Last month marked the fourth anniversary of what must be seen as the most exciting event in the Catholic Church in this writer’s lifetime: the election of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI. At that time I was doing commentary for ABC on the various ceremonies connected with the death of one Pontiff and the emergence of another. The outcome of that conclave made me ecstatic, the more so as Ratzinger’s age seemed to preclude his election.
Now, the Pope is both a religious and a political leader: it is not just that he is absolute Monarch of the tiny Vatican City State (interesting as that dot of real estate is). It is also that, as head of a worldwide Church, with members in virtually every nation of the world, he must deal with the various political systems under which his flock suffers. On the one hand, this means that the Holy See must maintain diplomatic relations with as many nations as possible, as well as various multinational organizations. On the other, it has mean that every Pontiff has too maintain a truly “planetary consciousness.”
Added to this rather enormous job description is the fact that, as a result of developments in Church and State, the new Pope faced (and faces) a number of mind-crushing challenges. Internally, the transformations the Church has undergone since Vatican II have led to widespread ignorance of the Faith on the part of the laity, and disbelief and immorality on the part of many of the clergy. Externally, most of the developed nations of the world enjoy ruling classes whose embrace of the disgusting and the murderous is equalled only by their incompetence. The elites of the poorer nations follow in their train as well as they are able.
Unlike his predecessor, who, despite his role in the fall of Communism, of ten seemed unaware of many of the problems the Church faces—at least on a practical level—Benedict signalled that he was all too cognizant of what he faced. In his inaugural homily, he made a number of telling statements that, given the course of his pontificate, become clearer every day. Benedict gave a stark picture of the modern world, cast in terms quite comprehensible to the people of today, many of whom are convinced by their media and governments that “global warming” is an incontrovertible fact: “…there are so many kinds of desert. There is the desert of poverty, the desert of hunger and thirst, the desert of abandonment, of loneliness, of destroyed love. There is the desert of God’s darkness, the emptiness of souls no longer aware of their dignity or the goal of human life. The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast. Therefore the earth’s treasures no longer serve to build God’s garden for all to live in, but they have been made to serve the powers of exploitation and destruction. The Church as a whole and all her Pastors, like Christ, must set out to lead people out of the desert, towards the place of life, towards friendship with the Son of God, towards the One who gives us life, and life in abundance.”
Having delivered that message, he asked his flock to “Pray for me, that I may not flee for fear of the wolves”—a request that has been made all the more poignant by the events of the last few months. But toward the end of the sermon, he addressed the rulers present. Recalling the exhortation of John Paul II at his inauguration, “Do not be afraid! Open wide the doors for Christ!” Benedict commented: “The Pope was addressing the mighty, the powerful of this world, who feared that Christ might take away something of their power if they were to let him in, if they were to allow the faith to be free. Yes, he would certainly have taken something away from them: the dominion of corruption, the manipulation of law and the freedom to do as they pleased. But he would not have taken away anything that pertains to human freedom or dignity, or to the building of a just society.” It is interesting to note that, at these words, the hereditary (and generally powerless) sovereigns sitting in the “heads of state” section rose to their feet and cheered, while the elected powerhouses behind them (including our own President Bush) sat in stony silence.
While in the years since, the Pope has echoed certain sentiments that would make most political Conservatives cringe (open borders, massive foreign aid to the Third World, socialistic economics, abolition of capital punishment), it is important to remember that his views in these areas are conditioned by both an intimate knowledge of the sheer misery much of the globe lives in, and the misuse of power—including the power to kill—made by the Nazi regime under which he grew up.
In any case, agreement with the rich and powerful in some of these areas has not saved Benedict from the firestorm of condemnation he has received from many of the world’s mighty in the past few months. There were rumblings from many bishops in 2007, when the Pope declared that the Traditional rite of the Mass was to be made freely available to the Faithful. Many other clever folk outside the Church’s fold greeted this news with dismay; many Jews were upset over the return of the traditional Good Friday prayer for their conversion. As a palliative, the Pope issued a new prayer which, while purged of anything that could be considered insulting, was even more explicit in its plea to God that the Jews accept Christ. Claiming to be the Vicar on Earth of that individual, it is hard to see what else he could have dome, and yet be true to his office.
Things quieted down a bit. But earlier this year, the Pope lifted the excommunications of the four bishops of the Society of St. Pius X; in a neat coincidence, that very day a Swedish network released a month’s old interview with Bishop Richard Williamson, in which that often outspoken prelate questioned—not the reality of the holocaust, but the numbers involved.
The firestorm was amazing, although relatively muted on the part of most Jewish leaders. Angry calls for Benedict to resign came from Karl Cardinal Lehmann, the outgoing head of the German Catholic Bishops’ conference, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. In response, and speaking of the response of many clerics to his lifting of the excommunication, Benedict wrote in a letter sent to all the world’s Bishops, “Sometimes one has the impression that our society needs at least one group to which it needs to show no tolerance, which one is allowed to attack with hatred, unquestioned. And whoever dares to touch them—in this case the Pope—has also himself lost the right to tolerance and was allowed to be thought of with hatred, without shyness or restraint.”
Nevertheless, the storm grew more intense still when, en route to Africa, Benedict condemned that sacred cow of modernity, the condom, declaring that it did nothing to stop the spread of AIDS in Africa. Although a number of ranking (and non-Catholic) authorities in the field came to the Pontiff’s defence, the shrieking from media and governmental types was deafening. Part of the banshee chorus was Alain Juppe, former French Prime Minister, who declared, “This pope is becoming a real problem.” Other warning signs include the inability of President Obama to find an ambassador to the Holy See who does not share his support of abortion.
Doubtless, there will be more of these episodes; in some places Catholics may even be asked to choose between their Pope and their government. But considering the moral and mental inadequacy of so many of those who lurk in the halls of power, I know which choice I pray that I have the courage to make, should it ever come to that.
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