The Pope Meets His Opposite Number

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Ah, the blessed perks of absolute monarchy. Pope Benedict XVI is one who knows them well. The 265th successor of St. Peter is the unchallenged head of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, with the last word on everything from the naming of bishops to his regular rewritings in stone of the church's opposition to abortion, euthanasia and women priests. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, also carries a big spiritual stick as the leader of the world's 70 million strong Anglican Church. But his rule is neither monarchical nor absolute, since he is appointed by the Queen (or King) of England, and considered "first among equals" of Anglican primates. This fundamental difference in authority was on full display this week in Rome, where an embattled Williams came to meet Benedict and mark 40 years of Anglican-Catholic dialogue.

Though Williams has held his job twice as long as Benedict, it is the Anglican leader who has the much weaker grip and apparently more fractured flock than the pontiff. Since his 2003 appointment, the Archbishop has struggled to keep his church from splintering over the ordination of gay and women clergy. He was even grilled by the media on Friday over a controversy related to a British Airways ban on employees wearing crucifixes on planes. Meanwhile Benedict, though certainly facing dissent both inside and outside his own Church, faces no real challenges to his authority. "Whatever you can say about the Catholic Church," notes one Vatican official, "at least you know where to go to when a decision must be made."

It makes one wonder if Winston Churchill's famous quip about democracy —the worst form of government except all the all others — is a bit less applicable to the running of a worldwide religion. Critics say that by trying to placate all constituencies, Williams has actually deepened the fault lines in the feud that erupted after the American branch of the faith — the Episcopalians — approved the ordination of gay bishops and chose a woman as its primate. There have in fact been moments when the tall and bearded Williams has been dwarfed by others in his own church, including Nigerian Anglican Archbishop Peter Akinola, who has led the revolt of evangelical Anglicans — many from the third world — against the ordination of gays and women. Some Church of England observers believe the 56-year-old Welsh-born Archbishop will step down in 2008, well ahead of the decade-plus tenures of his recent predecessors.

Benedict's critics may be no fewer, but his lifetime appointment to be supreme pontiff helps shield him from the potential schisms facing Williams. While the 79-year-old pontiff has said he wants to give greater voice to bishops, his Church can count on the stability that comes in having one man with the authority to resolve any internal dispute. Democracy-in-Catholicism advocates, however, argue, that the Pope's absolute authority does not allow for truly honest and open debate of evolving issues facing the Church. Another downside — as was on display in Regensburg, Germany with Benedict's provocative speech about Islam and violence — is that the singular pull and stature of just one man can sometimes weigh too heavily on the entire Church.

Still, the two men spent this week highlighting what they have in common. Both these reknowned theologians are concerned about deepening secularism in the West and encroaching fundamentalist challenge from Islam. Williams delivered a lecture Thursday evening at the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences which raised the issue of religious freedom for minorities in Muslim countries. Many wonder if Benedict will confront the same topic in his much anticipated trip to Turkey next week.

Both Anglican and Catholic officials noted a particular warm rapport between Benedict and Williams during a Thursday morning meeting and subsequent lunch at the papal apartment. The two leaders issued a joint statement acknowledging "serious obstacles" to closer communion between the Churches — a clear reference to the Anglican openness to gays and women in the clergy. Williams, who was accompanied by his wife and two children, timed his trip to mark the 40th anniversary of a historic meeting between Archbishop Michael Ramsey and Pope Paul VI. On that first formal encounter between the heads of the two Churches since England's King Henry VIII broke with Rome in the 16th century, the Pope gave Ramsey the ring that symbolizes his papal authority. Williams was wearing that same ring in his meeting with Benedict. And these days, he might wish he had his own symbol of absolute power to wield back at home.