A Pontiff's First Year
Benedict has foiled the expectations of liberals and conservatives alike
Keeping the faith. So far, Benedict himself appears to be less absorbed by that challenge than by the task of preserving the faith in its former European homeland. He has pressed hard to keep Christianity in the European public square, notably through the church's attempts to resist state-recognized gay marriage in Spain and in vitro fertilization in Italy, and he strongly supports movements like "Communion and Liberation" aimed at attracting young Europeans to a more active life in the church. It is telling that almost half of his cardinal selections come from Europe, while only one comes from densely Catholic South America.
Relations with Islam also rank high in the mind of a man who once opposed Turkey's entrance into the European Union. Whether he has softened that line is not clear, but Benedict has taken a quite different tack from John Paul's almost exclusive emphasis on tolerance and understanding by calling on Muslims for responsibility and reciprocity. After World Youth Day in Germany, Benedict was blunt in his appeals to Muslim leaders to address religious extremism and terrorism. And he insists that religious tolerance be reciprocated in predominantly Muslim nations. That concern came through strongly in the Vatican's denunciation of the apostasy charges brought against the Afghan Christian Abdul Rahman.
Some observers, while not faulting Benedict's harder line, think that it could be pursued more tactfully. The transfer of Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, former head of the council for interreligious dialogue, to the post of papal nuncio in Cairo was widely seen as a demotion of the Vatican's most knowledgeable student of Islam. Some think that Fitzgerald might have brought a more balanced view to a recent Vatican-sponsored conference that characterized the goal of the Crusades as "noble." At the very least, comments Reese, it was "sending the wrong message at a time when Americans are fighting a war in the Middle East."
Some conservatives say that the man who helped craft John Paul's encyclical "Dominus Iesus," which described other faiths as "gravely deficient," never really went missing during the past year. On the issue of dialogue with other religions, Neuhaus insists that this pope has already distinguished himself from John Paul: "I think there has been a more realistic acknowledgment that it takes a lot more than holding hands [at interfaith gatherings] in Assisi." And Neuhaus sees a subtler version of Benedict's earlier argument with liberation theology in the second part of his "God is Love" encyclical. There, Neuhaus explains, the pope argues that efforts to achieve social justice must be firmly grounded in Christian teaching or else they devolve into worldly ideologies like Marxism.
It is still too early to say whether such subtlety will be an asset in the pope's efforts to move world opinion or even to guide the more than 1 billion members of his flock. "Intellectual circles find him erudite and clear," says Allen. "He is the deepest thinker among the current crop of world leaders. But will anybody other than the eggheads be paying attention?" In a world increasingly shaped by a simplifying commercial culture, where The Da Vinci Code takes on the aura of gospel, the answer is anything but certain.