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.

This 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.

In 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.

Before 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.”

The 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.

Reaching 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.

In 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)”.

Vatican 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.

Future 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.

Vincent 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)