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The Early Months of Pope Benedict

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

To learn more about Pope Benedict's papacy, we're joined by John Allen. He writes for the National Catholic Reporter, and he's author of "The Rise of Benedict XVI: The Inside Story of How the Pope Was Elected and Where He Will Take the Catholic Church."

John, good to talk to you again.

Mr. JOHN ALLEN (National Catholic Reporter; Author, "The Rise of Benedict XVI"): Hello, Michele.

NORRIS: As we just heard in Sylvia's piece, Pope Benedict has a very different personality than his predecessor. What have we seen from his leadership so far?

Mr. ALLEN: Well, I think the striking difference would be in the area of papal style. You know, John Paul was very much a populist. He was a tremendously charismatic figure, who obviously drew strength, drew vitality from his contact with the crowds. Joseph Ratzinger, Benedict XVI, on the other hand, is a much more reserved, sort of cerebral figure and not comfortable sometimes with the sort of cult of personality that I think he and others felt had growed up around the papacy. He wants very much the emphasis to be on the message rather than the man.

And it is striking, in these days of Cologne here in World Youth Day, which is an event, in some ways, created precisely to showcase the charisma of the papacy as a way of kind of setting youth on fire with the faith, to see him struggle to bring this new dimension out of himself. At the same time one has to say that to date he has been deliberately leading a less theatrical, you might say a less showbiz kind of papacy. But that does not mean that he's not all business. You know, he has also been very much moving forward with what he sees as the central struggle of his pontificate, which he defined on the morning before his election as `the struggle against a dictatorship of relativism in the West,' this idea that, `You've got your truths, I've got mine; they're all kind of equal.' He intends to do battle with that by reasserting objective truth, and he was, of course, talking about that today with the youth here in Cologne.

NORRIS: Well, John, as he moves forward, some have predicted that the church would go through a gradual evolution. Since we're talking about a lifetime appointment, what exactly does gradual mean? Years? Decades? Or is he moving faster than that?

Mr. ALLEN: Well, you know, the sort of old saying in the Catholic Church is that, `We think in centuries,' which means that there's a kind of measured pace about change in the church. It tends to be sort of geological rather than, you know, calendric. So, you know, the truth is that he cannot remake the Catholic Church overnight, nor would he want to. On the other hand, you know, this sort of impression that some people had after his election, that this 78-year-old German was elected as a kind of transitional pope to more or less keep the seat warm until the church figured out who the next guy ought to be, I think, is a profound misreading.

You know, what Benedict XVI wants to do is challenge four centuries of intellectual development in the West towards relativism. In other words, he believes that just as John Paul II was elected in 1978 to challenge Soviet communism, that he was elected in 2005 to challenge Western relativism. Now there's not going to be one single moment when the Berlin Wall comes down and suddenly we're living in a new world. But I think he believes that he is trying to lead the church in this ethical, cultural struggle, and I think he intends to get down to business rather quickly.

NORRIS: He's in Germany, where church attendance is certainly not what he'd want it to be. Does he see Germany as the heartland for trying to re-evangelize Catholics?

Mr. ALLEN: Well, I think he sees Europe, in some ways, very much that way. You're quite right that the official estimates of Mass attendance rate among the 27 million Catholics in Germany is 18 percent. Unofficially people say it's actually considerably lower. Every year numbers of Germans officially disenroll from the church in order to avoid paying the state-imposed church tax, so much so that the bishops here are facing financial shortfalls and so on. But, on the other hand, Pope Benedict, I think, believes that Europe is the cradle of Christian civilization, and that in a certain sense it's too important to fail. And so one of the kind of signal efforts of his pontificate is going to be to try to reawaken the Christian roots of Europe. And you saw him talking repeatedly about that on day one of his voyage here.

NORRIS: John, thanks so much for talking to us again.

Mr. ALLEN: Michele, always a pleasure.

NORRIS: John Allen is a reporter for the National Catholic Reporter. He's also the author of "The Rise of Benedict XVI: The Inside Story of How the Pope Was Elected and Where He Will Take the Catholic Church." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.