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Habemus Papam

19 April 2005

Habemus Papam

By Gwynne Dyer

Apart from his membership in the Hitler Youth (which may be excused on the grounds that he was very young at the time), there is nothing remotely controversial about Joseph Ratzinger. He was the enforcer for Pope John Paul II for many years, the latter had stuffed the College of Cardinals with men who shared his opinions and values, and they duly made Ratzinger his successor. All that speculation about a Latin American or African pope was just heavy breathing by journalists starved for hard news; Ratzinger went into the conclave the favourite, and he came out the winner. No surprise there.

It will be no surprise either when Pope Benedict XVI defends John Paul II’s conservative positions on doctrinal matters even as Catholics in developed countries drift away and Catholics in developing countries, especially in Latin America, turn to more exciting religious alternatives. Neither Joseph Ratzinger nor Karol Wojtyla before him believed that true morality should be determined by popular vote, and if pushed they would both have agreed that it is more important for the Catholic church to be right than to be big.

What is remarkable is how much attention the rest of us pay to all this. Non-Catholics and even non-Christians have been treated by the international media to a breathless, almost non-stop account of the death and funeral of the last pope and the election of the new one, even though most of us don’t really care who runs the Catholic church.

It’s partly due to the fact that there isn’t much else of a dramatic sort for the media to focus on at the moment. The highly centralised structure of the Catholic church, the authoritarian style of most of its recent leaders, and the horse-race excitement of the way a new pope is chosen made this an ideal global media event — and there are never enough of those to go around.

If there were enough Greek Orthodox believers to make the selection of a new Patriarch in Constantinople (Istanbul to the rest of us) a plausible subject for global media attention, or if mainstream Sunni Islam had a formal religious hierarchy with a boss at the top, you may be sure that they would get exactly the same treatment. And I am not exempt from this herd behaviour: this is the third column I have written about the death of the last pope and the selection of the new one myself.

Maybe it’s because I was born a Catholic, though that was a very long time ago. Or maybe it’s just because there’s no point in writing about anything else right now; they wouldn’t print it even if you did, so go with the flow. But I really think that we give organised religion, and especially the three Western religions that Muslims call the “peoples of the Book” (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), a special place because they express something vitally important about human nature — something that was denied everywhere else for most of history.

I write as an unbeliever; if you believe that one or more of these religions was divinely inspired, then your attitude toward it will be fundamentally different. But as what you might call a friendly outsider, I would offer the following thought about why there is instinctive respect for and interest in religion even among unbelievers.

Human beings are egalitarians. Few of our primate relatives are, and even among our own number you will find many people who want to set themselves up above others, but fundamentally we are programmed to treat one another as equals — and for all the hundreds of millennia that we lived in small groups as hunter-gatherers, we appear to have done so

Then we invented civilisation around five thousand years ago and moved into the mass societies — and equality disappeared. Early mass societies could only be run from the top down, by compulsion and force, and so even the notion of human beings as equals was suppressed. You were born free or slave, noble or serf, and there you remained. Thousands of years of institutionalised inequality, with the ancestral religion of mankind (paganism, we would call it) converted into the handmaid of power and privilege — and then, in the midst of this moral and philosophical wasteland, new religions arose that declared all human beings equal before God.

You are free to believe that God really spoke to His prophets, and I will continue to believe that it was the essence of human nature reasserting itself in a religious guise, but either way it was remarkable. In societies where there had been no genuine equality among people for thousands of years, suddenly the principle of equality was resurrected in the most dramatic way. And that, dimly remembered all this time later, is probably why even the non-believers among us concede a special place to the (once) new religions.

Buddhism played a comparable role in the east of Eurasia, infusing even the resurgent Hinduism that eventually largely replaced it in its country of origin with the notion that earthly rank is of no real consequence and that all souls are equal. And because the real world goes on being radically unequal even down to today, believers and non-believers alike retain our respect and even our reverence for the faiths that once offered us dignity when all worldly authority denied it to us.

Does Joseph Ratzinger think any of these thoughts? From the very different perspective of the believer, I suspect that he does. Most genuinely religious people do. I wish him well.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 7. (“It will…big”; and “Iwrite…unbelievers”)