POPE BENEDICT XVI: The First Year

Article excerpt

IN EARLY MARCH 2006, POPE BENEDICT XVI PUZzled the world by quietly dropping one of his nine titles, "Patriarch of the West," held by popes since 642. Dropping the patriarch-title, traditionally reserved for Eastern Christian leaders, was meant to "be helpful for ecumenical dialogue," explained the Pope, whose "primary commitment" is unity with all Christian churches. But the gesture is more ambiguous than that. It also reasserts the Pope's claim to authority over the entire church, East and West. The true test for Benedict's openness to genuine ecumenical dialogue depends on whether he is willing to put the most valuable of his eight remaining titles on the table: Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church-something he is least likely to do.

Benedict XVI's first year record is mixed. Although unity, peace, and love have been keywords of his papacy, his actions or inactions are at times at odds with such rhetoric. While his fashionable wardrobe has received much attention-flashy red shoes by Prada, hip sunglasses by Gucci, elaborately imperial gowns by Gamarelli, and, most recently, a stylish white 2GB iPod Nano- the jury is still out on how open-minded the former top guardian of the Church's tradition really is. The central question for assessing Benedict's first year may well be whether his obvious changes in style from rigid moral watchdog to diplomatic, meeting-happy uberfather are more than merely a Pope's new clothes.

Has Benedict XVI truly had a change of heart? Or do these superficial changes in style conceal the same absolutistic claims to truth and power which guided him throughout his tenure as the Church's top watchdog? To explore that question, let us look at four areas that the Pope himself has highlighted: issues of peace and justice; inter-religious dialogue; moral values and the fight for Europe; and carrot-and-stick power struggles within the Church.

On peace and justice issues, Benedict XVI has, for the most part, continued his predecessor's stance. He frequently speaks out against violence, terrorism, poverty, consumerism, and economic injustice. Yet his lack of direct criticism of the U. S. -led invasion of Iraq stands in stark contrast to John Paul II's unequivocal opposition to the war. As World War II taught us, a Pope's calls for peace and justice are of little or, worse, negative consequence, unless they call particular countries or leaders to responsible action.

In the area of inter-religious dialogue, Benedict XVI has focused particularly on relations with Jewish and Muslim leaders. Countering initial fears that a German Pope who once served in the Hitler Youth might harbor subtle anti-Semitic views, Benedict XVI recently paid a historical visit to Auschwitz. Visits to synagogues in Cologne and Rome and several meetings with Jewish leaders helped repair initial tensions with Israel after the Pope deliberately omitted from a July 2005 statement against terrorism any mention of a suicide attack inside Israel while, however, referring to attacks in Britain, Iraq, Egypt, and Turkey. A visit to Israel might come as early as 2007.

Benedict's attitude toward Islam has, regrettably, been more reserved. In meetings he has pressed Muslim leaders to fight against terrorism and to support 'reciprocity,' meaning that Muslim countries should grant the same religious freedom to Christians which traditionally Christian countries grant to Muslims. The Pope stunned those familiar with Catholic-Muslim relations when he removed the highly respected Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald from his post as president of the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue. Analysts suggest that the Pope saw Fitzgerald as 'too soft' on Islam, failing to press Muslim countries on respect for religious freedom.

Indicative of tensions between Benedict XVI and the Muslim world was the unusual delay by one year of a papal visit to Turkey. It had originally been planned for the fall of 2005 in response to an invitation by Patriarch Bartholomew I, head of the world's 200 million Orthodox Christians. …