Pope Benedict XVI: One Year on, He Shapes Up to Be More a Consulter Than an Enforcer, More a Teacher Than a Star

Article excerpt

As the one-year anniversary of Benedict XVI's election neared, newspapers, news magazines and TV and radio outlets were scrambling, trying to outline what the last 12 months have taught us about the new leader of the 1.1-billion strong Roman Catholic church.

In many ways, such analysis depends on the level of magnification you want to employ. One could talk a great deal just about Benedict's catechesis, his papal "style," his approach to the Roman curia, or even his positions on specific questions such as social justice or the interpretation of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). An entire essay could be crafted just around Benedict's decision in early March to drop the title "Patriarch of the West," and the subsequent way in which it was presented--reflecting Benedict's desire to expunge any ambivalence concerning the nature of the papacy, while at the same time holding fast to the desire for ecumenical progress.

Benedict is a supple thinker, and unpacking his approach on any given question requires nuance. Because his points of departure are the 2,000-year tradition of the church, coupled with his own judgments about the character of people under consideration, rather than the ideological categories of secular politics, his decisions will sometimes strike the outside world as surprising and out of character. Nor has his direction over the first year been entirely uniform, as if one can generalize from a single document or papal act to explain everything else.

All this, however, constitutes an "insider" perspective, crafted from the point of view of devotees of the papacy and of Vatican politics. Generally speaking, that's not what secular media outlets are after. What they want to know is, in the "biggest picture" sense possible, what are the most striking or surprising aspects of Benedict XVI's first year, and what do they teach us about where things are going?

In the "big picture" sense, perhaps the most important pope story of the first year is what hasn't happened.

When Cardinal Joseph; Ratzinger was elected on April 19, 2005, he was not an unknown quantity. After John Paul II, he was the most visible figure in Roman Catholicism over the last quarter-century, a man associated with all of the most important controversies in the church over that stretch of time--liberation theology, the limits of dissent, battles over what theological sense to make of other religions, and so on. He was seen as the Vatican's "Enforcer," "God's Rottweiler," the "Panzer Cardinal," and the "German Shepherd."

Hence in the immediate aftermath of his election, most commentators fell back upon tried-and-true labels: "archconservative," "authoritarian," "hardline."

Probably the best expression of this came in an editorial cartoon in L'Unita, the newspaper of the old Communist Party in Italy. Understanding the cartoon requires a bit of background. In Italy, perhaps the most revered pope of modern times is John XXIII, know as il papa buono, "the good pope." One treasured memory of John XXIII is an evening in October 1962, the opening of the Second Vatican Council, when the Catholic Action movement organized a torchlight parade that finished in St. Peter's Square. The pope was not scheduled to address the crowd, but when it arrived, John XXIII wanted to speak. He said something burned into the consciousness of most Italians, repeated endlessly on television and radio. Smiling down on the crowd, he said: Tornando a casa, troverete i bambini. Date una carezza ai vostri bambini e dite: questa e la carezza del Papa. It means, "When you go home, you'll find your children. Give them a kiss, and tell them that this kiss comes from the pope." It summed up the legendary love of the man.

Thus the L'Unita cartoon showed Benedict XVI at the same window, saying, "Tonight, when you go home, I want you to give your children a spanking, and tell them that this spanking comes from the pope. …