Is Benedict Flip-Flopping?

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A two-way Roman truism says that every new Pope changes the papacy, and the papacy changes every new Pope. In the case of Benedict XVI, a casual observer might wonder if the man who once was an iron-clad Cardinal has recently gone soft. Back in September, Benedict broke fresh ground for his ancient office by delivering an intellectually charged — and baldly controversial — lecture on faith, reason and violence. It was the young papacy's quintessential Ratzinger moment, as the 79-year-old professor-turned-pope returned to his old university in Regensburg to draw a theological line in the sand that set off a worldwide debate about how Islam and the West should talk to each other. Yet last week, that same man, who as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was famous for his doctrinal rigidity, was in Turkey doing and saying things on the same issue, Islam, that few could have ever imagined.

What's more, after his return to Rome, word came over the weekend that Benedict's pick to take over the Vatican office for the clergy, Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, had opened the door to a future discussion on celibacy in the priesthood. This came just weeks after the Pope held a meeting with Vatican cardinals that explicitly reaffirmed the Roman Church's longstanding ban on married clergy.

Is the Pope flip-flopping on Islam and celibacy? A closer look simply shows a world religious leader wading through our troubled times with all the skills, limitations and serendipity that come with being human. An analysis of his past week may offer clues to where the papacy is headed:


Although the modern papacy has its script, Pope John Paul II showed that moving the world means sometimes letting yourself be moved. Benedict's late decision to accept an invitation to the Blue Mosque meant Vatican aides and their Muslim hosts would need to work out in advance the basic details of the encounter. Several hours beforehand, word had spread that last Thursday's televised visit would include a moment for silent prayer or reflection. Still, when Istanbul's top cleric, Mustafa Cagrici, told the Pope it was time for a "moment of serenity," Benedict looked for an instant as if he'd been caught off guard. It may well have been that Cagrici had just repeated that they were facing in the direction of the Islamic holy city of Mecca, and the Pope understood immediately that this act might not sit well with some of his diehard followers. But Benedict neither turned away nor turned cold, and simply lost himself in prayer for all to see (he actually prayed twice as long as Cagrici).

It didn't change much that Church officials insisted that it was a "personal" prayer, unrelated to any Christian liturgy, while Turkish newspapers proclaimed the Pope "prayed like a Muslim." The mosque visit will go down as a watershed in a papacy that just two months earlier had nearly drowned in a speech critical of Islam. Benedict, long doubtful of different faiths praying together, got lost in the moment. Don't expect such papal adventures to happen often in the future, but as an old Italian Vatican hand put it last week: "Traveling changes people."


The Turkey trip will be hailed as a great success of Vatican diplomacy, and the Holy See's new Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, can take a chunk of the credit. The softer tones on Islam, the visit to the mosque, openly warm exchanges with Benedict's Orthodox counterpart, the Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I — and no major glitches — means the Pope returns to Rome with a new dose of what he sorely needed when he left: consensus. The Regensburg speech, and the risk it might incite violence, divided many Catholics — even those who may have instinctively agreed with its content. Turkey's fence-mending, instead, has the potential to instantly unite Catholics in support of their Pope, even those who ultimately want him to hold the hard line. But Bertone, who was Cardinal Ratzinger's deputy for many years, must be careful. If he becomes identified as the man who is watering down the boss, new divisions in Rome may emerge.


The sum total of Benedict's speech in Regensburg and his visit to the mosque is that he is relevant on the Islam-and-the-West debate. But how can he stay relevant? Most Church insiders agree that ultimately this Pope's greatest gift is his intellect rather than his showmanship. This means that his next big act on Islam will likely be with words rather than gestures. But no one in Vatican circles I've spoken with can imagine how he can pick back up where he left off in Regensburg, directly questioning the historical and philosophical foundations of Islam, without setting off another backlash. In Turkey, he repeatedly spoke about religious liberty, but made sure never to specifically cite Islam. The risk is that a combination of careful words and John Paul-like gestures will dilute Benedict's potential impact on this issue. This points to a more general issue about the Ratzinger papacy. Sure, a newfound flexibility was obviously required of a man who'd spent more than 20 years ensuring strict adherence to Church doctrine. And rethinking his views on Islam and opening a debate on priestly celibacy may be welcome in many quarters. But such changes must be driven by not just the authority of the papacy, but the consistency and intellectual clarity of Joseph Ratzinger.


When Benedict prepared to deliver his Regensburg speech, he knew his next trip was to Turkey. We'll never know for sure why he didn't just wait to deliver the speech until after his visit two months later to the predominantly Muslim country. A solemn visit to a mosque and chats with clerics might have actually helped him improve the speech — and shielded him from accusations of being anti-Islam. On the other hand, it's possible that he wouldn't have even visited the Blue Mosque if he hadn't had Regensburg damage to repair. Similarly, the Vatican seemed to momentarily reopen the celibacy question with an impromptu meeting of Cardinals last month, which was just as quickly closed by a public statement saying that the current policy stands. Now Hummes, the Brazilian Cardinal about to take over the Congregation for the Clergy, has reopened it again. We can't know if Hummes — who on Monday clarified that the issue was not an immediate priority — was still a bit naive to Roman customs. But it is evidence of a more open intellectual climate under Benedict. And so with Ratzinger, who was perhaps the best-known modern Cardinal to become Pope, there is another bit of well-worn Roman wisdom to ponder: every papacy — like creation itself — is a work in progress.