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Issue Date:  April 29, 2005

Will he be a pope for everyone?

Pope Benedict XVI, the first elected in the 21st century, takes over leadership of a church that is both deeply troubled and richly blessed. It is a church that, thanks to the long and rigorous ministry of Pope John Paul II, enjoys a stature and visibility in the wider world unprecedented in modern times. It is also a church whose scandals and divisions, deep and destructive, are now known in a way that would have been impossible before the global information age.

It is a church in which membership is growing wildly in some places and dropping precipitously in others; in which the dependable infrastructure of a previous era -- nuns and priests in abundance -- is collapsing; in which the educational level and dedication of laity has never been higher and in which their confusion and distress has never been greater.

It is a church that, facing deep questions, too often says, “There are no questions.”

How Benedict XVI deals with these and a host of other challenges facing the church at the start of the Third Millennium could make a huge difference in the life of ordinary Catholics and may, indeed, determine whether significant numbers of Catholics remain in the community or find a spiritual home elsewhere.

Unlike other popes, most notably his immediate predecessor John Paul II, Benedict XVI was not an unknown entity when he ascended the papal throne. As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he was the chief watchdog of doctrine during the last papacy, an enforcer of what he determined was orthodoxy. He was an aggressive and severe head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It is reasonable to wonder if even his own writings as a young priest, when he was a liberal peritus, or expert, at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), would survive that office’s scrutiny today.

The landscape of the contemporary church is littered with the ruined careers and the smeared names of dozens of theologians and other thinkers and ministers -- some of them among the most formidable theological minds of the last century -- who fell into disfavor with Ratzinger (“The List,” NCR, Feb. 25). They were silenced, prohibited from teaching in Catholic colleges as Catholic theologians or pushed so far to the margins that they left the community.

Life was perilous, too, for those who worked in the area of human sexuality either as theologians or as ministers; for those who advocated a greater place for women within the church; for those who questioned the church’s teaching on celibacy or homosexuality.

It is no mystery why some of the more innovative and creative Catholic theology today is occurring outside Catholic institutions, in secular universities where faculty members don’t have to fear the long arm of the Vatican.

Academics are understandably worried that the Vatican under Benedict XVI will become even more closed off than it has been to dialogue with other disciplines, with individuals’ experiences and with the body of knowledge that continually accumulates regarding the human person.

Some would argue that Ratzinger’s attacks on theologians were difficult but necessary actions to bring order to a church that was spinning out of control at the hands of Vatican II excesses.

Catholics must recognize, however, that during the length of the John Paul II papacy and on into the events leading up to the most recent conclave, there was evidence aplenty that even among the cardinals’ ranks significant differences exist about how the church should approach the modern world and the host of challenges and problems it faces. Often on television broadcasts in recent weeks one conservative cleric or another would tell us that all has been settled, in essence that it almost didn’t matter who is chosen pope because the Catholic church cannot change its thinking on doctrine or scripture.

The notion is incorrect and dangerous. It suggests that the Catholic community is a collection of robots and that somehow questions about doctrine or new insights into scripture are dangerous to faith. If that were the case we might all be stuck somewhere back in time believing that women are imperfectly formed men, that the sun revolves around the earth, that it is seriously sinful to take interest for money loaned and that scripture supports the keeping of slaves.

The record may be unsettling, but we look to the future with hope, trusting that Benedict XVI will moderate a view he expressed earlier, that accepting a smaller church, a “creative minority,” would be preferable to a church in which every jot of doctrine is not perfectly received.

Certainly, his first words as pope were encouraging. In a message after his first Mass as pope, Benedict XVI expressed a strong resolve to seek unity among Christians, committed himself to the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and to the pursuit of social justice, and called for collaboration between bishops and the pope.

Another sign that he might be seeking a posture of tolerance and of reconciliation came with the choice of name. St. Benedict, of course, is the founder of a tradition of monasticism that is generous and welcoming, and he personally exhibited a willingness to listen and to seek the ideas of others. Further, the last Pope Benedict, who reigned from 1914 to 1922, managed to bring an end to the bitter disputes between ultratraditionalists and modernists at the beginning of the 20th century.

With all the concern about the church in the developing world spoken in the week leading to the conclave, it is perhaps encouraging to note that the earlier Benedict made a rather bold assertion in his 1919 letter Maximum Illud. According to J.N.D. Kelly in The Oxford Dictionary of Popes, Benedict XV in the letter “urged missionary bishops to push forward with the formation of a native clergy, and to seek the welfare of the people among whom they worked, not the imperialist interest of their own country of origin.”

Whatever implications the name holds, the fundamental question to be answered is whether Benedict XVI will work to be the pope of all the people or only of that fringe that has applauded the severity of the former cardinal’s action in the Holy Office.

Some have suggested that the job will change the man, that his work as a watchdog of doctrine will not necessarily define his work as pope. It remains to be seen.

Thanks largely to John Paul II, the modern papacy, all secrecy notwithstanding, is under scrutiny as never before. The world will be watching for any signal or symbol that might suggest which direction this papacy will take.

We hope that Benedict is more than a name.

National Catholic Reporter, April 29, 2005

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