Stillness within the panic

I write today about Ratzinger over at Catholic Thing (here). He is back in the news, quite modestly, and I seize on almost any chance to echo my hero of the last forty years. Over here, in this Idleposting, let me add what I had no space for, though little enough it adds. Apart from reading Ratzinger, whose Collected Works are now beginning to appear in English (see here), there is his example. To know, or begin to know a priest, one might say, is to watch him say a Low Mass, ideally in the most adverse circumstances. (Vidi.) But that is a personal judgement, from a man who must himself be allowing his attention to wander in the Mass. The alternative is to observe the priest over time, ideally over a long time, in the role dictated by his vows.

There is general agreement among most of my correspondents that we are desperately in need of a man like — of men and women like — Ratzinger in our living Church. This is not necessarily a critique of Bergoglio; and a comparison that might be impertinent is more likely to be irrelevant in this case. Plutarch drew comparisons and contrasts in parallel lives — who am I to judge Plutarch? — but comparisons often lead us astray. They emphasize what is unique in each respective individual, at the expense of virtues in him that may be universal.

And Ratzinger is unquestionably a Bavarian, and a pianist who adores Mozart and Schubert. He is a book-lover, too, in a way separate from his propensity for reading and study; he is “aesthetically” at home in libraries. As pope, he was the opposite of Wojtyla in his shyness and privacy, and with this we appreciate the flavour of his modesty (which is the universal virtue). Though very disciplined, and brave, one could almost see him flinching from the stands he had to make. He did not enjoy controversy. All these things are virtues, in their way, and virtues that happen to appeal to me, but they are not “universal” virtues. I mentioned the acknowledged saint, Wojtyla, to suggest some painterly shading: there are aspects of “personality” endowed by God, that remain through self-denial; that Lord Who created a world of extraordinary, seated variety, and must have done so to a purpose.

But there are simple and universal virtues, in which all may partake. Let me give an example of one, reflected in Ratzinger’s intellectual life.

He was determined to see things whole. His patience and caution and prudence are guided, consistently, to that end; his discipline prevents him from being cute or glib. This is evident in the interview with the Jesuit, Jacques Servais, or that portion of it translated into Italian in the Milan newspaper, Avvenire (here), currently making minor news. It is in Ratzinger’s nature to review events of the last fifty years in the light of the last five hundred: he cannot be satisfied with the immediate. Nor did he ever respond in the “media” way, to events of the last five hours or five days. First, he examines.

This is precisely the virtue — prudence in its essential form — that seems most absent from contemporary life. It can be made to account even for our atheism, or “agnosticism,” which is by nature a response to passing events. I often think recklessness is not the opposite of prudence; rather, glibness is the vice. The recklessness is the product of our glibness.

We, today, as men in all ages, cannot do without the anchoring of faith, which begins in an attachment to the unchanging. The detachment from “breaking news” follows from this. I pass by the profound theological observation, that underlies all faith — that it originates in the grace of God, not in some human intention — only because I am giving an external description. A man of any culture — East or West — who is not by desire rooted in the unchanging, is not rooted at all. He is not prepared to see things whole, when he deals as he must with what is constantly changing. He is adrift in a world liquid and not only uncharted, but unchartable.

Ratzinger, especially as Pope Benedict XVI, set a wonderful example for us, of freedom from the “breaking news.” To my mind it is exhibited at its best in such documents as Summorum Pontificum, a masterpiece of careful construction, in which the Old Mass was restored to common access, without upsetting the current order. In answering to a grievance from one side, he did not give grievance to the other, and it took extraordinary skill to avoid doing so. He then turned his full attention to completing the task of removing demonstrable defects in the wording of the New Mass. Only good was accomplished.

He did not “take sides.” Rather he kept his attention firmly on the good that either side must, at its best, intend to serve. He had no choice, in his office, but to play ecclesiastical statesman, but with a diplomacy fixed upon the cause of the Holy.

To take responsibility in this way — to know in one’s heart, and also on one’s lips, that one must finally serve the common interest beneath and beyond any faction’s reach — requires just this anchoring in what is changeless. It has been the wisdom of Holy Church herself, confronted by so many distractions, through the last twenty centuries or so.

We are living in a time when often it seems even the Barque of Peter has slipped her moorings. Yet we know by the promise of Christ that this cannot be so. It is incumbent upon us at just such times to avoid the panic that we find all around. I admire Ratzinger for his splendid example, of how to remain still and upright when the barque is tilting in the sea.