Saturday, April 14, 2007

2 Years of B16: "The Dalai Lama of Catholicism"?

It's somewhat ironic that on Divine Mercy Sunday -- the liturgical observance which owes its existence to, and whose presence on the calendar is emblematic of, the pontificate of John Paul II -- the Polish Pope's successor will celebrate the twin milestones of his 80th birthday and the second anniversary of his election. But so it is....

The week's events will signal a pouring-forth of analyses on Benedict XVI, and one of the first comes courtesy of Ann Rodgers in tomorrow's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Along with love, his other great theme is the need for faith and reason to work together to create a just society. Despite a ghastly gaffe during a speech on that topic in Germany, he has stressed good relations with other faiths and worked toward unity with Orthodox Christians. His few statements that lay down the law have been nuanced enough to allow bishops some leeway in applying them.

He draws record crowds to his weekly audiences, surpassing those who came to hear Pope John Paul II.

"They are coming because they are being fed," said George Weigel, author of "God's Choice: Pope Benedict and the Future of the Catholic Church."

"This is a master teacher who can distill 2,000 years of Christian tradition and seven decades of his own scholarship into very beautiful teaching. That is the story of his pontificate. It is going to be a teaching pontificate."

The Rev. Thomas Reese, whose work as editor of the center-left Jesuit magazine Cardinal Ratzinger had criticized, was forced to resign shortly after the new pope's election. Today, Father Reese calls Pope Benedict "better than expected."

He praises his choice of new bishops, saying they are more inclined to persuade people to follow church teaching than to denounce them for not doing so.

The pope "truly believes that you can describe the Christian faith in a beautiful way that is attractive to people, and not simply as a list of don'ts," he said.

He did not welcome the Vatican's recent action against a theologian, the Rev. Jon Sobrino in El Salvador, whose view of Jesus was denounced as "dangerous." But it amounted to no more than a negative book review, Father Reese said, and did not require the priest to be silent or stop writing -- although his bishop chose to remove him from his teaching post.

Pope Benedict was a model of civility in September 2005, when he hosted a friendly reunion with the liberal Swiss theologian, the Rev. Hans Kung, whom he had banned in 1979 from teaching official classes on Catholic theology. Kung rejects many church teachings, including that Christianity is the only true faith.

"My question is, have any bishops followed his example and had lunch with a local dissident?" Father Reese said....

Some conservatives have grumbled that his new office made their champion timid. But Mike Sullivan, vice president-president of Catholics United for the Faith in Steubenville, Ohio, believes his fellow conservatives should emulate Benedict.

"He is reaching out to people who the church would not usually be able to reach. He is able to dialogue with dissenters, with other religions, with secularists and relativists in a way that really draws them into the struggle with the truth," he said.

Benedict has made constant calls for peace and social justice. As Cardinal Ratzinger, he opposed the invasion of Iraq, saying that "just war" theory had no place for "pre-emptive war." His most recent criticism came on Easter, when he said "nothing positive comes from Iraq, torn apart by continual slaughter as the civil population flees."

His recent major document on the Eucharist added a twist to arguments about politicians. Using a term favored by conservatives, he said that a short list of issues was "not negotiable" for Catholic legislators. But to the conservative list -- womb-to-tomb protection of human life, families built on heterosexual marriage, and parents' right to educate children -- he added "the common good in all its forms."

That's a church term for social justice, the leading concern for Catholics of the left and global South. It did not say that priests must deny communion to dissenting legislators.

Some observers believe that statement was the work of the committee that wrote the first draft. But Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., was on that committee and said the pope himself worked on that passage.

"That reflects his language over the language that was in the propositions," he said.

"I believe he was speaking of the whole social justice teaching of the church and saying these values are not negotiable. When you look at Jesus' teaching [on final judgment], he is saying that if you do not feed the hungry or clothe the naked, those things exclude you from the kingdom. ... The pope is talking about gospel values."

He knew Cardinal Ratzinger, and has been astounded at how quickly the academic theologian changed roles to become pastor of 1 billion souls.

"While his first encyclical was written in theological language, the whole focus is pastoral, explaining to people how to live out the love of God. I just found that remarkable, coming from a pope whose history is so profoundly and deeply theological. His first works to the church have been practical," he said.

Others are less impressed. David Gibson, author of the biography "The Rule of Benedict," said he changed only his image.

"We've gone from two poles of propaganda, from God's Rottweiler to papal pussycat," he said.

"Neither is quite true. He's talking about God's love, about his experiences of faith. He's becoming the Dalai Lama of Catholicism. Yet, under the radar, he's taken a number of serious actions. ... He's preaching a very lovely Christianity, but is he exercising that same love and charity?"...

At Regensberg, Germany, he infamously quoted a medieval emperor's claim that Muhammad brought only conversion by sword, but he did not lament violence committed in the name of the church. At Auschwitz, his meditation on the Holocaust did not mention the history of Catholic anti-Semitism.

"He's not anti-Semitic, he's not anti-Islamic necessarily, but he's not reflective about the church's past," Mr. Gibson said.

Most people consider the Regensburg speech the low mark of his papacy. Angry Muslims rioted and killed a nun in Somalia, even though the pope repeatedly said that the emperor's view was not his own.

Father Reese said the speech revealed the pope's flaws.

"One of the strengths of Benedict is that he writes his own speeches for the most part, but that is also one of his weaknesses," he said. "It's clearly a thoughtful speech -- and his target was not Muslims but European secularists -- but it should have been enriched by input from people who are real experts in Islam and some other things."

Dr. Weigel, on the other hand, regards Regensburg as the most important papal address since Pope John Paul at the United Nations in 1985.

"It defines one of the key themes of the first two years of his pontificate, the necessary interface between faith and reason," he said. "John Paul wrote that humanity has to rise on two wings of faith and reason. Benedict has now identified the problem that happens when those wings fall off the bird. Irrational faith teaches that God wants you to strap a bomb on and blow up people in a pizza parlor. And reason without faith has made Europe unable to say why blowing up people in a pizza parlor is a bad idea."

On the left, Sister Christine Schenk, executive director of FutureChurch, has not backed off her criticism of limiting the priesthood to celibate males.

"He's not dealing with the priest shortage. It's almost like he's in an ivory tower," she said.

But she was delighted with remarks the pope has made about women, including vague hints that they could take on more roles in the church. She cited talks he gave on the influence of women in the New Testament church, in which he endorsed women's right to speak in church, and spoke of a deacon named Phoebe.

The pope "put on the map that women's leadership was extremely significant," she said.

Phyllis Zagano, senior research associate at Hofstra University, advocates the ordination of female deacons, which existed in the early church and whose restoration has not been ruled out. She wouldn't be shocked if this pope brought them back.

"I don't know that he will be the first one to do it, but he may be the first one to mention it. I know all about snowballs in the netherworld, but I really think that he could do it," she said.

PHOTO: AFP/Vincenzo Pinto