e-mail us


Eyebrows, questions raised by kinder, gentler Vatican

Forgive the average Catholic some confusion or at least some giant questions over recent reports from Rome.

One can hardly avoid asking if the papacy is turning mellow with age. Or is the millennium ushering in a Jubilee -- a time of forgiveness -- for dissidents? Or, are the curial cardinals -- with an eye on the next conclave -- politicking behind an ailing pope’s back?

One of the latest curiosities to come out of the Vatican is the report that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has gone soft on the We Are Church referendum people. That is, we are led to believe, the same Ratzinger who is overseer of orthodoxy, who has brought the weight of church discipline against bishops and theologians for nearly two decades, who is forever on the lookout for “flawed” notions.

Where do we look for precedents in this papacy when Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano, in a unique show of curial one-upmanship, singlehandedly rehabilitates Fr. Hans Küng, Swiss theologian?

And all this after the Vatican did some serious backpedaling -- in the wake of serious listening -- to keep Fr. Tissa Balasuriya, Sri Lankan theologian, in the fold.

To review the two most recent cases: NCR reported last week that Ratzinger wrote to the Austrian bishops telling them he had “no basic objection” to them talking to Austria’s We Are Church group as long as there was no formal recognition.

Given We Are Church’s international agenda -- women priests, married priests, local selection of bishops, a democratic openness in church matters -- Ratzinger’s nonrecognition amounts precisely to recognition.

This was followed by Sodano’s remarks on Küng’s writings, remarks that read like a publisher’s blurb: “beautiful pages dedicated to the Christian mystery; faith in the river of goodness and mercy, of solidarity and willingness to help.”

Did Sodano not read the bit where Küng called the current pope’s restorationist reign “a rigid, stagnating and despotic rule in the spirit of the Inquisition?”

Is this the start of Ratzinger and Sodano, curial papal frontrunners, matching each other in broader and broader appeals to the cardinals of the universal church?

Or, is there another signal: that John Paul is too ill, too out of it, to protest. And that is why John Paul -- rumors have it -- has given Sodano a letter of resignation to be used if he becomes mentally incapacitated?

How is the pope likely to react to all this? In 1985 when Ratzinger criticized the post-Vatican II church in his book Report on the Faith, the pope told NC News that the cardinal “is free to express his own opinion.”

Perhaps we are reading too much into this.

After all, even Ratzinger’s harshest critics have described some of his actions in the past as “evenhanded” and even “fraternal,” and whatever the pope thinks, Sodano might actually like what his former classmate, Küng, has written. We’ll stay tuned.

National Catholic Reporter, April 10, 1998