Acton Institute Powerblog

Who is Pope Benedict XVI?

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Despite his many writings, scholarly expertise and long service to the Church as Prefect of Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, there’s still much of an unknown quality surrounding Pope Benedict XVI.

In the last two weeks, three reputable commentators made some informed guesses about what to expect from the new pontiff.

The National Catholic Reporter’s John Allen wrote a piece for The Spectator (U.K.) entitled “The Pope won’t back Bush” (no longer available on-line to non-subscribers). Although he takes issue with the way The Spectator’s editors presented the article in his most recent column, Allen tells us that Pope Benedict is not a conservative, especially when it comes to economic questions. Here’s a quote:

Recent popes have also been among the sternest critics of the international economic order that the United States and Great Britain have had a significant role in creating. Some right-wing Catholic intellectuals, aiming to reconcile free-market logic with Catholic teaching, have tried to bring the popes along, without much to show for the effort. Though papal statements on economic matters have occasionally been slippery enough to give spin doctors hope, at the end of the day papal social teaching is much closer to democratic socialism than to Adam Smith.

Papal biographer George Weigel penned an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times addressing some of the challenges Pope Benedict will face on the governance front, i.e. reform of the Roman Curia and appointment of bishops:

More than a few of the cardinals who rallied to support him in one of the shortest conclaves in modern history did so because they believed Ratzinger, having spent more than two decades in the Curia, would know what was broken and would fix it.

That may yet come. The pope is a careful, prudent man, not given to impulsive action or premature decisions. At the same time, it was precisely because he was not a product of the current Curial system, but rather a scholar who had to struggle to get things accomplished within it, that his supporters expected him to bring to the papacy a well-developed sense of where changes, even dramatic ones, need to be made in both structure and personnel. Those supporters are waiting, now a little anxiously, for serious change to be implemented.

Then there is the question of the appointment of bishops — and the volatile but unavoidable question of whether the church ought not devise criteria and processes for removing bishops who are manifestly incapable of leadership. Whether Benedict XVI undertakes a far-reaching reform of the Catholic Church’s Roman bureaucracy or not — and my bet remains that he will, although perhaps slowly — his papacy will be judged in no small part on his shrewdness in choosing bishops and his courage in facing questions of episcopal failure. With half a dozen major appointments coming in the next three years in the United States alone, the stakes are very high.

Finally, Fr. Jospeh Fessio, a student and long-time associate of Cardinal Ratzinger, was interviewed for one hour by Hugh Hewitt. The transcript is availabe here. Fr. Fessio draws attention to where Benedict want to draw our attention: Jesus Christ, and he even compares home schooling to monastic life:

[H]e’s been clear what his papacy is supposed to do. And number one was fidelity to Jesus Christ, that we must serve Jesus. He’s our Lord. He’s our master. Everything else is secondary, which was beautiful for him to say that. Secondly, he wanted to work on conjunction with, with the prayers and support of all his fellow bishops and cardinals. Thirdly, that he wanted to help the Catholic Church go into the future by understanding properly the II Vatican Council, which was all the bishops in the world getting together to try and chart a course. But then, when he came to the content, he said the very first thing we have to do, and make sure we do well, is to praise and worship and adore the Lord in a proper way. If we do that, then everything else will follow from that.

[…]You don’t, nor do I, have much control in this country, or the world, or even the city we live in. But we have control over our own hearts, and our own loves, and our own lives, and our families. And I think we just have to follow the Lord and wait on His call.

[…H]ome schools are the monasteries of the new dark ages. That is…and you non-Catholic Christians have a lot more of them than we Catholics do, but we’ve got a lot. And I think that is where families are having children. They’re passing on the faith to their children. They’re giving them wisdom and the knowledge of our culture.

All in all, a lot of engaging commentary on Pope Benedict. And much anticipation in Rome over what comes next.

Kishore Jayabalan Kishore Jayabalan is director of Istituto Acton, the Acton Institute's Rome office. Formerly, he worked for the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace as the lead policy analyst on sustainable development and arms control. Kishore Jayabalan earned a B.A. in political science and economics from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. In college, he was executive editor of The Michigan Review and an economic policy intern for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He worked as an international economist for the Bureau of Labor Statistics in Washington, D.C. and then graduated with an M.A. in political science from the University of Toronto. While in Toronto, Kishore interned in the university's Newman Centre, which led to his appointment to the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations in New York. Two years later, he returned to Rome to work for the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace as the Holy See's lead policy analyst on sustainable development and arms control. As director of Istituto Acton, Kishore organizes the institute's educational and outreach efforts in Rome and throughout Europe.


  • Frank Nigro

    Although this is an interesting article regarding the Papacy, it would be much more inviting regarding Pope Benedict XVI if there was a history portion of his life. Tell me more of his early life in Germany, from childhood.

  • Kishore Jayabalan

    For a look at Joseph Ratzinger’s early life, I’d recommend his own autobiography, called “Milestones” and available [url=]here[/url].

  • Kishore,

    Does John Allen provide any background to his claim of Pope B16 is closeness to “democratic socialism”?


  • Kishore Jayabalan

    Not too much, John.

    In the Spectator article, John Allen quotes then-Cardinal Ratzinger as saying “The concept of ‘preventive war’ does not appear in the Catechism of the Catholic Church” and that the Iraq war was not morally justified.

    Allen also refers to a November 23 address where Pope Benedict denounced “the deplorable social plague of usury.”

    And that’s about it. The rest is based on what the Catholic left tends to see as a “balance” to Church teaching on abortion and euthanasia, which have always been unequivocally condemned. The problem is the Church has not unequivocally condemned war and the charging of interest on loans.

    It’s too bad, because Allen knows that neither statement is proof of Benedict’s democratic socialism.

    In the case of the war, Cardinal Ratzinger prefaced his remarks by saying he had no particular expertise or competence in matters of foreign policy.
    All who know what a careful scholar Ratzinger is admit that he would study the matter much more seriously before any kind of “official” statement.

    (See for example the Pope’s recent World Day of Peace Message and his address to the diplomatic corps for his complete unwillingness to speak about the “root causes” of terrorism, which means he does not see any justification for terrorism. This in spite of the fact that the previous pontificate did occasionaly mention factors such as poverty and injustice.)

    And on usury, the Pope was talking to an Italian anti-usury association, which in the Italian context means an association to fight the mafia and other crime syndicates/loan sharks. The statement shouldn’t be interpreted as an attack on banking and finance as such.

    This is not a matter of spin but of reading the Pope’s own words closely and in context. John Allen usually does a better job of this himself.

  • David Burris

    Dear John and Kishore,

    In Pope Benedict’s book Without Roots on page 72, he says “In many respects, democratic socialism was and is close to Catholic social doctrine, and has in any case made a remarkable contribution to the formation of a social consciousness.” He also has some other interesting comments about the history of democratic socialism and Catholic attraction to it.