For those more familiar with Vatican politics, Channel 4’s recent hour-long documentary about the new pope, ‘God’s Rottweiler?’, (3BM TV, produced by David Wilson and Grace Chapman, 22 August 2005) contained precious little by way of fresh insight into what kind of leader Benedict XVI is set to become. But it echoed for me a host of questions which continue to resonate in the struggle for authentic, outward-looking church in the twenty-first century.

Accompanied by a melodramatic orchestral backbeat and a somewhat incriminating, tabloid-style commentary, the programme charted the profound impact of both Nazism and the upheaval of 1968’s revolutionary stirrings on Josef Ratzinger, turning him from a relative moderate at the Vatican II Council to a convinced conservative on the Throne of St Peter.

In between Ratzinger became, from 1981 through to 2005, John Paul II’s ‘doctrinal enforcer’, turning against one-time Tubingen colleague Hans Kung, Catholic radicalism in Latin America, modernism, and latterly movements of emancipation for women and gay people.

Alongside irenic contributions from Cardinal Walter Kasper (president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and also the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews) and Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP (international leader of the Dominicans from 1992-2001), the 3BM documentary lined up those who had crossed swords with Ratzinger as one-time Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). They too were polite, though pointed.

Among them was Fr Bernard Lynch, who has a courageous ministry with lesbian and gay people and among those affected by HIV/AIDS. He warned ominously about the dangers of fundamentalism under the new pope’s leadership. Curiously, no mention was made of the efforts, aided by the Archdiocese of New York, to have Lynch charged with child molestation, an accusation he defeated in court. The sorry story is told in his book A Priest on Trial (Bloomsbury, 1993).

Professor Hans Kung, now retired from his full-time theological duties (but co-founder of the Global Ethic Foundation and an adviser to the UN) declared emphatically that it was now time to do away with inquisitions of the kind sponsored by the CDF, since May 2005 headed up by US Archbishop William Joseph Levada. He had his official Catholic teaching office revoked by Ratzinger after questioning the doctrine of papal infallibility and the functioning of the magisterium.

The other key ‘witness’ was writer and broadcaster Lavinia Byrne, who left her religious order, the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, in 2000, after her book Woman at the Altar (Mowbrays, 1994) was condemned by the CDF and pulped in the USA by its then Catholic publisher. It has been re-issued.The ordination of women to the diaconate and the priesthood is still officially a subject non grata, however.

Byrne recounted how she had no direct contact with the then Cardinal Ratzinger or his officers, but her order was put under immense pressure to bring her into line. It would be good, she thought, finally to be able greet her accuser in person now that he is fully-fledged socialising pope! (1)

Though the challenge of inter-faith relations and the issue of Turkey’s EU accession was mentioned, Channel 4 bypassed one of the other great controversies of former Cardinal Ratzinger’s tenure with the Sacred Congregation: the case of Fr Tissa Balasuriya from Sri Lanka, and his book Mary and Human Liberation (ed. Helen Stanton, Trinity Press International, 1997). In an extraordinary and unedifying saga, the writer was notified and then excommunicated without trial, only to be rehabilitated after a heavily policed ‘reconciliation’ with the Vatican.

Along with the treatment of Leonardo Boff and other liberation theologians (simplistically mischaracterised as blending theology with Marxism in the 3BN documentary), the case of Balasuriya was an abiding stain on the pontificate of John Paul II, and it is this which renders the romanticisation of selected elements of his papacy by distant onlookers like Stanley Hauerwas somewhat discordant  (2).

Absolving oneself of engagement with difficult history is not a good basis for developing a healthy theology of church as alternative social order, which is Hauerwas’ noble intention. In this respect, reification is the alter ego of demonization, and when confronted with either we are surely reminded that a more incarnational approach is needed.

In contrast, ‘God’s Rottweiler?’ (a term uncharitably coined for Ratzinger by his critics during his controversial CDF years) made the suggestion that the former Prefect’s relationship with John Paul II was a kind of ‘good cop – bad cop’ routine. But that was as far as the insight ran. Moving swiftly on, it then rehearsed the new pope’s special concern for the renewal of the faith in Europe, with reference to his choice of name from that of the continent’s patron saint.

Cardinal Kasper noted that this nomenclature could be seen as indicating a ‘fresh start’, so that Benedict is not simply to be considered the continuation of Ratzinger by other means. This is certainly what many hope. But the documentary ended instead with dire soundings about the Church’s continuing crisis. And no-one dared mention that Benedict’s last namesake-predecessor was a “healing Pope” who succeeded, but did not follow, the sharply anti-modernist Pius X in 1914, after the First World War.

Neither was anything direct heard from the subject of the programme himself, save a dramatically recapitulated archive clip of the Cardinal (literally) slapping away a media enquiry, and a short excerpt from an interview where he talked about the possibility of Christianity becoming more of a faithful remnant in an increasingly hostile cultural environment.

This particular trajectory, ‘church as witness’, chimes with the idea recently promulgated by British academics Philip Blond and Adrian Pabst, respectively lecturer in philosophy and religion at St Martin’s College, Lancaster, and doctoral research fellow at the Luxembourg Institute for European and International Studies.
Writing in the International Herald Tribune (19 August 2005) they pursue their subject with the post-modern Augustinian turn of thought beloved of the Radical Orthodoxy school.

To begin with they lionise the pope for linking “contemporary liberal democracy with fascism”, and arguing that “when liberals believe in nothing, fascism is not far behind…there is only power and the sole proof of having power is to break all taboos and transgress all limits in order to better demonstrate supremacy.” In part this helps to explain, they say, “why Catholicism under Benedict XVI will try harder than ever to reinforce taboos against killing and exploitation – a radical alternative to the contemporary ‘totalitarianisms’ of capitalism and liberalism.”

In similarly vein to Stanley Hauerwas, Blond and Pabst go on to suggest, rather idealistically, that the pontiff “envisages a break with the prevailing power structures of the state and the market. He imagines a consequent separation of the church from modern society.” At the same time they warn that “Benedict XVI’s pontificate will not be judged by the perspicacity of his critique but rather by the inclusiveness and transformative effects of his alternative.”

For this reason, they conclude, “the new pope must resist the temptation of further centralization.” Instead he should “combine a model of inclusive democracy that is compatible with a hierarchy of values”, and “oppose the violence of secularity in the name of a universality that is open to all.”

In this, Blond and Pabst presuppose the integrity of “Christian Europe”, and they sidestep a key challenge of plural society, which is that democracy and inclusivity bounded by Christendom is, to all but the adherents of the latter, not what is wanted at all. This seems at least as coercive as what they see in secularity —  of which a rather more positive theological account ought to be possible in a post Christendom context.

Moreover, the idea that someone raised with a default to  authoritarian instincts like Josef Ratzinger [I use the term analytically rather than pejoratively, by the way] will readily transition the church from a community of enforced obligation to one of gratuitous example is surely stretching hope too far. Especially given his track record.

But in one respect, at least, Blond and Pabst steal a march on Hauerwas. They are not prepared to say that secular democracy (like ‘freedom’ and ‘justice’) is a ‘bad thing’ because it minimises the possibility of a distinct community of virtues. Instead they say that its “potential for civic participation” is “crucial in resisting totalitarianism” – proving, perhaps, that the stark realities of post-Nazi, post-communist Europe have opened some chinks in the intellectual armoury of John Milbank’s head-on rhetoric against ‘secular theory’. (3)

What they imply but don’t explore, therefore, is the idea of civic society within the (capital ‘c’) Church. This is precisely what many of Benedict’s ‘liberal’ adversaries have been arguing for: neither an abandonment of the search for communal truth, nor the imposition of an absolute interpretation, but a genuine development of the sensus fidelium (the faithful understanding of the people), and “radical democracy” (4) in dialogue with critical theological articulation and cultural engagement. For as Hauerwas has argued in other circumstances, it is wrong to “assume [that] if you don’t have a theory about how you defeat relativism, then the Nazis are around the corner.”

By contrast, Pope Benedict XVI, as this albeit imperfect Channel 4 documentary showed, has a very strong theory. It is an absolute, foundational account of the Gospel residing definitively in his current Office and all that flows from it – the Catholic equivalent of Protestant biblicism. Such ultimacy is certainly an ‘alternative’ to the threat of unbounded relativity, but of what kind? Not, I think, one that can avoid its own temptations towards totalism, as we have sadly seen in the history of Ratzinger himself.

Nor, for that matter, one that can permit the scale of ecclesia semper reformanda (church reformed and reforming) launched upon the world by (say) the Sermon on the Mount, the Spirit-driven communitas of Acts, the radical reformation, Vatican II, liberation theology, and the practice of peace church.

But it is something like this that is required if, in Timothy Radcliffe’s words, Christianity is to accompany the diverse people of Europe as they journey on, seeking “the good, the true and the beautiful.” For “[i]t is not enough just to talk about [these things]. Otherwise our words will be empty. We must work hard to make the Church evidently a place of abundant freedom, of a passion for truthfulness, and a delight in beauty.”

The next reformation, for Protestants and Catholics alike, will therefore involve something that moves decisively beyond the captivity of the Gospel to the warring reductionisms of liberal (‘choice’ bound) and conservative (‘tradition’ bound) ideology. It will entail a ground-up renaissance of personal and ecclesial practice as social, political and economic counter-testimony within a global, capitalist order. (5)

In recent years we have been seeing some seeds of this in the progressive Christian community (6), in contrast to the rigid reaction of the ‘religious right’. But it needs a new kind of discipleship-based ecumenism, a sense of theological adventure that is concerned to refresh roots (radix), and people who are prepared to be missional/pastoral, radical/evangelical, post/Protestant, liberating/conserving, mystical/poetic, biblical/prophetic, charismatic/contemplative, Anabaptist/Anglican, Reformed/Methodist, Catholic/Baptist, green, social, secular/spiritual, incarnational, depressed-yet-hopeful, inherited/emergent, faithful/sceptical and above all else ‘Unfinished Christians’ – along the lines that Brian McLaren suggests.

Whether Pope Benedict will prove to be their inspiration remains in question. But the challenge to us and our different Christian communities, though hardly unaffected by the profile of the leader of the world’s 1.4 billion Catholics, is not restricted by it either – as the cloud of other witnesses alluded to by ‘God’s Rottweiler?’ made clear.


(1) I should mention a minor connection here, since I worked as an editor on The Way, the Jesuit review of spirituality issued through Heythrop College, University of London, shortly after Lavinia Byrne left the journal to work for what was then the Council of Churches for Britain and Ireland. It later became CTBI, and I went on to serve there as Mission Secretary and an Assistant General Secretary. For a time it felt as if I was in the slipstream of the renowned ‘Cyber-nun’. But, of course, she was way ahead of me!
(2) Anabaptist adoptee Hauerwas writes more about John Paul II in his Gifford lectures, With the Grain of the Universe (SCM Press, 2002). The leader of the Bruderhof, Johann Christof Arnold, responded warmly to Ratzinger’s elevation to pope. There is also a creative Mennonite-Catholic dialogue. On the question of Islam, ‘God’s Rottweiler?’ made passing reference to Ratzinger’s strong objection to the accession of Turkey’s mainly Muslim 80 million-strong population to the European Union.
(3) Hauerwas’ own thinking on democracy seems to have moved forward over the last few years, though his critique of political liberalism remains constant.
(4) For one proposal concerning the reformation of the Church along these lines, see the Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church. On radical democracy, with references to theological interventions, see Ian Barns on Environment, Democracy and Community (Murdoch University).  Barns suggests that “addressing the problematic connection between secular reason and Christian theology is central to the possibility of a polity which is both green and democratic.”
(5) I would also suggest that it will involve a post-metaphysical twist in theological formulation, but that is an issue beyond the scope of this article.
(6) I am thinking about the kind of broad alliances created by SojoNet and Ekklesia, say. But like Stephen Hart in Cultural Dilemmas of Progressive Politics: Styles of Engagement among Grassroots Activists (University of Chicago Press, 2001), let me be clear that I imply nothing about ‘progress’ or any other teleology in using the term ‘progressive’.

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