Benedict XVI and Rowan Williams as ‘poachers turned gamekeepers’

In advance of an impending papal visit to the UK, international Catholic pub The Tablet offers a helpful compare-and-contrast essay that thinks through Rowan Williams and Pope Benedict XVI.


Look a bit closer, though, and an apparently ill-matched pair seem a lot less different than at first sight. It is not only the archbishop who has moved in a conservative direction. Both men are poachers turned gamekeepers to some degree. Did Benedict not also start out as a liberal – in his case over church government – who played an important role in rally ing the forces of reform during the Second Vatican Council? And did not the man later to become the Vatican’s avid doctrinal watchdog once famously declare that “what the Church needs today as always are not adulators to extol the status quo, but men whose humility and obedience are not less than their passion for the truth”? Rowan Williams may represent a fairly uncommon amalgam of liberal and conservative impulses, but that is no less true of Joseph Ratzinger.

To understand them better, we must look above all to the sources of the reformist instincts that they have jointly displayed. Ratzinger made an apparently sharp break with his progressive past during the late 1960s, deciding that the opening up of the Church to the world ushered in by the Second Vatican Council had occurred just as secular society was heading in a very different direction. It was time to rebel against rebellion – to re-emphasise the gap separating Catholics from non-Catholics, and to warn against what struck the then professor at Tübingen University as Western society’s lapse into neo-paganism.


The similarities between Joseph Ratzinger and Rowan Williams extend beyond their theological formations. “I have two things in common with the Holy Father,” quipped the archbishop in a recent speech. “One is a love of cats; the other a hospitable instinct towards Anglican clergy” – the second of these being the mildest of digs at Rome’s recent proposal on so-called ordinariates for Anglican trad itionalists considering a change of church allegiance. To this might be added a shared depth of spirituality, and a mutual love of good liturgy and ceremonial.

Meanwhile, Victor L. Simpson looks to a similar turn in history which we might be tempted to view as too removed from the light of the current moment: the 1982 visit of England by His Holiness John Paul II.

It all underscores the contrasting public fortunes of the two leaders of the church. John Paul was an international superstar who could send a thrill even through non-Catholics and made many people forget how at odds he was with their personal views. Benedict seems to step into crisis and controversy at every turn when he ventures abroad on bridge-building missions.

In 1982, Robert Runcie, then Archbishop of Canterbury, said John Paul came to Britain “with the grace of a pilgrim and a prophet.” Runcie’s successor, Rowan Williams, told the BBC in April that Benedict would be welcomed “as a valued partner, and that’s about it.”


“The Falklands war was going on, the forthcoming marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana had just been announced, the pope was coming. We felt we were living through history. The enthusiasm, the excitement was something you could feel,”[says Monsignor Mark Langham, the British-born Vatican official in charge of relations with Anglicans]…. We’re in a different era now, and Pope Benedict is not Pope John Paul II. I think for various reasons there have been problems and issues. What I have noticed is that in the last few weeks and days, excitement is ratcheting up and I think people are beginning to take up and take notice about what’s going to happen.”

Past Posts