Thursday, September 20, 2007

Pope to Alums: Keep It Simple, Students

The Pope went back to his cherished role of being Professor Ratzinger this week, as his doctoral students in theology gathered again at Castel Gandolfo for their annual tradition of the Schülerkreis.

A weeklong symposium on a specific topic begun by the Professor-Pope in the 1970s as a continuing education program, not just for his alums but also himself, this year's topic returns to the theme of last year's meeting -- creation, evolution and the means of design.

However, beginning the gathering with a private Sunday Mass for his alums -- now theology professors in their own right -- their Doktorvater offered a rather pointed message, which has since leaked out:
Pope Benedict has warned Roman Catholic theologians against becoming arrogant and forgetting God in a broadside following reports that the Vatican is probing the writings of a priest in the United States.

In a sermon at a private mass on Sunday, Benedict said theologians could know everything about the history of the Scriptures and how to explain them, but know nothing about God....

Benedict said at a mass with some of his former doctoral students that theologians sometimes "only talk in the end about ourselves (and) don't go beyond ourselves and beyond people."

So it sometimes happened "that God cannot come to us and speak to us through all our knowledge of human things that we don't hear him and don't know him," he said according to an audio report posted on the Vatican Radio website in German.

The Vatican Radio report on the speech was entitled: "Pope warns against theological arrogance."
(The homily runs much along the same thread as B16's Christmas Midnight homily from last year.)

Among the 40 or so Ratzinger students who've showed for the gathering, two are especially well-known in English-speaking circles: Cardinal Christoph Schönborn OP of Vienna, and Fr Joseph Fessio SJ, founder of Ignatius Press, now scholar in residence at Ave Maria University in Florida.

Such was the interest in last year's roundtable that, in a first, the Pope agreed to have its papers and talks published. The volume was recently released in German -- the language of the sessions -- and an Italian version is said to be on its way.

In other things Vatican, albeit on the ad extra side, it would seem that the Pope keeps his Castel Gandolfo retreat just as sacrosanct as the President does his Crawford ranch.

Corriere della Sera -- Italy's largest newspaper -- reported yesterday that amid "disagreements over foreign policy," yet seeking the "credential" of a private audience before heading back to Middle East talks, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was denied a meeting with B16 at the Pope's summer residence.
The latest request was made during the summer. The US secretary of state Condoleeza Rice indicated to the Vatican that she urgently needed to meet Benedict XVI. She was on her way back into the viper’s nest of the Middle East and it would have been no bad thing to meet her counterparts with the credentials of a papal audience. Ms Rice had hoped that the audience could be fixed for early August at Castelgandolfo, the papal summer residence, when Benedict XVI returned from Lorenzago in the Dolomites, but she was told the Pope was on holiday. She insisted but to no avail. Vatican diplomats were adamant and “Benedict XVI is on holiday” continued to be the official reply.

As far as we know, Ms Rice was able to discuss the Middle East, and Lebanon in particular, during a telephone conversation with Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. In early August, the Vatican secretary of state was on a visit to America for the annual meeting of the Knights of Columbus in Nashville. But the failure to arrange a meeting between Benedict XVI and Ms Rice has taken on a significance perhaps beyond the intentions of the Holy See. It has been seen as confirming the divergence of views on the Bush administration’s Middle East initiatives and growing friction on Iraq and relations with Iran. The Vatican believes that the United States may be taking too lightly the issue of guarantees for religious minorities in the new Iraqi constitution and has said so to the government in Baghdad. In reply, it was told that threats and violence against Christians are no more severe than those experienced by other minorities. The Americans were also approached but they replied that troops were unable to maintain full control of the territory and had difficulty in protecting non-Muslims.

On Iran, the Vatican is known to detest the truculent anti-Semitism of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad but regards another preventive war as a disaster. Despite all this, US-Vatican relations continue to be very good. Information and assessments on hot zones is exchanged all the time, even though the strategies remain different, and moral issues continue to bring the Catholic Church and the Bush administration together. The problem is that foreign policy is an constant source of discord and Ms Rice is not one of the Vatican’s favourite interlocutors. When contacts were first made for her abortive encounter with the Pope, it was explained that President Bush was also pressing for the meeting. His talks in the Vatican on 9 June with Benedict XVI had gone well and the US secretary of state’s encounter could have been a continuation. In fact, for Ms Rice to have obtained an audience on the lake at Castelgandolfo would have required willingness on the Vatican’s part, which was not the case. In August, the Pope tends to shun talks with politicians, with very few exceptions. A papal vacation, it was thought, was a good excuse for avoiding a meeting that was seen as not essential and could have created confusion or misunderstanding in international public opinion, above all in the Middle East.

No one will say so officially but the refusal may also have been prompted by Ms Rice’s stance in 2003, when she was Mr Bush’s national security adviser. On the eve of the Iraqi conflict, it was Ms Rice who said bluntly that she did not understand the Vatican’s anti-war stance. She treated John Paul II’s envoy, Cardinal Pio Laghi, with a coolness that bordered on disrespect when he was sent to Washington on 2 March 2003 on a desperate mission to avert military intervention. Clearly, the incident has not been forgotten.
Useless trivia of the day: the name "Condoleezza" has its root in the Italian term con dolcezza... Ironically enough given the situation, it means "with sweetness."

In other Vatican-US diplo-matters, DC's geopolitical crowd is said to be lovefesting all the way to its last operative with Benedict XVI's hand-picked representative to these shores, Archbishop Pietro Sambi.

Sure, veteran readers -- i.e. you good ad intra folks -- are quite familiar with Sambi... but his recent dubbing as "The Super-Nuncio" comes from well outside the hierarchical circles.

Moral of the story: name-roots aside, ain't no limit to what a hearty helping of dolcezza can do for the church's good rep.

On a final note, B16 honored his eponymous order today by elevating the abbot of the Benedictine Mother-Abbey of Montecassino to a residential archdiocese.

The transfer of Bishop Fabio D'Onorio -- already a bishop given the abbey's status as one of the few remaining religious houses whose head has ordinary jurisdiction over its surrounding turf (a phenomenon dating from the days when prelates couldn't travel too far too easily) -- to the archdiocese of Gaeta creates a vacancy to be filled by the election of Montecassino's professed membership. While the monks elect an abbot, the designee's jurisdiction over the "abbacy" outside its walls only comes from papal confirmation of the election.

Speaking of rising Benedictines, it's been repeatedly mused that, despite his known distaste for contemporary mass-market music, the Pope's appointment of a new archbishop of Munich and Freising might just find his native see riding along the "Highway to Hell"...

...not literally, of course. If you know, you know. And for the rest, take a shot at connecting the dots.