Seventy-two hours before the Conclave of 2005 was sealed, the possible futures of Joseph Ratzinger came into focus. By September, the seventy-eight-year-old Ratzinger would be back in Bavaria—living with his brother, Georg, surrounded by his beloved books, embarked on a retirement of writing and lecturing, doing the occasional puzzle with the grandchildren of his old friend Maragret Richardi. Or he would be marking his fifth month as pope. There is not the slightest doubt which future he would have preferred. God, and his brother-cardinals, had had other ideas. (206)
Thus George Weigel begins the final chapter of his book, God’s Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church. It is evident that, whatever God’s choice may be, for Weigel, Joseph Ratzinger is the best choice to carry on the legacy of his predecessor, John Paul II, who is the subject of an authorized biography by this writer. Theologian, prolific writer and increasingly sought after public commentator on things Catholic, George Weigel offers us an historical overview, replete with his well known takes on the death of Pope John Paul II (chapter one), the state of the Church in 2005 encompassing this loss (chapters two and three), and a detailed (more than 50 pages) coverage and analysis of the conclave. Chapter five provides us with a short biography and theological portrait of the priest, professor, peritus or theological expert at Vatican II and prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Joseph Ratzinger. Finally, Weigel concludes his 271 pages of text with an analysis of what he considers to be the most important issues that the Church and new pope will encounter in the future.
Weigel’s understanding of John Paul II and his significance as well as his analysis of the conclave will be familiar ground for those aware of the author’s work and NBC/MSNBC commentary on the death and papal election in 2005. For Weigel, John Paul the Great was not a reactionary “restorationist” turning back Vatican II, but a bishop as apostle and fearless Christian. Yet even for those familiar with the late pope, his death, funeral and conclave will discover new information and perspective on these events. For example, Weigel describes rather poignantly how before the funeral the young confessed to priests attired in their stoles and sitting on the doorsteps of buildings on Via della Conciliazione. The author, given his recent work as journalist, provides vivid details of the events of the pope’s death and funeral. Weigel’s writing is always lucid and engaging and often quite convincing.
Chapters five and six, concerning Benedict and the future, constitute the last hundred pages of the study. In chapter five, my personal favorite, Weigel provides interesting historical details that enrich his study. For example, he notes that the archdiocese of Munich-Freising, begun in 1818, actually dates back to 739 as the diocese of Freising. Weigel also provides us a quick glimpse into the theological formation and perspective of the new pope—appreciative of Guardini and Peiper, Augustinian rather than Thomist, and an advocate of ressourcement or return to the sources of the tradition. The “dynamic orthodoxy” of Benedict thus combines a retrieval of the sources that underpinned Vatican II along with the aggiornamento or spirit of renewal so associated with the Council. Weigel thus notes that Ratzinger, along with von Balthasar and others, launched the new journal, Communio, as an alternative to Concilium. What Weigel fails to note is that Ratzinger was originally on the editoral board of Concilium.
Moreover, Weigel gives us a glimpse of Ratzinger the Christian man, a scholar who had to let go of his own intellectual project of producing a magnum opus in order to serve the Church as Prefect of the CDF. In that role, Benedict had to deal with the Boff, Curran, liberation theology and Dupuis. In each case, Weigel provides the reader with a synopsis of the issues at stake and readily supports its handling by Cardinal Ratzinger. He also notes that, for the Prefect, the Church is not a “federation of national churches” but a communion. Therefore, there are some theological difficulties with national conferences of bishops. While it is true that the future pope has favored the universal Church over particular Churches, Weigel fails to acknowledge Ratzinger’s early support for national conferences following Vatican II. Chapter five ends with the famous, or for some infamous, 1985 Ratzinger Report, or the Prefect’s interview on the twenty years following the Council. For Weigel, Ratzinger put on the table what many hoped to ignore, and thus left us with “a form of shock therapy, needed by bishops who for twenty years, had imagined that there were no issues in Catholic life that couldn’t be staffed-out and compromised” (199).
Chapter six, “Into the Future,” is classic Weigel, as those familiar with his work will readily recognize. He entitles one section “Great Expectations” suggesting Benedict XVI can do for the Church today what Benedict of Nursia did for another world in transition; that is, to preserve the tradition grounded in a humanism that sees in Christ the truly human. The issues of the future that Weigel suggest offer no surprises for his readers in a post-modern secular world. Vatican diplomacy is particularly criticized by Weigel who supported the Iraqi war against the Holy See’s opposition. Vatican support of the United Nations as the means of collective security in the world and its lack of public outrage toward militant Islam also come under his scrutiny. Moreover, the author argues for Curia reform including his own structural suggestions and a reform of the episcopacy that includes the removal of “malfeasant, incompetent and heterodox bishops” (253). On political and institutional matters, this chapter says more about Weigel’s vision of the church of the future than Benedict’s ideas. On the other hand, when Weigel considers Benedict and how to pursue holiness, his insights coincide with Ratzinger’s writing and theological thrust. For example, Benedict does, rightly I believe, want liturgy to move in practice beyond a festival of self-affirmation. Religious and lay communities as well as the critical state of nominally Catholic universities are assertively addressed.
In short, George Weigel’s God’s Choice is a great read, filled with the witty and often very perceptive insights of one of the foremost public commentators trained in theology on the American scene. If you generally like Weigel and his pugnacious style, and his love for Catholicism and the Church, the book will be enjoyable but somewhat predictable.