This article on Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI is eminently worth a read. I must say that I came away from it with rather more sympathy for Ratzinger than I had on the way in.
There are, unsurprisingly, some scary and amusing things in the piece. It reports on some of his writings, which contain predictable Catholic sophistry about sex. (It's a source of endless fascination for me that so many religious folks are so filled with fear and loathing of sex that they will produce endless streams of patently fallacious arguments about how terrible it is unless viewed as a mere means to an end... A sad and tawdry bit of world slander, that...) At one point he also says that the (old) Pope told him that his most important religious obligation was not to have his own opinions, and he seemed to be o.k. with that. (Perhaps strangely, I think there might be a non-irrational interpretation of this. Though see Peirce on the Method of Authority.)
So how can we respect someone who so subordinates his own thinking to others and so demeans human sexuality? What could be more inhumane than denigrating freedom of thought and wonderfulness of sex?
Yeah, good question.
Reportedly he is a man willing to listen to reason and admit error, and that goes a long way in my book. I'm also sympathitic with those who have been driven to the right by seeing how deeply rotten the extreme left can be, and it is his encounters with campus radicals in the '60's that seems to have sent him in a more conservative direction. I'm not saying that makes his positions right, of course, but I am saying that I can understand that reaction. It's an old story. My early brushes with the rot of Christian fundamentalism probably sent me in a more liberal direction than I might have otherwise gone in (um...in which than I otherwise might have gone?), and I have conservative friends who became conservative in large part because of experiences like those of Ratzinger.
(Footnote: even liberals who don't care about lefty bias on campus on moral grounds should care on prudential ones. Some of the best and the brightest turn right after encountering the ugliness of the radical left.)
But reportedly Ratzinger thinks that religious certainties are the only thing that can save us from the barbarism of right- and left-wing totalitarianisms. That's not true, but the arguments for that position are subtle and seductive. It's easy to fall for them, and many intelligent people have done so. And if you think that religious authoritarianism is the only thing standing between us and the End Of Everything--well, then accepting such authoritarianism is perhaps not such an unreasonable thing.
At any rate, this Times piece reminded me of the dangers of thinking in cartoonish ways about those with whom one disagrees. Ratzinger might be wrong--in fact he rather clearly is wrong about a great number of things. But that doesn't entail that he's stupid or evil. In case you doubt this, it might be worth reflecting on the fact that you and I are almost certainly also wrong about a great number of things.
So, anyway, here's wishing good luck to the new Pope, especially in his inquiries. I hope he either gets closer to the truth or figures out a way to explain to me and mine why we're the ones who are missing it.