In choosing the name Benedict XVI, the newly elected pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, gave the first tentative signal of the course he intends to follow in his papacy. In sharing his reasons with the cardinals who had just elected him, he made reference to both Pope Benedict XV (1914-22) and to St. Benedict, founder of Western monasticism.
Benedict XV had been a healing and unifying pope, not only on the world stage (although his peacemaking efforts during and after the First World War were generally rebuffed by both sides), but also and especially within the church.
The previous pontificate (1903-14), notwithstanding the subsequent canonization of Pius X in 1954, was the most divisive in the whole of the 20th century. He led a sometimes cruel campaign against Catholic theologians, biblical scholars and historians, lumping them all under the umbrella of Modernism.
He condemned a progressive Catholic social movement in France, Le Sillon, and opposed labor unions that were not exclusively Catholic. At the same time, he was tolerant to a fault of the right-wing, monarchist Action Fran√ßaise.
Pius X imposed an Oath against Modernism on all clerics and gave encouragement in three papal letters to a network of informants known as the Sodalitium Pianum (League of St. Pius V), which reported instances of alleged deviations from doctrinal orthodoxy wherever and by whomever they occurred. Many scholars lost their teaching positions, others were suspended from the priesthood and still others were excommunicated from the church.
The overall effect on Catholic scholarship and intellectual life was devastating. It was a blow from which the church did not recover until the pontificate of John XXIII (1958-63) and the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).
It was this acutely polarized situation that the newly elected Benedict XV faced when he succeeded to the Chair of Peter. Within two months of his election, he issued his first encyclical, Ad beatissimi Apostolorum, in which he called a halt to the internecine warfare between so-called Integralist Catholics and progressive Catholics that had developed and intensified during the previous pontificate.
The pope insisted, without using the name “Integralist,” that the noun “Catholic” needed no qualification by “fresh epithets.” In the end, Benedict XV was a pope dedicated to healing and reconciliation, inside as well as outside the church.
St. Benedict of Nursia (ca. 480-ca. 550) was the author of the famous Rule that bears his name. It insisted, among other things, that an abbot should be elected by all of the monks and that he should be wise, discreet, flexible, learned in the law of God and a spiritual father to his community — just as Benedict himself was.
The flexibility of the Rule allowed it to be adapted readily to the needs of society, so that monasteries shaped by it became centers of scholarship, agriculture, medicine and hospitality.
The new pope, in honoring both Benedict XV and St. Benedict of Nursia, may very well have forecast that his own papacy would be dedicated to healing and reconciliation, both inside and outside the church, and that he would try to be a wise and flexible leader — a father to the entire Catholic community, not just to those with whom he may feel a special ideological kinship. And he could do all this without any compromise whatever of the church’s authentic tradition.
One of the first steps the new pope could take to underscore the seriousness of his intentions would be to call on his most exuberant and partisan supporters to be gracious and sensitive to their brother and sister Catholics with whom they have disagreements about matters of non-infallible doctrine and ecclesiastical discipline.
There is no doubt at all that the challenge and the opportunity are there. This is not a hypothetical concern.
Already, via e-mail and other means of communication, ultra-conservative Catholics have launched an informal campaign of taunts and personal insults, inviting fellow Catholics who remain committed to the teachings and reforms of Vatican II to reconsider their place in the church and to think seriously about leaving it.
That is exactly how William Donahue, head of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights and a frequent guest on cable television programs, has put it in a recent interview with USA Today (4/21/05).
“The malcontents really have to make up their minds now,” he declared. “Are they going to accept the official teachings of the church, or continue their whining, or are they going to walk? Why stay where you’re not wanted?”
Which path will the new pope follow: Pius X’s, or Benedict XV’s and St. Benedict of Nursia’s?
The choice is clear, and many await its outcome.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.