For me, a reversion to Catholicism was always a kind of selfish matter. I wanted freedom. And Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who would become Pope Benedict XVI, gave it to me.
Of course, the pope would correct me there, telling me that it was Jesus Christ who gave me freedom. Fair enough. But Pope Benedict was an irreplaceable intermediary.
It was the early 1990s. I had stopped drinking for the first time since I was 16. I was letting go of a lot of the kind of anger and utopianism that plagues the left, and was rediscovering religion after having left the Catholic Church years before. Yet I held on to a healthy strain of reasonable cynicism, the kind that made me distrust born-again conversions and their attendant Joel Osteen idiocy (just send ten dollars!). Also, being from a family of artists (before calling me pretentious, note that I didn’t say we’re good artists), any religious exploration that didn’t have room for art and music and reason was out.
It was around this time that I discovered Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. It was for the most mundane of reasons: the man knew how to write. My father was a writer, and my heroes were writers — Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jack Kerouac, Tom Wolfe, Jonathan Franzen, Anne Tyler. Curious about Catholicism, which had been my faith until I left it in college, I bought Joseph Ratzinger’s seminal 1968 book “Introduction to Christianity.”
From the first pages, I was stunned. I was looking for theology, which I got, but I wasn’t ready for Ratzinger’s brilliant prose, or his fearless and probing mind.
To this day it is always easy for me to spot a liberal, even (especially?) a Catholic, who is viciously critical of the pope — they are the ones who have never read Pope Benedict’s work. Their numbers are legion, and they will be out spreading their poison for the next few weeks, up to the election of the new pope.
In “Introduction to Christianity” I expected intelligence, to be sure. I didn’t expect an empathetic and full-frontal examination of the “God is dead” doubt that had descended upon the Western world in the late 20th century. In the opening pages, Cardinal Ratzinger references “Le Soulier de Satin,” a play by the Jesuit Paul Claudel. In the play, a Jesuit missionary survives a shipwreck but is lashed to a mast floating in the raging ocean. Ratzinger uses the scene as a metaphor: “Fastened to the cross — with the cross fastened to nothing, drifting in the abyss. The situation of the contemporary believer could hardly be more accurately and impressively described. Only a loose plank bobbing over the void seems to hold him up, and it looks as if he must eventually sink. Only a loose plank connects him to God, thought certainly it connects him inescapably, and in the last analysis he knows that this wood is stronger than the void that seethes beneath him and that remains nevertheless the really threatening force in his day-to-day life.”
The future pope then goes on to make the point that “just as we have already recognized that the believer does not live immune to doubt but is always threatened with the plunge into the void, so now we can discern the entangled nature of human destinies and say that the nonbeliever does not live a sealed-off, self-sufficient life, either. … Just as the believer is chocked by the salt water of doubt constantly washed into his mouth by the ocean of uncertainty, so the nonbeliever is troubled by doubts about his unbelief, about the real totality of the world he has made up in his mind as a self-contained whole.”