John Allen’s biography of Joseph Ratzinger is a well-written, highly critical book that ends with a short catalog of reasons why Cardinal Ratzinger could never be elected pope. But God is always surprising, and his election was but one of the surprises in the late-twentieth-century history of the papacy. Nobody could have predicted that the adipose Archbishop of Venice would be inspired to call an ecumenical council in 1960, or that his council would reshape the surface of the Catholic Church, or that his successor would be distinguished by a single attempt to stand in the way of an avalanche, the publication of Humanae vitae, or that a Polish bishop would be elected to the Chair of Peter and would reign for a quarter of a century.

So the election of Benedict is but one of the twentieth century surprises in the always surprising history of the papacy. But still it is extraordinarily surprising, for when he was elected nobody could have been in doubt as to the temper of his pontificate. He had been the intellectual steam behind the pontificate of John Paul ii, in whose popular and politically significant reign he had been the voice of thoughtfulness, discipline, and tradition.

That he would become the doctrinal watchdog of the eighties and nineties was rooted in his biography. Ratzinger had come into his own with the Age of Kennedy, that brief period after Korea had wound down and before the full effects of the American cultural revolution were felt. If you were thirty then, you would have had some sympathy with Wordsworth’s overused line, “To be alive was bliss, but to be young was very heaven.” In the fifteen years that separated the election of Kennedy and the opening of the council from World War ii, the United States had become the economic and military powerhouse of the world. The Russians were still dangerous, but there was a sense that we could successfully protect Western Europe—the armies again watched on the Rhine, defending the limes marked out by the Roman legions. Korea had wound down, half successfully. The zenith of this secular triumphalism was 1960, when the election of a Catholic president coincided with the opening of the Council, both signaling the overcoming of enmity between the Church and the world. We know retrospectively that the price was too high; Kennedy paid with the promise that his religion would not influence his political decisions, but at the time it seemed to inaugurate an age of justified optimism. The failure of morality had not yet corrupted style.

What in fact happened in the sixties was a revolution, the most recent revolution in a series begun in 1689—or in Eden—each of which had as its principle the perfect emancipation of man from tradition, the investing of hope in politics, and the proclamation of inevitable progress. It was a characteristic of these revolutions that their price was a good deal of death: the Stuarts and the Royalists in the seventeenth century; the French aristocracy and bourgeoisie in the 1790s; the middle-class peasants and nobility in the Russian revolution; and, as it turned out, millions of the defenseless unborn in the American revolution of the Age of Kennedy. As it happened, the opening of the Council, the election of John F. Kennedy, and the mass production of the pill made 1960 the perfect storm. The pill was the sacrament of the revolution: take and eat this that there may be no life. And once the two purposes of marriage, its essentially procreative purpose and its companionate function, had been separated, the abortion culture, made legal by the Supreme Court in 1973, was inevitable, as was the disappearance of marriage as it had been known in Christendom. What followed are the social acceptance of homosexuality and that parody called same-sex marriage. Now we have learned that if marriage is not about children, it is about self-fulfillment.

But in 1960 all this, all the cultural collapse, lay in the future, and although there was some, mostly latent, episcopal resentment of the starchy authority of Pius xii’s curia, there is scant evidence that the bishops intended an attack on tradition. What they did allow to corrupt their councils, perhaps because they were outgunned, and indeed sometimes outwitted by a rising class of young experts they had brought in train, was the introduction of the revolutionary idea that history has an inevitably progressive tendency, with the evident implication that the Church had better jump on board before the cultural train had left the station.

There was irony here, for it was Christian thought, based in the prophetic vision of the Old Testament, that had invented history as a meaningful framework for life and its fulfillment. The Romans had seen history as meaningless, cyclical, or subsumed into the history of the empire. The Bible and the Fathers taught that history itself lay under a curse that, although gloriously mitigated by the Incarnation and Resurrection, would not be undone until the return of Christ in glory. As St. Paul put it so tellingly, “The whole world groans, waiting for redemption.” Progress there was, the progress of the elect saints in holiness, and some intermittent betterment of times and places through the fact of human sanctification, but the Bible and the Fathers knew that the world was moving toward the last battle. The coming of the Son of Man would be like the lightning going from East to West; the Day of the Lord like a thief in the night. The elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up. All that survives of the works of man will be the saints. “Since all these things are to be dissolved, what sort of persons ought you to be in lives of holiness” (ii Peter 3:11).

But with the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment came the revolutionary myth of progress according to which it was precisely the works of man, his provision for his comfort, and his technology that would endure from generation to generation, while this world’s history was increasingly seen as the arena of human significance and achievement, and the heaven of the philosophes, when it was mentioned at all, was a bore, without an object, without love.

Never before in the long history of the Church had bishops or laity believed in anything remotely like the progressive myth of history. But as early as the 1860s, prompted by philosophers like G. W. F. Hegel, theologians had proclaimed that progress had rendered Christianity moot, or, as the Modernists would argue, that religion should be revised to meet the needs of modern man, a position rendered especially plausible by the late nineteenth century depiction of Jesus as a prophet whose prophecy did not tell of the coming of the Paraclete, the creation of the Church, and the fulfillment of all things at Christ’s Second Advent, but consisted more or less exhaustively in the promise of His imminent, dramatic return, which prophecy had manifestly failed. In the light of this failure, ‘modern’ man was offered a philosophy of history that presupposed an undefined progress toward a pacified, comfortable, pain-free world in which religious experience was a sub-category of the good life. By 1960, when the Age of Kennedy dawned, the progressive myth had become commonplace.

Pius ix had known the subversive power of the very idea of the modern, and to the outrage of millions had proclaimed that the Roman pontiff had no obligation to conform himself to the modern world. Pius xii had warned against postmillennialism, or the idea that history would be fulfilled and perfected before the coming of Christ. But what had been anathematized in 1860 and warned against in 1950 had become scholarly orthodoxy by 1960. A good insight into the way this new idea influenced both the Council and its interpretation is Michael Novak’s Open Church, written in 1964. There the story of the council was told in terms of the battle of the progressives against what Novak called “non-historical orthodoxy.” Orthodoxy is of course always non-historical in the Hegelian, modernist sense, for in the words of C. S. Lewis truth is not the name of a time. When Catholic orthodoxy seeks to exposit and clarify through the development of doctrine, it is proclaiming something that has been from the beginning, whether the Church previously has recognized it fully or not.

The documents of the Second Vatican Council were for the most part highly traditional and unexciting, but several became lenses through which the council would be viewed by progressives. The most important was called Gaudium et spes, The Church and the Modern World. It is a complicated and sometimes confusing letter, but its theme is the interrelatedness of the good of the world and the duty of the Church to the political order. “Man’s social nature makes it evident that the progress of the human person and the advance of the society itself hinge on one another,” says Gaudium et spes. But in what does the progress of the human person consist and in what the advance of society, and how can we know that society is advancing? In justice this letter struggles with the relation of Christian persons and the Church to society generally, but having accepted the notion of the advance of society, the outcome is at best cloudy. Perhaps the last and only really successful exposition of the relation between the salvation of souls and the city of man was written in 413, St. Augustine’s City of God.

The Church has, from time to time, addressed what might be called contemporary problems; the attempt of Lyons iv to prohibit the use of the crossbow by Christians comes to mind. In one way Gaudium et spes represents a line undertaken by Leo xiii, who in his social encyclicals tried, often brilliantly, to interpret the modern world to itself. But Gaudium et spes, and several others produced by the council—Nostrae aetate comes to mind—had a somewhat different tone, making it possible, not tendentiously, to read them as reshaping the mission of the Church by directing it to a number of projects that, while they might be the consequences of faith or be influenced by it, were at best diversionary because the elimination of poverty, universal peace, and political understanding among nations were not the responsibility of the Magisterium. These represented a kind of Catholic postmillennialism, the idea that the world could be, if not perfected, certainly improved, and that it was the task of the Church more or less directly to do just this. What should have given pause was the fact that this postmillennial line simply does not appear in the Fathers or in Scripture. Overlooked was the fact that the Christian mission had changed the world by resolutely ignoring the world and its purposes. With its eyes not on history but on Christ, the Church had indeed gentled western civilization and caused an unexampled outpouring of world-changing good works. But as the seventies matured, it seemed that the Church had taken its eyes off its divine Master, that it looked not to life with Christ forever but to a pacified creation now.

And this refocusing of the Christian vision had early and damaging consequences. One was moral. If a suffering-free, personally-fulfilling world was the Church-approved purpose of history, then a restraint-free world might be seen as essential to personal fulfillment. This shift in vision was enough for a human race always anxious not to be bothered by God or troubled by holiness, seeking Him (to quote Lewis again) as a mouse seeks a cat. The morality of the Catholic Church had always been marked among both laity and clergy by a note of world-denying austerity. The motto of Catholic moral theology has been: deny yourself. Priests, and in analogous ways laity, were supposed to develop moral lives marked by discipline and restraint. Not for nothing is the New Testament a minefield of hyperbole: leave father and mother, sell all your goods, expect the outer darkness if you appear at the Lord’s banquet without the white robe of holiness, you have not resisted temptation unto death.

Casuistry may soften these harsh requirements for the wayfarer, but it is not for the Church to teach the broad way. Indulge the rhetoric of self-fulfillment and what you will get is what we have gotten. Armed with the position that millennia-old verities like the Mass could be changed without damaging consequences, fed with the fires of the sexual revolution, a new generation, the generation of Kennedy, changed the culture of the Church and the world. The millennia-old enmity between the Church and the world was putatively transformed into a friendship in which the Church was to encourage the historical goals of the political order. Marriage, Mass attendance, chastity, the austerity of the priesthood crumbled simultaneously. The Church had done its bit to make possible the moral revolution it now bemoans.

The second revolutionary result was the liturgical revolution, which was both a consequence and a cause. If life were about me, then so should the Mass be. The common historiography suggests that the fathers of the Council did not send out for what they got, because the liturgical revolution they seem to have envisioned required the admission of some vernacular and was to encourage a conscious and active personal participation of the People of God. What they got was a number of clerics on the way out the door, leading a laity berapt with ditties about rowing your boat.

The Second Vatican Council was institutionalized in the broad culture by those managers of the popular historiography, the press and the book writers, by whom the message of the council was presented, and is presented still, as a happy revolution that had freed the Church from its past. All documents must be interpreted, which is what makes the interpreters, from academic historians to editorial writers to news commentators, very important and very dangerous people. It took a decade for the Church to realize what was happening. The turning point was the much disregarded letter Humanae vitae, which, after the defenses had been breeched and the gates flung open, attempted to hold the line against the degeneration of the marital relation into pointless, person-destroying hedonism and to direct it anew toward its God-given end, the procreation of children. But the revolution was well under way, and the Church was too embarrassed to teach as having authority.

In 1987 the Holy Spirit would once again surprise. The last non-Italian pope had been the obscure tutor of Charles v, Adrian vi. Karol Wojtyla was bishop of the sometimes Austrian, sometimes Polish city of Cracow. John Paul ii inherited a church filled with the struggle to understand and implement the Council and at once began a kind of popular restoration, relying on his great personal power and popularity.

Popes always bring to their ministry their own history, and John Paul ii was Polish, a member of the last organic Catholic culture on earth. One has the feeling that he perhaps never understood fully why western Europe and the United States could not become Catholic cultures, part of the culture of love he preached so persistently. His Poland was the heir of a tradition that had resisted the destruction of its religious culture—why not Europe and the West? So the Polish Pope saw that in addition to making the Church popular with his personality, it was essential to regain control of the shifting field of ideas that threatened the integrity of the faith.

Enter Joseph Ratzinger. And the letters attempting to overcome the Age of Kennedy began to roll out of the Vatican congregations. No liberation theology unless very carefully defined, no ordination of women to the priesthood, no legitimizing of homosexuality as normal, the defense of the organic relation between faith and reason, the defense of traditional moral theology.

These, all the work of Cardinal Ratzinger, who had come to the Congregation of the Faith in 1981, or the result of his influence, were reassertions of the tradition in the face of the continuing revolution. John Paul ii and his doctrinal watchdog were popular with Mass-attending Catholics, but his efforts never fully penetrated the clerical bureaucracies in America and Western Europe, where the Age of Kennedy, chastened but not defeated, rolled on. Why not altar girls, why not contraception, why not married priests? Eighty percent of the theologians in the United States belonged and belong to the Catholic Theological Society of America, whose members meet every church teaching with destruction by interpretation and nuance. Eighty percent of religious superiors still belong to an organization that produces twenty percent of the vocations to the religious life, while the traditional alternative, whose member orders produce eighty percent of vocations were, and are, often marginalized.

John Paul ii had made it clear that the Council could not be understood as heralding the destruction of Catholic life and thought. And he had also made provision for the future, for he had controlled to some degree the election of his successor by controlling the College of Cardinals, who were, with exceptions dictated perhaps by political necessity, more dedicated to Catholic orthodoxy than the bulk of the clerical bureaucracy.

And thus, surprisingly, was elected Joseph Ratzinger. In the sixties Father Ratzinger had been a bright light among the liberal perriti, theological experts, a clutch of whom had dominated the interpretation of the Council. He was a close friend of Hans Kung and a cooperator in the publication of Concilium, the voice of reform. Just when Fr. Ratzinger saw what was happening was not a reform but a revolution against tradition and indeed against the faith is controversial. John Allen—he who thought Ratzinger could not be elected—believes it was the student riots at Tübingen, as early as 1968. But whatever the occasion, Cardinal Ratzinger began within ten years to move away from the radical interpretation of the council and under John Paul ii led the restoration. He did so armed with an insight that had not been available to his peers and his famous predecessor. At the University of Tübingen he had met and dissented from the Marxism that characterized the theology faculty, and had written that to be faithful to the Council one had to resist the destruction of theology. The Marxists proclaimed the ultimacy of this world’s history and the historical irrelevance of Christianity. Joseph Ratzinger knew better, and perhaps it was there that he began to reassert the fundamental truth that this world’s history is not the vehicle of salvation, and the corollary that while Christ is always King, for the time being Christendom, Christianity as the organizing principle of society, is finished and longing for it therefore a waste of time.

In the background of all that he does is the recognition that the Church must simply teach faithfully and let the chips fall where they may. Ratzinger has understood from the beginning of his pontificate that the underlying softness of Catholic theology is a kind of post-millennial belief in the world that marked the Age of Kennedy, the image of the church as an institution cooperating in the all-encompassing project of making the world a better place by eliminating sin, guilt, moral failure, hell, and therefore any meaning, and ultimately joy. Furthermore he has understood that liberation theology was but a hard manifestation of a soft version that permeates western culture and now, especially, North America.

The pope has also understood that the success of the revolution of the Age of Kennedy depended and depends in part on the command of history. Thus his great address in which he contrasted the hermeneutic of rupture with the hermeneutic of continuity. The message was clear. The Second Vatican council was not and was not intended to be a revolution and its message must take its place in the tradition.

Given this belief, it is not surprising that Benedict xvi would move with Summorum pontificum to overcome the liturgical rupture that has created a situation in which a worshipper in 1960 who went away and returned in 2009 would find the liturgy radically unintelligible, as would a time-tripper who went from here and now back to there and then. Part of the hermeneutic of rupture has been the radical insistence that the Latin liturgy is done, gone forever, and that this is a jolly good thing. Of course it is gone in the sense that it is impossible to think that it will soon or ever be the common liturgy of the average Catholic, but a body that turns upon its past has no future, and while Benedict’s project to make the centuries-old Mass available will not disturb the average worshipper, it will provide a kind of model and an opportunity. And more than once in the past, an institution assumed to be moribund has awakened to new life. One of the things Benedict knows is that the church of the pony-tailed monsignors is dying while institutions that stay close to the tradition are flourishing. He sees the frightening fact that the Society of St. Pius x is arguably the most vibrant party in the Catholic Church in France, which is undoubtedly one reason why he has lifted the excommunication of their four rebellious bishops. They are still not able to exercise any ministry, but this is a signal that he will go as far as he can to bring them home. And meanwhile he has written and written, being careful to distinguish what he writes as a theologian from what he teaches as Universal Father.

Perhaps the magisterial letter that best represents Ratzinger is Spe salvi (Saved in Hope), which brings together the Catholic doctrine of the future, which is rooted in the hope of eternal life with Christ, which illustrates the dangers of belief in this world, and which in its way represents the decisive unwinding of the Age of Kennedy. Spe salvi is carefully written and comprehensive, containing among other things a beautiful exposition of the meaning of purgatory. But perhaps most important is its repudiation of the Marxist notion that political order, aided by the Church or no, can create a utopian future for mankind within the political order.

At this writing this great man has occupied the chair of Peter for just four years. When history is written, he will emerge as among the greatest of modern popes, which is to say a great deal, because since the French Revolution the Bishops of Rome have been men of character, intellect and integrity. But perhaps he will be remembered as having a special place because he saved the Church from the greatest of idolatries, belief in the world, and the greatest pathology of soul, denial of the necessity of the tradition that makes us who we are.