April 25, 2005
Considering Pope Benedict XVI
Martin E. Marty
Back from relative hiding on mounts and in wastelands during a papal funeral and a papal election, I have returned to the real world. Asked frequently for my take on Pope Benedict XVI, I have this to offer:
-- Benedict XVI is a good choice of name. We wish him benediction.
-- I've tracked him since 1964 (at Vatican II) through his significant turn rightward around 1968, and find him consistent ever since. No surprises.
-- He is conservative. So? All the cardinals appointed by John Paul II are so. The issue is not "how conservative will he be?" but "how will he be conservative?" -- meaning how expansive, open, and interactive he may be with other Catholics, other Christians, other religions, and secular citizens.
-- As they did with John Paul II, Protestants will largely hold their fire, knowing that the profound and agonized criticisms will come from the pope's fellow Catholics.
-- Thus far, there have been more grumblings from the "Catholic right" about attacks from the "Catholic left" than there have been attacks. Not all Catholics bow low enough to please the right. But many lapse into respectful sullenness in a "give the pope a chance" posture. They will criticize when he gets going, when actions displease.
-- My own citizen-based grumbles: His intervention in the American political campaigns last year broke tradition, portended more involvement, and would have been greeted as a confirmation of non-Catholic Americans' worst fears -- except that many citizens, welcoming his positions, departed from their own long-standing "no papal intervention" traditions. As for world politics: Will his firm stand against contraception lead him to persist in condemning condoms, with no exceptions -- even, for example, in Africa, where that position contributes to many thousands of deaths?
-- Ecumenically this pope is a hard-liner against Anglican orders. He often regards believers who are not in the "papal obedience" orbit to be good individual Christians, though not really in churches as part of the one body of Christ. But two cheers from this Lutheran: he supported and no doubt rescued the 1999 "Joint Declaration" on justification between the Lutheran World Federation (which he wishes were a church) and the Vatican, and has made friendly-to-Luther noises since as early as 1966.
-- He's maybe a bit too ready to slap the adjective "infallible" in front of many current church teachings, for example, against the ordination of women. So far, infallibility has been invoked formally only two times, with a century between them: once in defining the Immaculate Conception and again in defining the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. It would be nice to wait another hundred years before it's invoked again -- if it has to be used at all.
-- His boyhood in Germany during the Nazi regime? Utterly a non-issue.
-- A very smart man, educated and intellectual, he shares his predecessor's zeal for defining doctrine, but brings more passion to enforcing definitions. Will the responsibilities of office and his need to reach out change him and his profile?
-- Was the selection of a Western European who met indifference and hostility on many Western fronts of Catholicism a sign that the cardinals have given up on Europe, or the expression of a desperate hope that he can turn things around? Wait and see.
-- There were too many claims that the politicking surrounding the election of the pope was the work of the Holy Spirit. Yes, Christians can believe it was in the end the Spirit's work -- but this came to be overstated. Hover now, as-if-winged Spirit.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.