Washington Notebook

April 28, 2005
Vol. 2, No. 16

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Joe Feuerherd, NCR Washington correspondent


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Elections: Sacred and Profane

By Joe Feuerherd

Pope Benedict XVI’s political skills are clearly not the least of the new Holy Father’s many talents.

Joseph Napolitan, for one, is impressed. Napolitan, who coined the phrase “political consultant” so he’d have a title in John Kennedy’s 1960 presidential bid, has run hundreds of campaigns. The baptized but non-practicing Catholic noted striking similarities between the Sistine Chapel balloting and the rough-and-tumble world of American politics. 

First rule of secular campaigns: voters should know the candidate. Voters’ familiarity with the prospective officeholder, says Napolitan, “matters a tremendous amount.”

Next, says the founder of the American Association of Political Consultants and the International Association of Political Consultants, it helps to have a candidate who knows the voters, who has experience dealing directly with their concerns and interests. That’s why “constituent service” – the time a congressman’s staff spends tracking down lost Social Security checks – is considered essential.

Third: seize the moment. Campaigns can be won or lost when the spotlight shines brightest. Remember Nixon and Checkers? Reagan and “there you go again.” Mondale and “Where’s the Beef?”

In the days following his election, Benedict XVI disavowed ambition. In fact, he told German pilgrims April 25 that, as the conclave balloting progressed and the reality of the task before him became clear, he prayed he would not be selected. Yet, with the benefit of nine days hindsight, it is difficult to see how he would have behaved differently – given the constraints of custom and canon law -- had he actually wanted the job.

With more than two decades of service as prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger, says Napolitan, “was ideally placed. He was one of the few cardinals who was in regular contact with the other cardinals, which makes a big difference when there are 115 of them scattered all over the world.”

Napolitan continued, “Like any other organization, there are lots of people [in the church] who toil away and nobody has to go to them for approval for anything, but Ratzinger was in a position of authority; which is not to say that he had any ulterior motive – they [the cardinals] think he did a good job and he made the most of it.”

Plus, Ratzinger knew the voters. In fact, as a key aide to the man who selected nearly every conclave elector, Ratzinger knew them better than most. “I guarantee I could win a lot more elections than I do if I could help pick the electorate,” quips Napolitan.

Certainly, as Dean of the College of Cardinals, Ratzinger was in a unique public position following the death of John Paul II. He gave the well-received homily at the funeral mass, presided at the daily meetings of the General Congregation of cardinals, and, on the day the conclave began, gave a controversial sermon which spelled out a vision for the church.

It was not a Happy-Days-are-Here-Again approach.

"The small boat of thought of many Christians has often been tossed about by these waves--thrown from one extreme to the other: from Marxism to liberalism, even to libertinism; from collectivism to radical individualism; from atheism to a vague religious mysticism; from agnosticism to syncretism, and so forth,” said Ratzinger. “Every day new sects are created and what Saint Paul says about human trickery comes true, with cunning which tries to draw those into error (cf Eph 4, 14). Having a clear faith, based on the Creed of the Church, is often labeled today as a fundamentalism. Whereas, relativism, which is letting oneself be tossed and ‘swept along by every wind of teaching,’ looks like the only attitude [acceptable] to today's standards. We are moving towards a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one's own ego and one's own desires

Tough stuff and, to some ears, the homily seemed off-key – the type of rhetoric more likely to alienate than endear. Instead, as it turned out, Ratzinger was demonstrating just the type of leadership a good number of cardinals apparently craved.

“He was already acting like the pope,” says Napolitan.

“Can you say ‘mandate?” asked conservative pundit Hugh Hewitt.

Elections are funny things. In voting for Ronald Reagan, for example, Americans sought a strong leader who would combat communism, cut taxes, and fight “big government.” By and large, they got what they wanted.

And then there was Lyndon Johnson’s (another Napolitan client) 1964 landslide. Lost to history is the wag who first said: "They told me if I voted for Goldwater we'd soon have half a million American troops in Vietnam. So I voted for Goldwater, and they were right."

The conclave cardinals knew what they were buying in a Ratzinger papacy. Or so they thought. In his early “honeymoon” days, Benedict XVI has spoken of his desire to listen, has reached out to other religious traditions, and generally put a kinder and gentler face on his German Shepherd persona. Skillful public relations? Undoubtedly. But also, some hope, something more.

I’m personally skeptical, disbelieving really, that a 78-year-old man with deeply held views about the church and its role in the broader society will adopt a new tone because he has a new role. No, based on that pre-conclave sermon and a long theological career, it’s evident to me that Benedict XVI thinks he’s got a good take on the controversial questions of our time. There’s every reason to believe that papal policies will reflect that worldview.

On the other hand, he’s got some freedom to maneuver. Unlike his secular political counterparts, he doesn’t have to face the voters ever again.

The e-mail address for Joe Feuerherd is jfeuerherd@natcath.org

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