journal). When his 1986 interview book The Salt of the Earth appeared in German, I read about it in Der Spiegel between flights at the Tokyo airport, and was gobsmacked: there was a Prince of the Church warning that “we might have to bid farewell to the concept of a popular Church” in an era of faithlessness. That showed real guts. Then there was the Regensburg speech in September 2006, with its bold critique of Islam. And finally—closest to my heart—is the fact that Joseph Ratzinger “is the first pope since St. Peter to read the Gospels as Hebrew documents,” in the words of the Bonn University theologian Karl-Heinz Menke, writing last year in the German-language edition of Communio. As Assaf Sagiv wrote in Azure magazine , Benedict XVI is in some respects the best friend the Jews ever have had at the Vatican .

Jews have had reason to have had mixed (and sometimes hostile) feelings towards the Vatican over the centuries, but we should wish this Catholic philo-Semite success and pray for his good health. And as I wrote March 26 on the Spengler blog ,

There’s something ugly in the air. The two central institutions of the West are the Throne of St. Peter and the Oval Office. That is not an exaggeration, for the Catholic model in Europe and the American model are the two modes of life that the West has developed. When Catholic universal empire failed with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, and was buried by Napoleon, the United States emerged as an alternative model; the non-ethnic nation founded on Christian principles albeit without an explicit tie to a particular Christian confession.

For the first time in history the barbarians have breached the citadel; to have Barack Obama in the White House is the cultural equivalent of electing Madonna to the papacy. America, the source of a civil religion that held together the world’s only remaining superpower, is committed to its own self-demolition. Nihilists around the world are in a triumphant mood and believe that it is time to mop up the remnants of their enemies everywhere.

As a outsider, one observation regarding John Paul II and Benedict XVI seems relevant. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communism, to which JPII contributed so much, the pope believed that the re-evangelization of Europe was imminent. Without the dead hand of Soviet totalitarianism and the ever-present threat of nuclear war, Europe’s spiritual disease would find remission. Many people thought so; I thought so, too, and said so in print in 1989. JPII came from the Polish Church which had led the resistance against Russian oppression, and took his message to the world with boundless confidence, allowing the details to take care of themselves.

But it was not to be. JPII was a fisher of men, I wrote some years ago, but sadly, it was catch-and-release. Poles still go to mass, but their fertility rate is lower than Germany’s, and on the present trend-line Poland will cease to be a viable nation early in the second half of this century. Europe’s spiritual malaise seems fatal. And it was Benedict XVI who in 1996 foresaw that his predecessor’s hopes—all of our hopes—might be in vain. “Vielleicht müssen wir von den volkskirchlichen Ideen Abschied nehmen,” he told Peter Seewald – perhaps we must take leave of the ideas of the popular Church. Perhaps we stand before an epoch of Church history of a different sort, in which Christianity will stand under the sign of the mustard seed, in apparently insignificant, narrow groups, which nonetheless live intensively in opposition to evil and bring good into the world.”

Europe’s evolution was worse than even Benedict’s pessimism foresaw—barely 4 percent of German Catholics attend Church regularly—although the evangelization of the Global South puts another light on the matter. The prestige and drawing power of the Catholic Church in Germany is so reduced that Der Spiegel feels empowered to try to take down a German pope. If the cultural left succeeds, the sum of good in the world will shrink.

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