April 26, 2005

Pope Benedict XVI: "A Man With Great Humility & Gentlemanliness"

The true quality of a man or woman living a visibly public life is often best judged by personal stories about private behaviors occurring outside the glare of the public spotlight. Suzanne Fields tells such a story about her Jewish son-in-law's interactions with Joseph Ratzinger before he became Pope Benedict XVI:

When my Jewish son-in-law was a teenager, he was tutored for 15 days by Joseph Ratzinger, the new Pope. He was at a religious retreat in Munster, Germany, sent there by his teachers who were Jesuit priests. The young boy's father was dead and he was being raised by his mother, who descended from a family of Sephardic Jews who had converted to Catholicism like so many other Jews who left Spain during the Inquisition and eventually set down roots in the New World. The Jesuits wanted the young boy to be Catholic with a complete understanding of the meaning of the religion. That required that he learn how to think.

At the retreat, the boy was sworn to a fortnight of silence except for talking with his tutor. He remembers Joseph Ratzinger vividly, the most brilliant mind he had ever encountered before and since that time. Joseph Ratzinger had been through World War II, had been in the Hitler Youth and knew firsthand the irrational evils of fascism. Marxism was alive and well in the Soviet Union and behind the Iron Curtain and Joseph Ratzinger understood the dangers that emanated from the ruthless materialism of Communism in the Cold War.

But he didn't talk to the boy about such things. Instead he had him read Aristotle and Plato, the novels of Thomas Mann, the philosophy of Heidegger, and the most critical think piece of all, "The Grand Inquisitor," that powerful legend embedded in a single chapter of "The Brothers Karamazov" by Dostoevski. For those who have never read the Russian novel or have forgotten most of what they once read, "The Grand Inquisitor" is about earthly power and spiritual power, about religious purity embodied in Christ and earthly corruption wherever it can be found, even when it's found in the church.

Dostoevski does not tell you what to think about his legend, but he requires that you think about it. The novelist was a deeply religious man and he always thought many readers missed that point about him. To this day, my son-in-law does not know Joseph Ratzinger's full interpretation of the legend, but he does know that the questions and answers he had with his tutor made him respond with great intellectual power, making him aware of how shallow his own reasoning could sometimes be about such things.

Belief was based on reason as well as faith. Fascism and Communism were "un-reasonable" and deprived men and women of freedom. Catholicism, by contrast, offered freedom from within the Judeo-Christian tradition that has been tested for thousands of years. It offers tolerance for supporting the use of reason as it is bequeathed through historical faith. It offers tolerance for the march of human progress to make the world a better place for those enslaved by dictators and who are less fortunate in their daily lives.

My son-in-law believes that the same man who tutored him is inside Benedict XVI. Having followed his ascendancy in the papal hierarchy, he sees a consistency that often passes for public misinterpretation and personal attacks such as the notorious pun calling him "God's rottweiler." He recalls the qualities in the new pope that his supporters celebrate today, a man willing to argue with different points of view, a man with great humility and gentlemanliness: A good egg, Benedict.

It seems that it takes more than a little chutzpah on the part of this Jewish columnist to interpret the ideas of the pope, but he is not without significance for all of us, because of the influence he will have on cultural attitudes. The pope's consistency grows out of his anathema to relativism when it is enshrined as truth as it is in much of our secular society today.

You don't have to be Catholic to stand with this pope against cultural theories of deconstruction rampant in our postmodern universities where language has become Orwellian, where the only absolute is that there are no absolutes, where right and wrong are considered anachronisms held by piously nave religious men and women and where open-mindedness is so open that "educated" brains have fallen out.

My son-in-law, who is a scientist, did not convert to Catholicism. But he cherishes the Jesuitical training he had at his Catholic school that encouraged him to go to that retreat with Joseph Ratzinger, where he learned how to argue over issues concerning religion, power and personal aspiration; where he learned to examine with reason the evidence in front of him and to honor the intellectual force of an argument grounded in universal truths; and to ask questions within a disciplined framework of reason guided by a firm faith in mankind. Great teachers transcend ideology.