A controversial new pontiff in a controversial new time

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Dieu n’est pas serieux!” (God is not serious). We know that after the long reign of Pope John Paul II, Catholic bishops and cardinals wanted an elderly person who could not hold power for too long.

At 78, the former dean of the College of Cardinals, Joseph Ratzinger, was a good candidate. Still, most people thought that a “centrist” would be a good choice in today’s complex world. So when I heard of the election of Cardinal Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI, my mind suddenly remembered a book I once saw in Switzerland.

Written by an African Catholic, the book makes an interesting point: God has a tremendous sense of humor. That’s how some Catholics have come to reconcile themselves with the election of a cardinal who for years was known for his inflexible dogmatism and controversial statements about feminism, the salvation of non-Catholics, gay marriage, homosexuality, abortion and many other hot-button issues.

Ratzinger had become the “sheriff” of the Catholic orthodoxy, silencing or condemning many theologians around the globe. Whether it is the will of God or the will of human cardinals, the election of Ratzinger constitutes a fundamental hermeneutical device for understanding the world and the signs of our time.

One thing is certain: Pope Benedict XVI is a product of our time. He carries with him the burden of a century marked by fascism, Nazism, anti-Semitism and colonialism. He also carries in his work the joys, pains, hopes and anxieties of our time. The new pontiff is the product of a “world in transition,” marked by the fear of pluralism and equality, and by the struggle many people face vis-?-vis the corrosive and revolutionary forces of globalization. This is a struggle that involves the rise of a type of free thinking that’s committed to liberating men and women from the diktat of materialism, pseudo-democratic Plutocrats, religious and social patriarchy, pseudo-religious tyrants, and Machiavellian think tanks and intelligentsia that have long been controlling the production of knowledge for the benefit of a few.

In this era of digital revolution, the Bill Gates’ of our time have brought us a second “Renaissance,” and a globalization that radically challenges religious, political and intellectual authoritarianism. Customs and traditions long held sacred are falling apart. And freedom comes with its shadow, a “beyond good and evil” outlook which appears dangerous to traditional ideas of liberty. Thus, the panic of the self-proclaimed guardians of peace and morality, marriage and family values, and law and order, is explained. But there is nothing new in this kind of reaction, at least nothing stopping the march of history.

In the era of Pax Iberica, the age of empire dominated by Spain and Portugal, encounters among people of different cultures and religions, the flow of information and the commerce stimulated by new technologies combined to generate a new class of “Avoir-Savoir-Pouvoir” (economic power, knowledge and political power). A new economic force (the bourgeoisie), combined with a new intellectual elite, challenged the academic status quo, political authoritarianism and religious claims to absolute truth and power.

The works of Johann Gutenberg, John Wycliffe, William Tyndale, Martin Luther, Erasmus of Rotterdam, Pico della Mirandola, Dante Alighieri, Galileo Galilei, and the progress of science and technology largely contributed, albeit in strange ways, to liberating God and the word of God from despots, and generated a kind of religious democracy, while laying the groundwork for a democratic challenge to monarchy. God was no longer the private property of kings or bishops. Adieu, divine kingship mythologies!

The response of “men of God” is well-known: Witch hunts, indexes, an Inquisition, the Galileo Trial, the burning at the stake of Giordano Bruno, the ultra-conservative and reactionary Council of Trent, and anti-modernism. Later on, Protestants won the battle against Catholicism just to fall prey, in various ways, to the same “original sins.” Reform and counter-reform movements continued through the centuries. There is nothing surprising in that today’s globalization provokes frustration and reaction. Conservatism is to be understood as a subtext in the grand scheme of social and religious transformation ushered by this second Axial Age of intellectual and religious development.

That Ratzinger, responsible for the infamous “Dominus Iesus” document, is now the pope raises some fundamental questions. But as Hans Kung pointed out, we gave President Bush 100 days to prove himself, so we must give Pope Benedict XVI 100 days, too.

As for the man Italians now refer to as “Paparatzi,” nothing is written in stone. The complex and long history of the Catholic Church is replete with delightful surprises. It would not be wise to rush to judgment. Pope John XXIII proved that a conservative Cardinal could bring about progressive changes, while Pope Paul VI did somewhat the opposite. In a Church that produced many saints and such problematic figures as Popes Innocent VIII, Alexander VI, Julius II and Leo X, anything is possible.

As for the possibility of a non-Western Pope, many still wonder whether it is really the will of God that only European popes be elected after two thousands years of non-stop Eurocentrism. And as for God, maybe he’s a European. Pardon me. Maybe she’s a European.

Mutombo Nkulu-N’Sengha, Ph.D, is an assistant professor in the Religious Studies Department.