There is something deeply touching about Pope Benedict lighting a lamp from a windowsill in the Vatican. Watching this frail 75-year-old person with his aides and a mass of people in Saint Peter’s square one cannot but be moved by his spirit.
Pope Benedict—named after the patron saint of Europe—is a conservative and inspiring figure in the same breath. For many, especially in the US and Europe, he is synonymous with the church’s failure to come clean on abuses—especially those by priests across countries--of the system it presides over. The church also seems to have fallen behind the times when it comes to ordaining women priests. The list of “shortcomings” is substantially longer: inability to come to terms with same sex marriages, use of contraceptives and, in general, failure to understand the workings of a secularized world.
At the same time, his life can be read as a story of the contemporary dilemma with religion: deeply troubling and a continuing source of inspiration at the same time. If one goes back to the start of his ecclesiastical career—especially during the Second Vatican Council that dealt with issues such as how the church should deal with the modern world—one can only view a “liberal” priest. Then came manned missions to moon; “revolutions” of various stripes and, in general, the march of progress. The priest Joseph Ratzinger became, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the enforcer of doctrine. (Time magazine dubbed him the Panzer Cardinal—an allusion to his role as the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a conservative institution of the church.) It was also during this time that he broke with this friend and fellow theologian, the equally brilliant, but far more secular, Hans Küng. Perhaps the coda to this march of events came in 2006 when he delivered a controversial speech at the University of Regensburg even as drones were raining hellfire missiles in the far away Hindukush. It was, in a sense, a religious reaffirmation of The Clash of Civilizations.
This pope is controversial. But these are controversies that are products of an age and not a persona. Here, the contrast with his predecessor, John Paul II, is striking. The latter was considered far more “inspiring”. Was it because John Paul II came from Poland? (One cannot forget the moment when he first returned to Polish soil under communist rule: descending from the steps of his plane, he kissed the tarmac.) Was it because he gave a religious backing to Ronald Reagan’s fight against Evil Empire? Pope Benedict faces far more daunting challenges.
The big question is this: can a secular world offer an alternative to man’s spiritual desires? Can religion be simply written off? These are not the usual “questionnaire” questions. Irrespective of one’s religious beliefs—whether it be Islam, Hinduism or Buddhism—the congregation of masses on days that are marked “sacred” tells a different story. The big conflict today is between forces that simply want the world to march to the tune of rational laws and the ever-rising yearning these trends produce for higher meaning and purpose in life. In Pope Benedict’s lifetime, this battle has been taken right to the doors of the church. “Solutions” of the type offered by “Liberation Theology”—or Christianized Marxism if you prefer--blend secular concerns such as poverty, injustice and social concerns—simply seek to blur the divisions between faith and the real world and, in the end, are no better than meaningless formulae. To that end, this intellectually formidable head of the church is giving a fitting, but deeply humane, reply.
No one could have described that scene from the Papal apartment in the Vatican better than the Bard: “How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a naughty world.”
Siddharth Singh is Editor (Views) at Mint.