Being Benedict: The Pope's First Year

By Byassee, Jason | The Christian Century, April 18, 2006 | Go to article overview
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Being Benedict: The Pope's First Year

Byassee, Jason, The Christian Century

LATE IN HIS LIFE, Karl Barth invited a young Catholic theologian to join his theology seminar. Frederick Lawrence, one of the students in the seminar, remembers the visitor as a "handsome young priest with graying hair, of medium build and slender stature," who spoke with such skill that Barth pronounced his performance "outstanding." Barth had one reservation: his guest too often used the construction "on the one hand ... and on the other hand" when a simple decisive pronouncement would have been in order.

Few people since then have accused Barth's guest, Joseph Ratzinger, of speaking with excessive moderation. His rigorous enforcement of theological orthodoxy in the Roman Catholic Church earned Ratzinger such informal titles as "the panzer cardinal" and "God's rottweiler." Upon Ratzinger's election as Pope Benedict XVI, liberal Catholics in the U.S. and Europe feared a return to the Dark Ages.

But now, a year into Benedict's pontificate, the world has had more glimpses of that measured priest. One of his first gestures as pope was to invite a longtime theological nemesis, Hans Kung, who had been censured by the Vatican for his liberal stances, for a day of friendly conversation. Benedict appointed a moderate, William Levada, to be his successor as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The appointment angered Catholic conservatives more than liberals, because the former archbishop of San Francisco was perceived to be wishy-washy in dealing with homosexuality.

Benedict's first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, is also distinctly moderate. Who could object to a discourse titled "God Is Love"? In Caritas Benedict criticizes modern Western sexual practices for unduly elevating eros, or sexual desire, at the expense of agape, the love of God. But he also acknowledges that the church in the past has spoken too negatively about sexual desire. The proper response to this failure, he says, is not to elevate the body and eliminate agape but rather to see the person as a psychosomatic whole for whom eros and agape are inseparable. Benedict brilliantly incorporates the criticism of the church and then corrects it theologically.

The second half of the document, apparently begun by John Paul II and left unfinished at his death, warns that Catholic charities must see themselves as part of the church's expression of love, not merely as one more benevolent organization trying to do good in the world. Catholic charitable activity, it insists, is not "'a means of changing the world ideologically ... [but] a way of making present here and now the love which man always needs." Such charity is not separate from the Spirit's outpouring of love in the church or the church's mission to bear the love of God into the world.

Benedict's moderate tone has not calmed the fears of his critics. They sense that behind his explorations of love in the scriptures and church tradition, the pope is trying to forestall a church conversation about issues of gender and homosexuality. And they see the exhortation to Catholic charities as a preemptive strike against Catholic organizations that would promote condom distribution as part of the fight against AIDS in Africa.

For those who want to know the mind of this pope, a significant paper trail can be followed. The most accessible entry point is the three-volume collection of interviews he gave to journalists during the past 20 years. The Ratzinger Report (1984), the first and most famous of the volumes, deals with contentious political matters. In the second volume, Salt of the Earth, Ratzinger articulates his vision of a smaller, more faithful Catholic Church standing against a world staunchly opposed to faith. He imagines a church that is more akin to the faithful remnant described in prophetic biblical literature than to the church militant of most of the last two millennia. The final book in the series, God and the World, covers basic theological topics.

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