Unlikely centre of attraction
The celebration of World Youth Day, which must be the
largest gathering of young people on the planet, begins next week in Sydney. It
is expected to draw 500,000 people from Australia and around the world. At its
centre is Pope Benedict XVI.
To understand why an 81-year-old cleric has such pulling
power with the younger set, MercatorNet interviewed Dr Tracey Rowland, whose book Ratzinger's
Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI, has just been published by
Oxford University Press. According to Sydney’s Cardinal George Pell, "It is a sign of
the times and a portent of the future that this excellent volume was written by
a young married woman" well on her way to "becoming Australia's
XVI is 81 and doesn't have the charisma of his predecessor as Pope, John Paul
II. But it is said that he draws bigger crowds and that people respond warmly
to him? Why is that, do you think?
Rowland: In Rome it is said that the young people came to see John Paul II but
that they come to listen to Benedict. The two pontiffs are definitely different
personalities. John Paul II wanted to be an actor before he became a priest, but
Benedict only ever wanted to be a priest. One was very much at home on the stage,
the other is more at home in a university common room but both in their own way
have been great communicators.
Benedict has had
years of experience of university teaching and I think that he treats a lot of
his public appearances like a tutorial. He tries to meet the faithful at a
particular level of understanding and then draws them into a deeper
understanding of the topic. Often he does this by taking his audience on a
history tour through some intellectual debate. He explains the various positions
and ties positions to the thinkers who promoted them, and then explains what
the Church has taught and why. He is like a professor with a bunch of favourite
MercatorNet: In his Regensberg address,
the Pope spoke so frankly about the Muslim approach to God that there were
widespread protests. Is he the best Pope to have in an era when relations
between religions are so fragile?
Rowland: The Regensburg address was a university lecture on the topic of the relationship
between faith and reason. His criticism of Islam for not engaging with the
heritage of the Greeks, that is, with reason and philosophy, was a reasonable
comment in the context of an academic paper, it was not a provocative sound
bite. He doesn’t walk around making gaffes.
He is highly
respected by Lutherans with whom he worked on the document on justification and
he is particularly keen on improving relations with the Eastern Orthodox. Often
in homilies he will refer to the ideas of some obscure saint of the Eastern
Church and in so doing sends a message that he acknowledges and values the
contributions of the Eastern branch of Christianity. The Archbishop of
Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, also treats him as a respected intellectual
peer. So, notwithstanding his comparison of the Church of England to a
gentleman’s debating club, I don't think he has done any damage there either.
His basic position
is that no one gets anywhere by fudging the truth. It is best to say precisely
what the Church teaches without any equivocation. People respect him for this,
and they know that if he says something he really means it. They know that they
are not getting spin or being schmoozed.
noticed that Benedict's first encyclical contained a joke – not a great joke,
to my mind, but it must have been a Papal first. You get the sense that
Benedict wants to present Christianity as a joyful way of life. How is he doing
Rowland: Yes, this is true. When
he was a young priest he was astonished to run across so many people who
thought of Christianity as a set of rules and regulations which had to be
followed in order to avoid eternal damnation. The word he uses for this is
‘moralism’. He often reminds people that Christianity is not primarily an
ethical system, it is participation in the life of the Trinity, and in
particular, an encounter with the Person of Christ. It is meant to be enriching
and joyful. He doesn’t deny the possibility that some people might end up in
hell, but he thinks it is rather neurotic to think of Christianity as an
insurance policy against eternal damnation. He regards the various prohibitions
in Jewish and Christian teaching as merely the flipside of the actualisation of
a great 'yes’.
He therefore tries to focus on the positives, on what an
authentic Christian spirituality can be. He often appeals to beautiful works of
art and music as epiphanies of God’s glory and illustrations of what can be
created by those who have faith. He wants people to fall in love with the
beauty and truth and goodness of Christian Revelation, rather than living in
fear of it. It’s as though proponents of moralism have confused Aslan with the
White Witch. His focus on the works of Christian art and the beauty of the
lives of Christian saints is his antidote to the moralist mentality.
dictatorship of relativism" is a phrase coined by Benedict which has been
widely repeated. But if you unpack it, it's not that clear. Relativism sounds
anarchic, not tyrannical. What does he mean?
Rowland: When people hear the word ‘relativism’ they often think that it
is a synonym for tolerance. They think that there is no dominant paradigm of anything
and that it is a good thing that people tend to disagree about the truth and
believe many different things. Contemporary cultural diversity, and in
particular the diversity of moral frameworks, is regarded as a post-modern
However Benedict tries to demonstrate that when Christianity
is rejected, social practices and the cultures which they foster are not
theologically neutral. They carry within them an atheistic logic. The more
pervasive this logic becomes the more our social life resembles a jungle with
its survival of the fittest principles. In such cultures the weak and the poor
are systematically hurt. Adolf Hitler understood this. He described
Christianity and Judaism as religions designed to protect the weak from the
strong. He thought this was a bad thing. Benedict thinks it is a really great
thing. He is interested in the relationships between truth and love and what
happens when truth is replaced by ideology and love is reduced to emotional
MercatorNet: I'm intrigued by the
fact that Benedict published a book of theology after being elected. That must
be another first. The topic was "Jesus of Nazareth", not one of the
things normally associated with him, like liturgy, or relativism, or Catholic
discipline. What's your reading of that?
Rowland: I think this relates back to his interest in overcoming moralism
and presenting Christianity as a personal encounter with Christ. Unless people
have some idea of who Christ is, they are unlikely to have much of a
relationship with Him. Our primary source of knowledge of Him comes from
scripture but a problem here has been the tendency of some scholars to forge a
division between the Christ of faith and the Christ of history.
Often people leave theology institutes believing that they
can know next to nothing about Christ after He has been deconstructed through
various hermeneutical lenses. He is like a Russian doll, layer after layer has
been peeled away leaving nothing but air in the centre. The introductory
section of Jesus of Nazareth therefore makes a number of valuable observations
about biblical hermeneutics as preparatory material to his presentation of the
Christ of scriptures. This work is also quite personal. It is Benedict’s way of
saying, well, this is what or rather who He is to me, and these are my reasons
for understanding Him this way.
don't know if bookies take bets on this sort of thing, but what are the odds
that Benedict will kickstart a new springtime for the Christian message at
World Youth Day?
Rowland: I think Benedict has been kicking quite a few goals, even though
as a boy he preferred hiking and fishing to soccer. Youth respond well to the
fact that he is a genuine person and they can tell he is bright. They refer to
him affectionately as “Benny” or “Big Benny” and make jokes about German
shepherds. I think that Catholic youth are rather proud of him and that he will
inject a sense of joy and confidence in the Christian message.
I recently met an Oxford educated girl in her late 20s. She
had just finished reading an interview with Hans Kung in which he said that
people need to remember that Benedict grew up in a police station. She just
looked at me and said, so what’s his problem?
Precisely because Generation Y is intimately acquainted with
the dictatorship of relativism the youth are open to Benedict’s analysis and
antidotes. They have been the guinea-pigs in the social experiments of the
generation of ’68. They have an inside understanding of his concerns.
Rowland is Dean of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Melbourne.
She holds a Masters degree in political philosophy from Melbourne University, a
doctorate from the Divinity School of Cambridge University and a Licentiate in
Sacred Theology from the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome.
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