Why Benedict XVI Won't Liberalize the Church

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Listen to a liberal Catholic in Rome these days, and the words "like Nixon going to China" will probably slip out at some point in the conversation. It is the whisper of hope among long shut-out Church reformers that Pope Benedict XVI's unquestioned conservative credentials could make him just the right man to loosen rigid doctrinal policy after the quarter century of John Paul II's traditionalist ways. The German Pope's surprisingly warm persona and his decision to create a more open debate in this month's synod of bishops have fuelled the sense among some that change is in the air. Last week, after Benedict spoke to the synod—a once-every-few-years advisory council to the Holy Father—one progressive Rome-based priest told TIME: "He offered very thoughtful remarks. I'm surprised to see that he seems to be open to hear new ideas." But six months into Benedict's papacy, the Republican-Meets-the-Communists analogy sounds a lot like wishful thinking. Those who believe the 78-year-old Pope could lift the clergy's celibacy requirement or welcome gays into the priesthood are not imagining a Nixon going to China, but Nixon becoming a Marxist. In other words, don't hold your breath.

Sure, over the past two weeks, several bishops have mentioned celibacy during the "free discussion" period that the Pope has introduced for the first time to the gathering of 256 of the world's bishops here in Rome—but it was usually to defend the practice. Even several representatives of Eastern Rite Catholic Churches, where tradition makes celibacy optional, have pointed out the difficulties of having a priest fully devoted to his flock when he also must care for the wife and kids. The document that the bishops will hand to the Holy Father on Saturday at the end of the three-week gathering will almost certainly defend the Roman rite's practice of rigid celibacy rules, while acknowledging that there is priest shortage problem in many parts of the worlds. Also, after much discussion, little change is likely in the Church's denial of the Communion to divorced Catholics or Christians from other denominations.

Even more confusion has arisen among the Catholic faithful over a document expected in the coming weeks that is thought to reassert a longstanding ban on the ordination of gays into the priesthood. Some liberals exulted in victory after recently-leaked details of this document pointed to something less than a draconian ban, and acknowledged the difficulty in determining who is a homosexual priest since all clergy are meant to be celibate. The Associated Press even quoted a gay priest, speaking on condition of anonymity who interpreted the news reports on the document as "the first time that the church will have formally said that gay men have been and can be accepted by seminaries." This is a creative analysis, to say the least. Benedict's pushing this document forward would, for starters, be aimed at keeping out exactly the kind of seminarian who would regard homosexuality as a sufficiently central and acceptable part of his character to call himself a 'gay priest.'" But regardless of how the new guidelines are put into practice— and it no doubt will vary from country to country, and seminary to seminary—the message from Benedict seems clearly a call to tradition, not an opening to freedom of choice.

The Pope himself told a priest in a just-aired interview on Polish television that he doesn't expect his papacy to produce nearly the amount of documents as his predecessor's, but rather to try to translate John Paul's ideas into concrete practice. No doubt, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who had a hand in many of those John Paul writings, doesn't see much need to alter the approach on fundamental doctrinal and theological questions.

This is not to say this papacy won't offer surprises. Rome is buzzing with rumors about which heads might roll in a potential reshuffle of the Vatican hierarchy. Benedict is also very keen on trying to heal 1,000-year-old rift with the Orthodox Church. And further travel plans are on the table. A Chilean Cardinal announced this week that the Pope will travel to Brazil in 2007, which would follow expected trips to Poland and Spain next year. Others are counting on a papal trip to the Holy Land soon. But perhaps most intriguing are reports from Asia, where Catholicism is growing faster than ever. The Pope has sent a letter to Chinese religious authorities, expressing his disappointment that Chinese bishops couldn't attend the current synod. This came after the recent visit in China of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington D.C., who was representing American concerns, but no doubt also addressed Vatican hopes for establishing relations with Beijing. So perhaps, in the end, the Pope will go to China after all.