A Step Backward for Pope Benedict?

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Daniele Colarieti / AFP / Getty

Pope Benedict XVI blesses the faithful gathered in the courtyard of his summer residence in Castelgandolfo in the outskirts of Rome.

Two years into his papacy, Benedict XVI may be about to reclaim his reputation as a no-holds-barred traditionalist. Thanks to Benedict's thoughtful manner, Church progressives had believed that the man who was once the hard-line Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger would cut some slack on areas of doctrinal contention — using his intellectual heft and traditional credentials as necessary cover. But as Benedict turns 80 on April 16 and marks two years as Pope on April 19, the once hopeful progressives have all but given up their fantasy of Benedict the Reformer.

In the coming weeks, the Pope is expected to release a document that would allow the more widespread practice of the traditional Latin Mass, which was all but shelved with the reforms of the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s. Vatican Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone recently confirmed to Le Figaro newspaper that this motu proprio, or personal initiative of the Pontiff, will allow any priest to say the mass according to the old Tridentine rite (which is delivered in Latin with the priest facing the altar, his back to the congregation), rather than have to seek approval from the local bishop as is now required.

Eighteen months ago, one Rome-based progressive cleric had said he was "surprised to see that [Benedict] seems to be open to hear new ideas." But today, the same priest is disappointed. There has been no sign of any of the hoped-for reforms: overturning the ban on communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, reconsidering the celibacy requirement for priests, allowing gays in seminaries, or a softening of the condom ban to allow for distribution in AIDS-ravaged Africa. The release last month of the Pope's final document on what had seemed to be a convivial and intellectually open October 2005 bishops' meeting on the Eucharist is a good example of the Pontiff's approach. According to a senior Church official who participated: "He took all that debate of the Synod, and then gave us a document that simply defends the status quo." This same official acknowledges a bit of past excessive optimism on Benedict: "People were hoping that with his intellectual acumen and understanding of theology, he'd be in a position to make some of these changes. Unfortunately, at this point, I don't think we'll see any of them."

Of course, beyond the doctrinal front, plenty has changed these past two years for the Bavarian prelate and Vatican insider. He has become a world leader and has been learning lessons in tempering his ideas with public relations, having given controversial speeches and been confronted with fiery inter-faith conflict, particularly with Islam. A trip next month to Brazil, the first ocean crossing and first time among the fervent flock of the Third World, will further test both the pastoral and political aspects of his job, as Latin America continues to deal with widespread poverty and the continent's Catholics increasingly lose ground to Evangelical movements. Still the Pope has managed to keep up his writings, including the conclusion of a book he began in 2003 on the life of Jesus, which comes out Monday in Italian and German, and next month in English.

A significant part of any Pope's job is to manage questions of doctrine and discipline. Benedict's "no wiggle room" approach is increasingly seen in the context of his great battle to defend Catholicism on its historical home turf of Europe, where he sees a kind of cult of secularism. The Pope's response is not simply to reaffirm the Christian values of the old continent, a goal also expressed by the continent's more liberal leaders and theologians like Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and Cardinal Godfried Daneels. In addition, Benedict professes a very specific kind of Christianity, one based not only on the teachings of Jesus, but on abiding by the letter of ancient Catholic Church traditions as the only effective bulwark against rampant relativism.

In fact, the one major disciplinary about-face expected is this coming document on the Latin Mass, a concession to the ultra-conservatives, who have been living and praying on the fringe of the Church since the reforms of the Second Vatican Council brought in mass in the vernacular. Said one Rome-based priest: "Opening up the Latin rite to anyone would amount to the Church turning back the reforms of Vatican II." A Vatican official who has worked closely with the Pope said that loosening rules on the Latin rite has been a long-time personal goal of Ratzinger, who had led what turned out to be failed negotiations in the early 1980s to bring back into the fold the followers of the breakaway French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who have defied the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

The Vatican official says that Benedict believes that the Council's legacy "has been abused," and finding a way to widen access to the Latin rite "has always remained in his heart." Still, even mainstream members of the Roman hierarchy are opposed, fearing that it will exacerbate divisions within the Church. French bishops have openly argued against it. The Pope's old office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith last spring, privately advised against the motu proprio, the Vatican official said. Still, Benedict does not appear swayed. The professor Pope may be happy to have a conversation on doctrine, but he knows he always has the last word.