A Pontiff's First Year
Benedict has foiled the expectations of liberals and conservatives alike
Now a full year into Pope Benedict XVI's papacy, it may be time to retire the canine metaphor--or at least to say that it was the year that God's Rottweiler didn't bite. In his quietly purposeful way, the scholarly, soft-spoken pontiff has managed to foil most expectations. Liberals who feared a reign of intolerance have been pleasantly surprised by the gentle pastoral style of a leader whose first encyclical explored the meaning of God's love. Conservatives who expected the German-born pope to crack the whip, drive out dissidents, and restore the Latin mass (and do all of it yesterday) have been equally surprised. And perhaps a little disappointed.
This, after all, was the man who had made his name as John Paul II's strict top cop for church doctrine, the would-be corrector of all that went wobbly after Vatican II. And in the run-up to the conclave that selected him as pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger shored up his reputation with a bracing attack on the "dictatorship of relativism." No wonder conservatives thought he was precisely the man to build on John Paul II's achievements by directing the church toward a more rigorous doctrinal clarity.
But then came some early surprises. Benedict's meeting with one of his oldest intellectual foes, the liberal theologian Hans Kung, seemed almost too conciliatory to some. Puzzling, too, was the appointment of Archbishop William Levada of San Francisco--a pragmatist without particularly strong theological credentials--to Benedict's old post in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. On other fronts, some conservatives wondered why Benedict didn't move faster to fix the liturgy or trim the bloated, occasionally wayward Vatican bureaucracy. But by far the most urgent concern, at least among American Roman Catholics, was whether Benedict would put real teeth into the church's proclamation against the ordination of men of "homosexual orientation."
Off the leash. "He's certainly been a much more cautious and moderate figure than people had anticipated," says John Allen, the Vatican correspondent of the National Catholic Reporter. Other seasoned observers, however, caution against a rush to judgment. "The Rottweiler tag was always unfair," writes Damian Thompson, editor of the Catholic Herald, "but I think the German shepherd is about to let himself off the leash."
Methodical may be the word for the man who took until December to move all of his belongings--including some 20,000 books--into the papal apartments. The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things and one of America's leading voices of Catholic orthodoxy, reads even more into the pope's deliberate style: "He's made it clear that he views this papacy as a long-term pontificate," says Neuhaus.
Many expected Benedict's reign to be a short, unremarkable coda to the 26-year reign of his charismatic predecessor. But Benedict is already cutting a distinctive path. "He is John Paul's successor and he's faithful to his theology," says Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop of Washington, "but he's not afraid to be his own man." John Paul, a man of the theater, thrived on public appearances and the bold gesture, qualities instrumental to his role as a world leader who drew huge crowds and helped bring down the Iron Curtain. The more reserved Benedict, winning in his own diffident way, has an almost Protestant attraction to simplicity and understatement. "This is a guy who believes that people can be swayed by unadorned argument," says Allen. "It is very much an intellectual's way of doing business."
Benedict is also more of a stay-at-home pope. Although he journeyed to Cologne, Germany, for the World Youth Day last summer and plans to visit Turkey, he is unlikely to come anywhere close to matching the air miles of his peripatetic predecessor. And that in itself is a clue to Benedict's sense of his mission: a papacy devoted to the precise articulation of the principles of the faith.
The question, though, is whether Benedict's intellectual rigor and clarity will translate into a leadership style that will be as valuable to the church as John Paul's more exuberant, evangelical ministry--or even if it will correct some of the perceived shortcomings of the Polish pontiff's reign. For example, many claim that administration and governance were critical deficits in the last papacy--one reason, some say, that the sex-abuse crisis got so far out of hand. Benedict's supporters believe that he will clean house by creating a leaner, meaner Curia and by arranging for more direct interaction with diocesan bishops. He has already merged four curial offices into two.
Yet while some conservatives find progress too slow on this front, liberals worry that the downsizing of offices dealing with justice and peace, migration, dialogue with non-Christians, and culture reflects a diminished concern with some of the more pressing issues of the day. "I think what we'll see is a decline of interest in justice and peace and an increase of interest in internal issues of the church--except where abortion and gay marriage are concerned," says the Rev. Thomas Reese, former editor of the Jesuit weekly, America, and a leading scholar of the Vatican. Reese, who was pushed out of his editorship shortly before Benedict was installed, finds little evidence of administrative finesse in the curial office that Ratzinger headed: "You heard of theologians called in to face accusations that were totally false. Ratzinger was not getting good work from his staff. This is a guy who would frankly rather go home and read his books."
Picking his own. But there is no question that this pope is cultivating more direct communication with his bishops and cardinals than John Paul did. One reason, many say, is that Benedict grew wary of national bishops' conferences, finding that they developed their own agendas and were often heavily influenced by midlevel conference officials. "He's picking his own men, and he will teach them in synods," says the Rev. Anthony Figueiredo of Seton Hall University and a special assistant to Benedict at last October's synod. This teaching style, Figueiredo says, will involve at least as much listening as talking. "We are going to see an emphasis," he says, "on dialogue." That emphasis also came through at the March consistory, when the pope met with the College of Cardinals before the installation of his 15 new selections to that body. "He really wants to collaborate," McCarrick says, "to listen to those around him, to be open."
A big question is how all this communication will help Benedict achieve his vision of a church that is clearer about its bedrock principles. Rightly or wrongly, many American Catholics will evaluate the pontiff's success by how he deals with the sex-abuse scandal. To them, the Vatican's November instruction banning the ordination of men with "deep-seated homosexual tendencies" is only a first step. To conservatives such as Neuhaus and theologian George Weigel, its enforcement in the face of widespread dissent will be as crucial a test of church discipline as was the lax enforcement of the 1968 encyclical on birth control. Liberals within the church, including the Rev. John Coleman of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, argue that the conservatives are trying to make the document into something it isn't. Coleman and others emphasize that the teaching was issued (with papal approval, to be sure) by the Congregation for Catholic Education and therefore is of lesser standing than a papal encyclical. They also point out the definitional haze that surrounds terms like "homosexual orientation" (often noting that such an orientation has little causal connection with pedophilia) and suggest that the real test of the teaching won't come until church officials visit the seminaries to apply it. But conservatives counter that such nitpicking amounts to nothing less than a dare. "There can be no doubt," wrote Neuhaus, "that the rejectionists have thrown down the gauntlet in challenging the still-young pontificate of Benedict XVI."
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.
This story appears in the May 1, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.