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The Rule of Benedict: Pope Benedict XVI and His Battle with the Modern World

The Rule of Benedict: Pope Benedict XVI and His Battle with the Modern World

by David Gibson

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There was no neutral response to the announcement that the "enforcer"—Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger—had been elected Benedict XVI, the next pope of the Roman Catholic Church. Conservatives saw it as the final triumph of their agenda. Liberals were aghast. Everyone else wondered what to expect. Award-winning religion journalist David Gibson explores the "war


There was no neutral response to the announcement that the "enforcer"—Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger—had been elected Benedict XVI, the next pope of the Roman Catholic Church. Conservatives saw it as the final triumph of their agenda. Liberals were aghast. Everyone else wondered what to expect. Award-winning religion journalist David Gibson explores the "war of ideas" that will be a defining feature of this new papacy.

Gibson persuasively argues that by tackling the modern world head-on Benedict XVI is gambling that he can make traditional, orthodox Catholicism the savior of contemporary society. But if the elderly Benedict fails in his battle with modernity, will Catholicism wind up as a "smaller-but-purer church"—the new kind of fortress Catholicism that some conservatives want? Such fears haunt millions of American Catholics pressing for change. Gibson points to the early warning signs of a papacy hyperfocused on "right belief" and shows how the key decisions of this surprising papacy will profoundly impact the future of Catholicism.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's name was announced as the new leader of the Roman Catholic Church on April 19, 2005, Gibson, a journalist and Catholic convert, was among the throng but not cheering. The author of The Coming Catholic Church considers himself part of "the silent majority of Catholics, who were hoping, praying, for the vibrancy and openness that would herald a new chapter in the history of the church." Instead, he writes, they got a "polarizing figure" with a well-publicized past, a man known for his heavy hand with liberation theologians and others deemed to veer toward heterodoxy. In this detailed examination, Gibson tells how Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI, and why his ways of thinking about the church may not bode well for efforts to reform it in such areas as governance and opening the priesthood to women or married men. He paints the new pontiff as someone who is more interested in the personal piety of Catholics than their engagement with the world and issues of social justice. Readers who have been watching the new pope for signals of what his papacy will bring will find this to be absorbing reading. (Oct.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Presumably, at least two factors have contributed to the spate of books released this past year by and about the new pope, the former Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. First, given that the previous papal conclave was held over a quarter of a century ago, the changing of the guard in 2005 was something of a historical event. Second, Ratzinger's notoriety in his previous post as the arch-conservative head of the Congregation for the Defense of the Faith made his election controversial, both within and outside of the Church. Here, religion journalists Gibson and Shortt address both concerns, providing the same basic outline of Ratzinger's life and placing his career in the context of Church politics from the late 19th century to the present. Gibson provides more detail in his long, entertaining, and elegantly written book than does Shortt, although not all of it is strictly relevant (e.g., an excursus on the history of the papal election process). He seems to have an ax to grind, drawing generalizations from anecdotal evidence provided by opponents of Ratzinger and occasionally making contradictory complaints (e.g., he alternatively charges Ratzinger with being too heavyhanded and too hands-off). Shortt, while acknowledging some criticisms of the new pope as valid, balances them with concessions, allowing, for instance, that the liberation theologians Ratzinger suppressed sometimes did veer too far off the doctrinal course. Shortt's book is stylistically flat but fairer in evaluating Ratzinger's suitability as leader of the Church. Gibson's book is better suited for readers with as much interest in Church history generally as in the current pope. Both books are suitable for public library collections.-Charles Seymour, Mabee Learning Resources Ctr., Wayland Baptist Univ., TX Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Clear-minded and thorough introduction to the new pope. In this balanced work, Gibson (The Coming Catholic Church, not reviewed) successfully combines biography and journalism to illuminate Benedict XVI, one of the most controversial religious figures of our time. He begins with an in-depth exploration of John Paul II, with whom then-Cardinal Ratzinger worked closely and in whose inimitable shadow the new papacy stands. Contrasting the two popes as "Pontifex Maximus" and "Pontifex Minimus," Gibson encapsulates the personalities and approaches of both. The author then explores Ratzinger's background as a young man growing up in Nazi Germany. Pushing aside tabloid headlines about the future pope's involvement or non-involvement in that regime, Gibson does discuss the impact these youthful experiences had on his personality. Subsequent chapters cover Ratzinger's years as a progressive scholar during Vatican II and his role as a neo-conservative following the Council. Gibson then provides an in-depth account of Ratzinger's quarter-century as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Comparisons and contrasts between Cardinal Ratzinger and Pope Benedict round out the survey. Though not focusing entirely on American issues, Gibson provides discussion of the relationship between Benedict and U.S. Catholics. His summaries are fair, his analysis free of hyperbole. He states at one point that Benedict "comes off as not just countercultural, but anticultural, and even fatalistic." The new pope's most avid supporters may not be pleased, but the average Catholic (or non-Catholic) will find this book worthwhile. Gibson's ability to provide in-depth background about church history,theology and hierarchy is also of great value to lay readers. An important reference for anyone with an interest in the modern papacy.
National Catholic Reporter
“Mr. Gibson has given us one of the best books on the church in many years.”

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The Rule of Benedict

Pope Benedict XVI and His Battle with the Modern World

By David Gibson

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2006

David Gibson

All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060858419

Chapter One

The Shadow of the Pontiff

High above St. Peter's Square, inside the warren of apartments that make up the imposing complex of the Apostolic Palace, the old pope sat slumped in a wheelchair as aides tried to pretend they weren't completely preoccupied with his every move. Over the previous weeks, as the silver jubilee of this historic pontificate approached, Parkinson's disease, which had afflicted John Paul II for years, was also advancing, just as inexorably. The question seemed to be which would arrive first, the anniversary or the angel of death.

As often happens in such cases, the affliction that was steadily paralyzing synapses in the pontiff's brain passed through phases, with good days and bad. Sometimes the pope looked to be on the edge of death, to the point that newsrooms hit the panic button and started mobilizing for the funeral. At other times, and for long stretches, he would rally and become animated to such a degree that one thought he might go on forever. Vatican insiders said that the swings were due to changes in his medications. Some suggested that John Paul disliked taking them because they dulled his famously agile mind and made him too sleepy to engage the crowds that energized him. So for major events, such as the jubilee ofhis election, he would cut back on the pills. Others said the pope's doctors had to periodically flush the powerful drugs out of his system so they would not harm his organs.

In those unmedicated times, the pope's death seemed imminent. As his health worsened, the circle around him grew tighter, and even officials who had once enjoyed regular access to the pope were cut off. Information became speculation. At one point, the talk around the Vatican was that John Paul was being given some kind of mixture that included a cocaine-like stimulant to keep him going. The rumor had some basis in history. A nineteenth-century pope, Leo XIII, whose papacy John Paul would eventually surpass, enjoyed a sparkling red wine laced with opium, called Vin Mariani, which kept him going until the ripe age of ninety-three. Leo liked it so much he endorsed the tonic in ads; it was also favored by Queen Victoria and President McKinley.

In any case, medical care was never the Vatican's forte. The quack remedies of Pius XII's personal physician may have hastened his death in 1958, and the mysterious sudden death of John Paul I in 1978 after just thirty-three days as pope instilled no great confidence in the Holy See's health care system.

Whatever the rumors, however, it was clear that as the twenty-fifth anniversary of his election approached, on October 16, 2003, John Paul II was struggling just to get through each day alive. The pontiff who considered an acting career as a young man could barely make himself understood, his voice a guttering flame, his face a frozen mask. John Paul struggled for breath and winced with pain, as even the slightest movement aggravated the arthritis that afflicted his hips and knees without respite.

Like worried offspring, the prelates hovering about the Holy Father struggled for words of comfort and produced only the usual non sequiturs that come to even the most well-intentioned at such times.

Then suddenly, the old man himself spoke, stirring from beneath the cope of senescence and blurting out, "Non omnis moriar."

The phrase sounded like some stray fragment from the old Latin Mass, a Tridentine reverie plucked from the memory of a long-ago Polish seminarian casting back to the beginning of his religious life as he faced the twilight of his earthly days. Instead, the pope's words were those of Horace, the pagan poet from a Rome of two millennia before John Paul, from the odes that Karol Wojtyla, a bright young student from Krakow, had memorized ages earlier on his way to earning his school's Latin prize.

Non omnis moriar (I shall not wholly die).1

In the mouth of the dying pope, the ancient words may have been a declaration of the Chris-tian faith in the Resurrection that triumphed over the pagan world. Or perhaps they were simply an effort to ease the concern of those around him. Then again, Horace's poem, read in its entirety, also alludes to a more temporal reality of which the pope, himself a poet of no small renown, was undoubtedly aware:

I have achieved a monument more lasting

than bronze and loftier than the pyramids of kings,

which neither gnawing rain nor blustering wind

may destroy, nor innumerable series of years,

nor the passage of ages. I shall not wholly die,

a large part of me will escape Libitina, the goddess of Death:

while Pontiff and Vestal shall climb the Capitol Hill,

I shall be renewed and flourish in further praise.2

Indeed, whatever John Paul intended by his muttered recitation, nothing could state more clearly the imposing legacy of his quarter-century on the Throne of St. Peter, nor the daunting task facing the man who would become his successor. Only 3 other popes in history--out of 264--reigned longer than John Paul, one of them St. Peter himself. For years, Catholics had acclaimed him as John Paul the Great, granting him an honorific that history has conferred on just three other pontiffs, all of whom lived in the fifth and sixth centuries and gained renown by preserving Rome from barbarian invaders. One of his many biographers, Jonathan Kwitny, called John Paul the "Man of the Century." As the pope passed his silver jubilee, many would have extended the time frame to the past millennium.

With John Paul II, it seemed that the Fates, out of folly or perhaps from boredom with the routine of elderly Italian men shuffling through the Petrine office, had decided to shake up the Catholic Church at the end of the second millennium and pump some life into the wheezing Great Man theory of history. In Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of . . .


Excerpted from The Rule of Benedict
by David Gibson
Copyright © 2006 by David Gibson.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

David Gibson is an award-winning religion writer and a committed lay Catholic. He writes about Catholicism for various newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, New York magazine, Boston magazine, Fortune, Commonweal, and America. He was the religion writer for the The Star-Ledger of New Jersey. Gibson has worked in Rome for Vatican Radio and traveled frequently with Pope John Paul II. He has co-written several recent documentaries on Christianity for CNN.

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