The New York Times
April 23, 2007
His Own Pope Yet?
By DAVID GIBSON
WITH little fanfare, Benedict XVI will tomorrow mark the second anniversary of his formal installation as pope, a threshold at which his immediate predecessors had established themselves in the public mind. Yet he remains an enigma to many who thought they knew him well, and something of a blank slate to a world curious to see what this new pontiff would be like.
Polls show Benedict — formerly known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — in the middle of the pack among respected world leaders, and a survey last year in Germany had the Dalai Lama and even the losing World Cup coach Jürgen Klinsmann outpacing the first German pope as “a role model and admirable person.” It wasn’t that Benedict wasn’t liked as much as he wasn’t known, or understood.
Much of this puzzlement can be chalked up to the blessing of low expectations. Not only was Benedict following the supersized pontificate of John Paul II, but as John Paul’s doctrinal “bad cop” in Rome for more than two decades, he had diligently cemented his reputation as a conservative hardliner while continuing his own career as a polemical theologian who wrote dozens of books and engaged in frequent debates. All that made Cardinal Ratzinger the most prominent and controversial head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in memory.
Given that pre-election platform, when his fellow cardinals elected him pope on April 19, 2005, in a 24-hour conclave that was the shortest in modern times, many feared, or hoped, that the church was now headed by a higher-ranking version of Benedict’s old self.
Yet the new pope was too astute to fall into that trap. For one thing, Benedict understood that being pope would demand a pastoral touch instead of a combative edge. As he told dinner companions last fall: “It was easy to know the doctrine. It’s much harder to help a billion people live it.” Also, befitting his age and temperament — an academic with no parish experience, Benedict turned 80 on April 16 — he moved deliberately in making changes. He has traveled little (his visit to Brazil next month will be his first to the Western Hemisphere) and he tried to tone down the emphasis on the person of the pope — a motif of his predecessor’s style — and put it back on the basics of the faith.
Above all, in his pronouncements and writings, he carefully accentuated the positive. His first encyclical was titled “God Is Love,” and charity has become the recurring byword of his apparently irenic pontificate. “Christianity, Catholicism, isn’t a collection of prohibitions: it’s a positive option,” as Benedict said last year.
By and large, the pontiff’s approach has worked. Liberal Catholics were so relieved that Benedict was not issuing daily bulls of excommunication that they took a kind word as a hopeful omen. Indeed, the loudest complaints about Benedict’s record have come from his erstwhile allies on the right who are miffed that he has not cracked down hard and fast on those they consider dissenters.
But the Catholic right ought to have more patience, just as the Catholic left — and everyone else — might want to pay closer attention. The reality is that during these two years, even as he has preached the boundless grace of Christian charity, Benedict has also made it clear that divine love does not allow for compromise on matters of truth as the pope sees it, and that he will not brook anything that smacks of change in church teachings or traditions. Nor is he a caretaker pope who is willing to stand pat.
In one of Benedict’s first moves, he issued a long-awaited policy stating that homosexual men cannot be ordained priests, even if they are able to live a chaste life. The action was cast as a response to the clergy sexual abuse crisis, based on the argument that the abuse was largely inflicted by a growing number of gay men in the priesthood. That was an empty rationale, most obviously because the number of abuse cases was dropping sharply in recent decades even as the percentage of gay priests was rising. Above all, the decision unjustly denigrated a group of people simply for who they are. And it was akin to hoisting the ladder after one is safely aboard ship given that there are already plenty of gay priests and bishops serving the church faithfully, many in the Vatican itself.
In other moves, Benedict restricted the role of lay people at Mass in order to reinforce the separate, Christ-like action of the priest, and he is expected to announce soon that he will allow widespread use of the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass, in which the priest faces away from the congregation. That would come despite the strong opposition of many bishops in Europe, the United States, even inside the Roman curia — and even though there are hardly any priests who can celebrate the old rite or worshipers who would understand what is happening.
Predictably, Benedict has also renewed church stands against married clergy and the ban on divorced and remarried Catholics receiving communion. Changes in the role of women in the church or teachings on sexual behavior are of course out of the question. And Benedict has reinforced the primacy of the pope — an issue his predecessor had opened for debate.
Then, last month, the Vatican censured a renowned Jesuit proponent of liberation theology, the Rev. Jon Sobrino. A Spanish priest who has spent his life working with the poor in El Salvador, Father Sobrino narrowly escaped death in 1989 when six of his confreres were murdered by Salvadoran death squads. Such experiences helped hone the priest’s theology, which focuses on the poor as the primary recipients of Christ’s message.
Despite that personal story, Benedict went ahead with the rebuke of Father Sobrino, whom the Vatican, with minimal explanation, accused of not sufficiently emphasizing the divinity of Jesus. It was a questionable judgment theologically, and smacked of piling on. Cardinal Ratzinger had fought a long and by all accounts successful campaign against liberation theology, and while Sobrino remains popular, Benedict, as pope, could well have sat back and enjoyed the pax Romana that he helped to secure. Although Rome did not directly silence the priest, it declared his teachings “not in keeping with the Catholic faith,” which invited bishops to act against him, as some have done.
The censure was a sorrowful blow to Father Sobrino, who has health problems and is semi-retired, and above all to his many supporters in Latin America who believe that justice goes hand in hand with charity. And it demonstrated that while Benedict’s style may be different as pope, the substance remains the same. As he told German television interviewers last year, “Let’s say that my basic personality and even my basic vision have grown, but in everything that is essential I have remained identical.”
Perhaps that is why Benedict’s harsher actions have received little notice. Benedict is a “dog-bites-man” pope, notable largely for what he was not expected to do, or for actions that produce unnerving reactions, like his speech critiquing Islam last September that enraged many Muslims. The pope actually devoted the bulk of that lecture to questioning non-Catholic Christians and secular Westerners who he said were in thrall to modern rationalism.
Certainly, Benedict has in two years preached many striking and even lyrical meditations on the beauty of the faith that is at the heart of Christianity. But in the United States, as elsewhere, the challenge is not so much a crisis of faith as a “crisis of church.” It is not a question of why believe as much as why be Catholic. People are convinced by deeds that match rhetoric, and a closer look at the actions behind Benedict’s words shows that the two are still far apart.
David Gibson is the author of “The Rule of Benedict: Pope Benedict XVI and His Battle With the Modern World.”