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‘A Common Word’ in the News

Despite media smears, world and faithful have warmed to Benedict

OPINION: Today marks the fifth anniversary of the
election of Pope Benedict who has made an enormous impact,
nothwithstanding the claims in last week’s atrocious letter from Fr Hans
Küng to the bishops

THE NIGHT Pope Benedict XVI was elected, I
announced on Prime Time that he would surprise us all. He did. The
moment the newly elected pope first stood on the balcony of St Peter’s
with a shy smile, his previous image as the Panzerkardinal, God’s
Rottweiler, the Vatican Enforcer, began to dissolve.

In Germany,
where his image was particularly bad, the popular press rejoiced that a
fellow-German had been so honoured:
Wir sind Papst was the banner headline on the front page of the
largest daily newspaper. German Catholics, who tend to be liberal,
were, to put it mildly, less enthusiastic.

Initial attempts by the
English-speaking media to daub him as a Nazi sympathiser (“From Nazi to
Papa Ratzi” was one front-page headline) gave way to a more positive
image once this lie was exposed for what it is: a calumny. Then followed
a kind of honeymoon with the media. It was short-lived. Several of his
public pronouncements provoked media outrage, such as his Regensburg
lecture and his interview about Aids during a flight to Africa. The
negative image again surfaced. In recent weeks, that image has dominated
the media, culminating in the atrocious letter of Hans Küng to the
bishops of the world – a kind of encyclical from the man who would be
pope (published in
The Irish Times and elsewhere).

But among the faithful
especially, the more positive image continues to predominate.

is so because of the enormous impact he made, and continues to make,
through his teaching and pastoral actions, not least his visits to
various countries and places inside and outside Italy and Europe. Two
World Youth Days – in Cologne and in Sydney – took the world by
surprise. Catholic youth flocked to hear and applaud what he had to say.

all his speeches his primary object was, and is, to speak of God to
contemporary man. In his address to the cardinals who elected him, he
promised that he would follow the path of his predecessor, Pope John
Paul II. His sole concern would be to proclaim “the living presence of
Christ to the whole world”. Above all, he was determined “to continue to
put the Second Vatican Council into practice”.

In his first major
speech to the Roman Curia he clarified what he meant by correct
implementation of the council. It was basically a matter of hermeneutics
(ie how the conciliar decrees were interpreted). He distinguished
between “a hermeneutics of discontinuity and rupture” (aided by the
media and a certain trend in theology) and “a hermeneutics of reform”.
The former interpreted the council as a radical break with tradition
with, at times, disastrous consequences. The latter viewed the council
as a part of the development of the church’s living tradition, thereby
stressing the continuity in the discontinuity.

Two interrelated
emphases can be detected in his teaching office, to which he has given
priority. The first is directed to those outside. It consists in the
proclamation of Christ to the whole world, a world that has, especially
in the West, turned its back on God. The second emphasis is directed to
reform within the church, a reform that is centred on the Eucharist and
is in harmony with the whole Christian tradition, reflecting eastern as
well as western Christianity.

His literary output has been – again
typical of the man – prodigious. His homilies on special occasions and
his talks at the Wednesday audience and after the Angelus on Sunday are
theological gems. His three encyclicals – on love, on hope and on the
relationship between love and justice – touch on the deepest issues
affecting the human condition. His encyclical on love undid almost a
century of misunderstanding about the relationship between eros – human
love – and agape – divine love. The encyclical on hope drew attention to
the greatest need humans have today: the need for authentic hope, and
the related need not to be seduced by the many false political hopes:
utopianism – that, like Marxism, have caused hell on earth – or the
meaninglessness of evolutionism that leaves a void in people’s lives.
His third encyclical is devoted to the need for morality in economic and
political life, a morality rooted in justice and motivated by love.

he was ever elected pope, Joseph Ratzinger had stressed the need to
reform the liturgy as the council fathers intended as distinct from the
(mostly) botched reform at the hands of the experts. Since his election
he has promoted what is called the “reform the reform” (“the Benedictine
reform”) which stresses the continuity with the older forms of
liturgical worship. The Benedictine reform also includes pastoral
initiatives such as the Year of St Paul, the Synod on the Word of God,
and the present Year for Priests. The first was an attempt to respond to
the legitimate criticism of Protestants with regard to the role of
Scripture in the church. The second is caused by the need for a reform
of the life and task of the priest.

Of the many decisions made by
Benedict, none caused such a furore as the January 21st, 2009, lifting
of the excommunication on the four bishops ordained illegally by bishop
Marcel Lefebvre in 1988. (They were, and are still, suspended from
acting as bishops within the church.) One of the bishops, Williamson,
was a Holocaust denier. Criticism of the pope was particularly vehement
in France and Germany. His response was swift and bold.

His letter
to the bishops is a passionate rebuttal of false accusations, similar
in spirit to Paul’s letter to the Galatians. He was hurt by the way his
decision was misinterpreted by those who, as he said, should have known
better, namely his fellow bishops. The letter also dramatically
illustrated one of the main concerns of his pontificate – promoting the
unity of Christians, in the face of the enormous challenges posed by
secularisation, so that the church can fulfil her mission to liberate
the world by leading people to Christ.

His commitment to
ecumenism, which Küng questions, was one of his passions as a theologian
and is one of his aims as pope. In his first address to the cardinals
he said: “With full awareness, therefore, at the beginning of his
ministry in the church of Rome which Peter bathed in his blood, Peter’s
current successor takes on as his primary task the duty to work
tirelessly to rebuild the full and visible unity of all Christ’s
followers. This is his ambition, his impelling duty. He is aware that
good intentions do not suffice for this. Concrete gestures that enter
hearts and stir consciences are essential, inspiring in everyone that
inner conversion that is the prerequisite for all ecumenical progress.”

most striking advances in relations have been made between the Orthodox
and the Catholic churches, especially since the election of Patriarch
Kirill I to the see of Moscow. Relations with Constantinople have been
brought much closer by the reciprocal visits of Patriarch Bartholomew I
to Rome and Pope Benedict to Constantinople. But Ratzinger’s links to
the Orthodox span his entire career. I was present in the University of
Regensburg when, circa 1975, the then professor Ratzinger was presented
with the Cross of Mount Athos for his contribution to promoting closer
ties with the Orthodox. It is interesting to note that the
once-Communist Moscow paper
Pravda published one of the staunchest defences of the pope in
the face of present attacks, albeit with their own anti-capitalist slant
(March 30th, 2010).

Even the pope’s decision to provide a way for
traditional Anglican communities (not in communion with Canterbury) to
become one with Rome collectively while retaining much of their Anglican
tradition does not seem to have dimmed the good relationship between
the pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. Regretfully,
the dogmatic and moral issues separating the churces (regarding the
ordination of women and sexual ethics) have increased in recent years.

out to the Lutheran communities was made somewhat easier by the fact
that no other pope shows a deeper knowledge or appreciation for the
theological concerns of the Reformer. Recently, the pope accepted an
invitation to preach at the Lutheran Church in Rome – a historic “first”
ignored by the media.

The pope’s “Regensburg lecture” given on
the occasion of his pastoral visit to his homeland, Bavaria, caused a
media uproar at the time. Its quotation from a 14th-century Byzantine
emperor criticising Islam as being intrinsically violent caused the
headlines. The main thrust of his lecture was ignored, namely a profound
criticism of western culture that has in effect eliminated God from
public consciousness. The lecture was part of the pope’s dialogue with
the post-Enlightenment culture that marked much of his writings. Part of
that dialogue was his encounter with Jürgen Habermas at the Catholic
Academy, Munich, on January 19th, 2004.

The initial tsunami of
outrage in the Islamic world and beyond soon gave way to a more moderate
response. Reason triumphed – in line with the general thrust of the
lecture that religion needs reason as much as religion needs revelation.
It seems to have galvanised the more moderate voices in Islam and gave
them the courage to stand up and be counted.

The pope’s visit to
Turkey, especially his visit to the Blue Mosque, quickly helped to heal
wounds. His visits to Jordan and the Holy Land cemented the mutual
respect. The tribute paid to Benedict’s promotion of dialogue with Islam
by Prince Ghazi Bin Muhammed Bin Talal on the pope’s visit to the King
Hussein bin Talal mosque in Amman was quite astonishing. In the meantime
many Arabic leaders, including the King of Saudi Arabia, have sought
audiences with the pope and were readily granted them. Some 138 Islamic
scholars from around the world wrote a letter seeking dialogue –
immediately reciprocated. The dialogue has continued at various levels,
with many positive results.

Ratzinger’s own well-known, long-term,
appreciation of the Jewish religion is well known to many Jews. One of
the most memorable events of his papacy was his visit to Auschwitz. He
visited, and was warmly received, in the synagogues in Cologne, New
York, and, more recently, Rome. His trip to Israel, despite some initial
media criticism there, earned him international respect for the way he
manoeuvred through the political and human minefields there.

recent weeks, his record as pope has been overshadowed by what seems to
be a concerted attempt by the media to use the revolting phenomenon of
clerical sexual abuse to besmirch his name. It did not take long for the
finger of accusation to be pointed at the pope – and with a venom that
surpassed all the earlier attacks.

These culminated in Hans Küng’s
“encyclical” to the world’s bishops rubbishing his record as pope and
claiming that “the worldwide system of covering up cases of sexual
crimes committed by clerics was engineered by the Roman Congregation for
the Doctrine of the Faith under Cardinal Ratzinger (1981-2005)”.

correspondent John L Allen jnr, who coined the phrase “Enforcer of the
Faith”, asserts the opposite: “For those who have followed the church’s
response to the crisis, Ratzinger’s 2001 letter is . . . seen as a long
overdue assumption of responsibility by the Vatican, and the beginning
of a far more aggressive response. Whether that response is sufficient
is, of course, a matter for fair debate, but to construe Ratzinger’s
2001 letter as no more than the last gasp of old attempts at denial and
cover-up misreads the record.”

Pope Benedict’s response to the
publication of the Ryan and Murphy reports was swift and decisive,
though this is not always appreciated. He took the unprecedented step of
summoning the Irish bishops to Rome to account before him and some of
his major co-workers for their actions (or rather inaction). He wrote an
unprecedented letter to the Catholics of Ireland calling for a
spiritual renewal and promising an “Apostolic Visitation” that,
presumably, will deal with more concrete matters.

generations, however, will probably remember Benedict’s reign not
primarily for any of his official documents or actions, however
significant, but for his teaching. Of special note are his Wednesday
audiences devoted to St Paul, the man and his theology, and especially
his book
Jesus of Nazareth , the second volume of which is due to be
published later this year. He is conscious that the greatest challenge
to the church in the future will centre on the person of Jesus Christ,
true God and true man. That is the foundation on which all else rests.

Twomey SVD is professor emeritus of moral theology at St Patrick’s
College, Maynooth. He is author of
Pope Benedict XVI: the Conscience of Our Age. A Theological Portrait (San
Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007)