He is an intellectual opposed to questioning doctrine. He is a shepherd with scant pastoral experience. He is a creature of the 20th century deeply opposed to the modern world. In these seeming contradictions, you can begin to see the contours of one of the most unusual, gifted men to become Pope.
For the young Joseph Ratzinger, struggling out of the moral abyss of Nazi Bavaria, St. Augustine was a guiding light. "Augustine has kept me company for more than 20 years," Pope Benedict XVI once wrote. One of Augustine's key arguments was that human beings were so profoundly flawed they couldn't begin to figure out the meaning of life on their own. They needed something transcendent to bring them up from their knees. That was the message of the New Testament, the promise of the Christ. It was, in Ratzinger's words, "a matter of announcing to man the unthinkable, novel, free Act of God, something which cannot be drawn up out of the mental depths of man, because it announces God's unreckoning, gracious decision." What decision? To save humankind from itself.
For the new Pope, faith is a gift, not an acquisition. In Christianity, he once wrote, mankind comes to itself "not through what he does but through what he accepts." The Christian identity is not made or debated or thought through. It is "received." Because it is received, it cannot be altered. "Christianity is not 'our' work," Benedict told Italian journalist Vittorio Messori in the 1980s. "It is a revelation; it is a message that has been consigned to us, and we have no right to reconstruct it as we like or choose."
Alas, the Gospels do not tell us everything. Jesus never mentions, say, abortion, homosexuality, reproductive technologies or a celibate priesthood, to name just a few of the issues confronting the Roman Catholic Church. How do we know what is "revealed" about them? According to Benedict XVI, only the church hierarchy decides that, with the Pope as the ultimate authority. Because these truths are simply received from God and are therefore nonnegotiable, don't bother asking any questions. Faith, Benedict once wrote, comes "not from reflecting (as in philosophy). Faith's essence consists in the re-thinking of what has been heard." No wonder Benedict, in his former role as guardian of church orthodoxy, silenced so many theologians who had the temerity to reflect.