On Benedict XVI, the BBC is already writing the first draft of history

Benedict XVI

When I heard that Radio 4 was replacing the Moral Maze with a special programme about the Pope on Saturday night, I thought “That should be interesting.” Then I discovered that the programme would be chaired by Ed Stourton. Well, it’s Lent and charity matters so I will only say that he summoned up a predictable group of his chums and their remarks were what one would expect: largely predictable. Hans Küng, that most aged of aging liberals, spoke in his heavy German accent to ask what had happened to the youthful (and fellow liberal) Ratzinger since the heady days of the early 1960s; he decided that he must have suffered a “trauma.” John Wilkins, former editor of The Tablet, echoed Küng: the young Ratzinger, appalled by the student riots of 1968, had retreated into conservatism; otherwise, how could the man who had written such a hopeful book about Vatican II have morphed into the watchdog of orthodoxy?

Much was made of the Pope’s time as Prefect of the Congregation of the Faith. According to Wilkins he had had a “close bond” with John Paul II. He made it sound sinister: the meeting of minds of two deeply conservative men, both determined to turn the clock back, one a Polish Pope and the other the “Panzer-Kardinal” with a fearsome reputation. Fr Timothy Radcliffe, former Master of the Dominicans, was wheeled on; he said he had been called to the CDF to be interviewed by Cardinal Ratzinge, making it sound as if he had had a brush with the Inquisition.

Marco Politi, a Vaticanologist, who has trained his beady, critical eye on the Vatican in the same way that other people gaze at the stars, thought this was the “paradox”: personally Benedict XVI could be gentle and charming – but when it came to defending principles he could be “very tough.” Gentle and tough: I always think of Christ as being gentle (with sinners) and tough (with the other lot); perhaps a little bit of his divine master has rubbed off on Ratzinger?
Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, onetime rector of the English College in Rome, gave as his opinion that Ratzinger “got worried” by the new theology. He was surprised when the Cardinal was elected Pope; he had thought him “too old.” Professor Tina Beattie of Roehampton University felt the Cardinal saw the new theology as “a threat.” Michael Walsh, papal historian, referred to the Vatican Bank scandal and to “Vatileaks”; he felt the Pope had handled these badly. Then Benedict’s gaffes were mentioned: the Regensburg Lecture; SSPX Bishop Williamson and his denial of the Holocaust. Stourton opined that the child abuse scandal had “cast a long shadow over his pontificate.”

Just as I began to wonder if we would hear anything that has not been aired many times in the media I discerned the invisible but unmistakeable presence of the Holy Spirit in this discussion: the speakers turned to the Papal visit of 2010 and despite their previous caveats, criticisms and cautionary tales, they were clearly moved by its impact. Lord Sacks, outgoing Chief Rabbi, who had been very worried by the Bishop Williamson affair, felt “the sight of this deeply humble man dispersed the clouds” and that meeting him was like “an epiphany.” Tina Beattie thought Benedict hadn’t “put a foot wrong in his visit to Britain”; and Mark Dowd, former monk and now a TV producer, had knelt on the grass in Hyde Park in tears when singing the Tantum Ergo. I was waving and cheering in the Mall that same afternoon and know just how he felt.

Next time Radio 4 decides to put together a programme about Pope Benedict I would like to offer them a few suggestions so that listeners are not served up the same tired old menu. Instead of Tim Radcliffe, why not invite fellow Dominican, Aidan Nichols, who is a heavyweight theologian and who might well have insights to offer? Instead of Cardinal Murphy O’Connor, why not Bishop Egan of Portsmouth or Bishop Davies of Shrewsbury who have been appointed during this pontificate? Instead of Professor Beattie, why not Josephine Robinson, who has run the Association of (contented-at-not-being-ordained) Catholic Women for many years? Instead of Michael Walsh, why not Dr Joseph Shaw of the LMS, to talk about Benedict’s “reform of the reform” of the liturgy?

Instead of John Wilkins, why not Mgr Keith Newton, who is in charge of the Anglican Ordinariate? Amazingly, these imaginative, original and pastoral aspects of Benedict’s pontificate were never mentioned during Saturday night’s discussion. Instead of Mark Dowd, why not Fr Tim Finigan, whose widely read blog, “The Hermeneutic of Continuity”, was actually inspired by the election of this Pope? Instead of Marco Politi, why not Fr Ian Ker or an Oratorian priest, to talk about the influence of Newman on the Pope? And finally, instead of Ed Stourton, why not our own William Oddie to be the chairman -just in case the discussion needs to be livened up and the ghosts of elderly liberals put firmly back in their sarcophagi?

Just a few thoughts.