The pope’s mixed signals

Michael Walsh
25 April 2008

A minor feature of Pope Benedict XVI's trip to the United States on 15-20 April 2008 was to highlight the awkwardness of George W Bush. The embattled president had already defied protocol by meeting the pontiff at the airport on his arrival, and then compounded embarrassment by hosting a party to celebrate Benedict's 81st birthday, only to find that the pope was otherwise engaged (though several Vatican functionaries turned up to represent him, thus to some degree saving Bush's face).

Michael Walsh is a writer and broadcaster. He was librarian at Heythrop College from 1972 to 2001. Among his books are The Secret World of Opus Dei ( HarperCollins, 2004) and The Conclave: A Sometimes Secret and Occasionally Bloody History (Canterbury Press, 2003 )Also by Michael Walsh in openDemocracy:

"Cutting the Vatican down to size" (5 April 2005)

"From Joseph Ratzinger to Pope Benedict XVI" (20 April 2005)

"The Regensburg address: reason amid certainty" (20 September 2006)

"The Pope and the Patriarch" (4 December 2006)

"Pope Benedict XV1: forward to the past" (14 September 2007)

Yet the "warmth of feeling for the pope was tangible, and so was the good chemistry between the pope and President George Bush", remarked Michael Novak, the neo-conservative Catholic commentator in an interview for the rightwing Catholic news service Zenit. Indeed, the pope's reception in the US, on the streets as well as on the White House lawn, was warm and generous. Novak, as is his wont, contrasted the US response to what might be expected of Europeans whom he sees as cooler towards the papacy, and irredeemably more secular.

The real target

Here, however, is where the small details of the pope's six-day trip do start to matter. For rather oddly, Benedict had come to praise the secular. In a largely unremarked passage which must have had the 19th-century pontiffs turning in their sarcophagi, he lauded the secular political order, and its separation of church and state. This may be a reality taken for granted in the US and in much - though regrettably not in all - of Europe as well as elsewhere. It has also been Catholic doctrine since the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s (though as late as the eve of the council there were cardinals in the Roman curia fighting a rearguard action). But even today, some Catholics in the US regard their constitution as an Enlightenment project, and not something to which the devout should sign up. Benedict's praise of the US constitution was, therefore, a significant moment: yet another problem for those apologists for Catholicism who insist that their church's teaching never changes.

On matters of religion and politics, and in a country where bishops have refused the sacrament to politicians who appeared not to be toeing the (Catholic) party line, the pope was reticent. The pope and the president presumably see eye-to-eye on many moral issues, though the former appears to lay rather less emphasis on bioethics than did his predecessor: much less is heard these days of Pope John Paul II's "culture of death". Benedict, however, shares John Paul's firm opposition to the war in Iraq, and is even more in favour of the United Nations.

Indeed, the real reason for the papal trip across the Atlantic may have been his speech to the UN general assembly, delivered on 18 April, rather than a visit the United States as such - though clearly the first could not be done without the other. Since Pope Paul VI first did so, making an address to the general assembly has become a regular feature of a pontificate; more widely, at least since the pontificate of John XXIII in the early 1960s the Vatican has backed the UN as an expression of the solidarity of peoples.

The quiet message

There are other, revealing differences with Benedict's predecessor. Most media interest centred upon the apology which the pope made for the many instances of sexual abuse by American clergy, something that Pope John Paul II avoided. Benedict repeated it on at least three occasions, including to the press corps accompanying him as he flew to Washington. The diocese most affected by this scandal was Boston, which it seems had been on the original itinerary, but was later dropped; the cardinal of Boston was, however, present when a select few of those who had been abused were invited to meet the pope in Washington's papal nunciature (the Vatican embassy). The cardinal is a new appointment; his predecessor has been exiled to Rome and was not included in the papal entourage.

Also in openDemocracy on the politics of the Catholic church:

Neal Ascherson, "Pope John Paul II and democracy" (1 April 2005)

Austen Ivereigh, "Through the Vatican white smoke" (4 April 2005)

Timothy Radcliffe, "The Catholic church and democracy" (12 April 2005)

Andrew Brown, "Cardinal Chernenko?" (20 April 2005)

Faisal Devji, "Between Pope and Prophet" (26 September 2006)

Rodrigo de Almeida, "Benedict XVI in Brazil: raising the Catholic flag" (9 May 2007)

When he was first elected in 2005, the former Cardinal Ratzinger declared it the mission of his pontificate to make better known the teaching of John Paul II, whom he had served as a member of the Vatican staff for nearly a quarter of a century (see "From Joseph Ratzinger to Pope Bendeict XVI", 20 April 2005). Yet he has not greatly imitated his predecessor. The style is certainly more restrained. Although he seemed genuinely pleased to be in the US, and welcomed the plaudits of the crowds, there was little of the populism which marked John Paul's many peregrinations - no kissing of the tarmac, for instance, even if, at his considerable age, he felt capable of it.

The substance is different, too. There have been only two encyclicals in the last three years, Deus Caritas Est ("God is love"), which won great praise both for its content and the clarity of its style; and Spe Salvi ("Saving hope"), which seems to have sunk leaving very little trace, possibly because it was much more academic in tone. If there is a papal programme, then after "charity" and "hope" the next encyclical should be on "faith" - though in fact the promise is one on Catholic social doctrine.

The diplomacy of faith

Faith, and the spreading of the faith, is what Christians are supposed to be about: Benedict called his transatlantic trip a missionary journey. In the modern world, however, Christian mission is highly complex. Benedict has reached out to Muslim scholars, to Jews, and to non-Roman Catholic Christians; at the same time he has ostentatiously baptised a convert from Islam, reintroduced into the Catholic liturgy a prayer for the conversion of the Jews, and declared - or at least, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith over which he used to preside declared in July 2007 - that only the Roman Catholic faith can properly be called a true church (the Orthodox was a church but suffered from the "wound" of not recognising the primacy of the pope, where the other churches lacked apostolic succession and "cannot be called ‘churches' in the proper sense"). It is hard to see consistency here.

As Cardinal Ratzinger (and possibly as a good German) he expressed opposition to the entry of Turkey into Europe. That is unlikely to happen on his watch in any case, but as pope he has in any case been more circumspect. He wants debate with Islam, but he also wants reciprocity. If there are mosques in Christian lands, why should there not be churches in Muslim territory? This policy appears to be bearing fruit. A church was established in Qatar in March 2008, albeit unobtrusive and with no outward sign of Christianity, leaving only Saudi Arabia without a Christian place of worship - and there are even hopes of there.

Here again, there are mixed signals. One of Benedict's first acts as pope was to remove Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, an Arabist, from his position in the Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and send him in February 2006 as nuncio (ambassador) to Egypt, and emissary to the Arab League. This move took many in the Vatican by surprise, and was widely seen as presaging a tougher attitude to Islam than that fostered by John Paul.

At the time, Fitzgerald's apparent demotion was also thought be an early move in a thoroughgoing reform of the curia (the Vatican administration) by a consummate Vatican insider. It has not happened. Ratzinger may have been dubbed the Vatican "rottweiler" for his pursuit of doctrinal deviance, but as his own replacement he chose an old friend, Archbishop (now Cardinal) William Levada of San Francisco, a moderate man who had upset traditionalists by refusing permission for celebration of mass in the old "tridentine" rite in his diocese.

The "tridentine" rite has become something of a symbol for conservative among Catholics. Pope Benedict has sanctioned it for more common use, perhaps in an effort to win back some of those who left the church in the wake of the liturgical reform - particularly members of the Society of St Pius X (though the society's founder, Archbishop Lefebvre, had complaints in many other areas). In any case, the reintroduction of the "tridentine" rite has not been well received by bishops and clergy at large, though for reasons of loyalty few voice their protests in public.

Smile, you're the pope

That liturgical issue aside, Pope Benedict in his first three years as pope has not made great changes. Even his choice of cardinals who may eventually elect his successor has been unsurprising - the usual curial officials, the usual bishops of important dioceses. Perhaps the 81-year-old Benedict does not believe he will govern the church long enough to cause any major shift of policy. His contribution may in time be seen as more intellectual than practical.

In this respect, his papacy does represent one significant change. The favoured theologian of pontiffs at least since Leo XIII at the end of the 19th century has been St Thomas Aquinas; but Benedict's is St Augustine of Hippo. Augustine had a much more pessimistic view of humankind and its potentiality than did Thomas. Yet Benedict himself, from the evidence of his United States trip, nonetheless appears cheerful enough. The pope perhaps has heeded the remark of an early 16th-century predecessor: "God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it".

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