Pope Benedict: The First Year

In early March 2006, Pope Benedict XVI puzzled the world by quietly dropping one of his nine titles, "Patriarch of the West," held by popes since 642. Dropping the patriarch-title, traditionally reserved for Eastern Christian leaders, was meant to "be helpful for ecumenical dialogue," explained the Pope, whose "primary commitment" is unity with all Christian churches. But the gesture is more ambiguous than that. It also reasserts the Pope's claim to authority over the entire church, East and West. The true test for Benedict's openness to genuine ecumenical dialogue depends on whether he is willing to put the most valuable of his eight remaining titles on the table: Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church -- something he is least likely to do.

Benedict XVI's first year record is mixed. Although unity, peace, and love have been key words of his papacy, his actions or inactions are at times at odds with such rhetoric. While his fashionable wardrobe has received much attention -- flashy redshoes by Prada, hip sunglasses by Gucci, elaborately imperial gowns by Gamarelli, and, most recently, a stylish white 2GB iPod Nano -- the jury is still out on how open-minded the former top guardian of the Church's tradition really is. The central question for assessing Benedict's first year may well be whether his obvious changes in style from rigid moral watchdog to diplomatic, meeting-happy uberfather are more than merely a Pope's new clothes.

Has Benedict XVI truly had a change of heart? Or do these superficial changes in style conceal the same absolutistic claims to truth and power which guided him throughout his tenure as the Church's top watchdog? To explore that question, let us look at four areas that the Pope himself has highlighted: issues of peace and justice; inter-religious dialogue; moral values and the fight for Europe; and carrot-and-stick power struggles within the Church.

On peace and justice issues, Benedict XVI has, for the most part, continued his predecessor's stance. He frequently speaks out against violence, terrorism, poverty, consumerism, and economic injustice. Yet his lack of direct criticism of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq stands in stark contrast to John Paul II's unequivocal opposition to the war. As World War II taught us, a Pope's calls for peace and justice are of little or, worse, negative consequence, unless they call particular countries or leaders to responsible action.

In the area of inter-religious dialogue, Benedict XVI has focused particularly on relations with Jewish and Muslim leaders. Countering initial fears that a German Pope who once served in the Hitler Youth might harbor subtle anti-Semitic views, Benedict XVI recently paid a historical visit to Auschwitz. Visits to synagogues in Cologne and Rome and several meetings with Jewish leaders helped repair initial tensions with Israel after the Pope deliberately omitted from a July 2005 statement against terrorism any mention of a suicide attack inside Israel while, however, referring to attacks in Britain, Iraq, Egypt, and Turkey. A visit to Israel might come as early as 2007.

Benedict's attitude toward Islam has, regrettably, been more reserved. In meetings he has pressed Muslim leaders to fight against terrorism and to support 'reciprocity,' meaning that Muslim countries should grant the same religious freedom to Christians which traditionally Christian countries grant to Muslims. The Pope stunned those familiar with Catholic-Muslim relations when he removed the highly respected Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald from his post as president of the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue. Analysts suggest that the Pope saw Fitzgerald as 'too soft' on Islam, failing to press Muslim countries on respect for religious freedom.

Indicative of tensions between Benedict XVI and the Muslim world was the unusual delay by one year of a papal visit to Turkey. It had originally been planned for the fall of 2005 in response to an invitation by Patriarch Bartholomew I, head of the world's 200 million Orthodox Christians. The Turkish government refused to open its doors so soon to the new Pope, who, as Cardinal Ratzinger, had angered Turkey in 2004 by remarking in the French newspaper Le Figaro that the European Union should keep its doors closed to Turkey, since "Europe is a cultural continent, not a geographical one."

As Pope, he has reiterated that Europe's unity is based on its "indispensable Christian roots." To skeptics, Pope Benedict's argument for cultural purity is dangerously reminiscent of the Nazi Christian argument that Jews had no place in a Christian country such as Germany. While Benedict's intentions for dialogue with non-Christian religions are no doubt sincere, his fight against the political influence of non-Christian cultures in Europe may inadvertently fan the flames of discrimination based on religious creed.

The intermezzo with Turkey expresses a key feature of Benedict XVI: his Eurocentrism. The Pope's focus on Europe does not imply that he ignores other parts of the world, as his plan for a special bishop's synod in Africa clearly indicates. Much of his fight against secularism in Europe applies similarly to America, although Benedict XVI has commented surprisingly little on the U.S. situation. He firmly believes that the moral values of Christian Europe are the safeguards of civilization around the globe. The Holy Father considers Europe his most troubled child and laments that it has fallen ill with secular values. His antidote: to re-evangelize Europe in the spirit of St. Benedict, the patron saint of Europe, with whom he explicitly identifies.

The Pope has reason to be concerned. The Church is fighting a losing battle for control over hot-button issues such as same-sex marriage, birth control, abortion, divorce, and religious instruction in schools. Just two days after he was elected Pope, Spain's parliament approved a same-sex marriage bill, unimaginable only a few years ago in this heavily Catholic country. Similar bills have been passed or introduced in Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Canada. Since taking office, Benedict XVI has become increasingly aggressive in his support for conservative political leaders who could reverse such bills. He has met twice with Spanish opposition leaders working to overturn the sweeping liberal reforms of the Socialist Zapatero government. In Italy he stepped into politics to prevent the repeal of key provisions of Europe's most restrictive law on medically-assisted fertility, and, most recently, to launch a staunch attack against same-sex marriage and abortion rights during Italy's elections.

Of even greater concern to the Pope is the fact that Europeans are leaving the Church in droves. In Germany alone, his home country, the Church has lost a record number of more than two million disaffected members, or nearly 10 percent, since 1990. The annual loss of members more than doubled when Catholic bishops, at the behest of a "deeply worried" Cardinal Ratzinger, began a drawn-out two year public controversy with the Pope's most potent challenger in Europe today: the German dissident theologian and bestselling author Eugen Drewermann. Hailed by Time magazine as a new Martin Luther, Drewermann, who also works as a psychotherapist with the clergy, has urged the Vatican in more than seventy books to end the tremendous psychological and spiritual suffering inflicted on Catholics by the merciless rigidity of traditional teachings on abortion, divorce, homosexuality, and celibacy. Drewermann's 1989 international bestseller on clergy mentality, The Cleric, exposed more than a decade before the U.S. sex abuse scandal the devastating effects of the Church's traditional clergy ideal. As a result, the Church stripped him in 1991 and 1992 both of his license to teach Catholic theology and of his duties as a priest, imposing one of the most severe punishment meted out to any priest-theologian in the twentieth century.

Partly in response to Drewermann's strong resonance with the European public, the 79-year-old Pope has tried to reinvent himself within the Church by emphasizing God's love rather than the Church's rules. He did so at his first World Youth Day in Germany. He did so, too, in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, which surprised with its positive references to erotic love, albeit clearly limited to heterosexual marriages. Another hopeful sign came in September when Benedict amazed the world by granting a request for a private kaffeeklatsch to one of his best-known critics, the Swiss theologian Hans Kung -- although Benedict XVI stressed he had no intention of rehabilitating Kung's theology as officially Catholic. During the March consistory, in which he announced fifteen new Cardinals, among them Boston's Sean O'Malley and Hong Kong's Joseph Zen, known for his efforts for religious freedom in China, he made room for an unusually open debate among Church leaders.

While the Pope's words of love and openness are noble, they stand in glaring contrast to several Vatican actions taken under his watch. In an alarming November 2005 document, Benedict banned all gay men from seminaries and from ordination, calling gays emotionally immature and homosexuality "objectively disordered." American Catholics were equally put on alert when the well-respected editor of the Catholic magazine America, Fr. Thomas Reese, was forced to resign for allegedly permitting too much open discussion in a Catholic publication. Then there was Benedict's questionable choice of his own successor to the post of Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, the conservative American Cardinal Levada, who is under intense criticism from victims of clergy sexual abuse for allegedly attempting to cover up abuse.

On the whole, Benedict has certainly fulfilled requirements of diplomatic sensitivity and expressed desire for peace among the world's religions and nations. But he has shown ambiguous signs about his willingness to embrace a diversity of viewpoints within the Church. He still has ways to go to convince the world that trading in his absolutistic Cardinal's hat for the Pope's new clothes signifies substantial changes of heart. He could begin, for instance, by retracting the substance of his extremely inflammatory 2000 statement made in Dominus Jesus that labeled all other faiths as "gravely deficient." Or, by inviting progressive voices such as Eugen Drewermann, Joan Chittester, Matthew Fox, Hans Kung, and Leonardo Boff, to a truly open dialogue. Or, by finally admitting that the Church as an institution -- rather than mere individual Catholics -- is morally guilty for closing its eyes to the Holocaust which literally happened at its doorsteps. Who would be more qualified to express such a sincere apology than a German Pope?!

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