"The celebration of the birth of the Lord is at our doorstep ..." Thus began Pope Benedict XVI in his annual pre-Christmas address to top Vatican officials. But rather than a pro forma holiday wish of good tidings, the pontiff delivered his latest heavy-hitting discourse on everything from ecology to ecumenism, with carefully chosen citations from past Popes and even Friedrich Nietzsche. The topic that most grabbed press attention came about halfway through the 30-minute long address: transsexuals.
Without actually using the word, Benedict took a subtle swipe at those who might undergo sex-change operations or otherwise attempt to alter their God-given gender. Defend "the nature of man against its manipulation," Benedict told the priests, bishops and cardinals gathered Monday in the ornate Clementine hall. "The Church speaks of the human being as man and woman, and asks that this order is respected." The Pope again denounced the contemporary idea that gender is a malleable definition. That path, he said, leads to a "self-emancipation of man from creation and the Creator." (See TIME's Top 10 religious stories of the year.)
Critics of the Church hierarchy see such pronouncements as proof of Catholicism's unhealthy "obsession" with sexual matters. In his book Sex and Heaven, Catholic writer John Portmann argues that the Vatican has made having "correct sex" the singular virtue for achieving salvation. In just the past month, the Vatican has announced its opposition to a United Nations proposal to protect gays from being criminalized and punished by governments for their orientation, and released a doctrinal office document reinforcing the Church's opposition to assisted fertility and stem cell research.
Even though these stands don't stray from his predecessor's, we tend to remember John Paul more for his globetrotting, crowd-pleasing ways. Benedict, more a thinking-man's Pope, tends to make news with his words rather than actions.
The question "What is man?" is fundamental both to Benedict's worldview and to his attempts to convince his flock to question the conventions of modern secularized society. Much has been made of the Pope's recent focus on environmental issues. On Monday he repeated his metaphor that the human body should be protected much as environmentalists want to protect the earth. "The fact that the earth, the cosmos, mirror the creator Spirit, also means that beyond the mathematical order, their rational structures in the experiment become almost palpable, which in itself brings an ethical orientation," he argued Monday, before declaring that one "must defend not only the earth, water and air as gifts of creation belonging to all. One must also protect man against the destruction of himself." Thus Benedict's concern with gender manipulation and environmental degradation are all of a precious piece: protecting God's creation. (See pictures of the Pope in Brazil.)
As incisive as his writing is, some Catholics still question the priorities coming from the bully pulpit. Why, for example, does he not use his Christmas address to boldly condemn Robert Mugabe, whose brutal dictatorship has left a largely Christian country crushed and struggling with a cholera outbreak that has already killed more than 1,000 people? Such thoughts naturally recall Benedict's predecessor, whose geopolitical skills were legendary. (See pictures of Robert Mugabe's reign.)
Though their view of internal doctrine and the world at large are virtually identical, the last two papacies have featured a contrast in personalities and skill sets. In his end-of-the-year address, Benedict seemed to confront the expectations that may have been created by the popularity of John Paul. Reflecting on his trip this summer to Australia for World Youth Day, Benedict said it was wrong to think of these kinds of mass Church events as a "type of rock festival modified in the ecclesiastic sense, with the Pope as the 'star'." As he prepares to lead his fourth midnight Mass inside St. Peter's Basilica, the soft-spoken pontiff will aim yet again to reach the faithful through the force of his intellect and the grace of his prose. Many however will tune in because the man in white, even one with both academic and doctrinaire tendencies, will always carry serious star power.