Dogma Alert

Friday, April 22, 2005

Church's choice has smell of fear

Apr. 20, 2005. 07:54 AM

VATICAN CITY—God bless Pope Benedict XVI.

And God help the Roman Catholic Church.

She will undoubtedly need some divine succour and soothing under the new pontificate that emerged with such shocking haste here on just the first full day of the papal conclave.

With brocaded stole around his shoulders and white silk zucchetto on his head, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany appeared from behind the velvet curtains on the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica shortly after 6:30 p.m.

The massive crowd that had streamed into the panoramic piazza, pouring through the curved arms of the colonnade — drawn there with such urgency by the basso clanging of a colossal bell that tolled the new pope tidings — applauded warmly.

Holding up crucifixes, clutching rosary beads, waving flags from across the globe, the gathering roared its greeting. It was love, without reservation, that washed over the small white-haired man — turned 78 just last Saturday — as he raised his own arms and clasped his hands in the classic prizefighter's pose.

He is a fighter, a pugilist of the pulpit, however beatific that beaming and so rarely seen smile appeared in his debut as 264th successor to St. Peter.

A "simple, humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord," he told the throng, in a brief Italian address preceding the traditional Latin blessing, Urbi et Orbi.

But a severe disciplinarian and a hard-line doctrinaire.

The enforcer of fundamentalist theology for his predecessor and bosom friend.

Jesus sat at the right hand of God. Ratzinger sat at the left hand of John Paul II.

Number 2 man in the Vatican for the last 24 years, the undisputed spine of the Curia, and the bane of progressive priests in all corners of the earth.

In the first conclave of the third millennium, the College of Cardinals could have embraced a fractured church, started to bind wounds that do bleed, appealed to the spirit and soul of Catholics who long for a leadership that feels their bewilderment.

Instead, the Princes of the Church — by a rapid two-thirds-plus-one majority — fastened onto an individual who has been formidably divisive, fiercely conservative and very much a top-down strongman brooking no diversity of opinion.

He's the defender of the faith.

Latin America, which provides ballast for the church with its overwhelming number of Catholics, may not be pleased. Africa, where an "inculturated" Catholicism incorporates indigenous cultures, may not be pleased. North America, where evangelism is the Christianity-du-jour, may not be pleased. Europe, so increasingly secular, its parishes emptying and pulpits unfilled, may not be pleased.

Not a Latin, not black, not Italian, not collegial, not open-minded. Definitely not charismatic.

The elector cardinals had an opportunity here to breathe life into the faith, to make the church more relevant, not so much of an anachronism. They chose, rather, to dig the church more firmly into its ideological entrenchment, electing an archconservative who had, on occasion, promoted policies and edicts that raised the eyebrows of even John Paul, no flabby moderate.

It has the odour, I think, of fear.

This beleaguered church, lashed on all sides by scandal and criticism, diminished by abandonment of the faithful, clearly intends to batten down the hatches and shore up the ramparts, at least for however long this elderly pope lasts.

It suggests a faith under siege, untrusting of its own core strengths and frightened by the modern world.

Presumably, the red-hats feel safer this morning. They certainly looked proud of themselves, as they squeezed shoulder-to-shoulder on the Basilica's balconies once the newly minted pope had retreated.

At this point, the cardinals would have already filed before Pope Benedict XVI, kneeling to pay homage to the Supreme Pontiff as he sat on a small stool, as per ritual. But then they would be accustomed to genuflecting before Ratzinger-as-cardinal.

There were attempts by commentators last night to reinvent this pope, rewrite the biography, buff the jagged edges of a sharp and caustic ideology.

His influence under Pope John Paul, however, has been too vividly chronicled for revisionism now. Indeed, a Holy Father of such unbending orthodoxy may be just what the Catholic Church and its 1.1 billion adherents need. But I have my doubts.

There will surely be no room in this papacy for married priests, female clergy, homosexuals, divorced people who ache for the sacraments, the majority of Catholics who use contraception, advocates of condoms to reduce the pandemic of AIDS, infertile couples who seek in-vitro treatment and those who pray for the promise of stem-cell research.

Even a couple of the Pope's compatriot cardinals — progressive fellow Germans Karl Lehmann and Walter Kasper (who famously jousted in print with Cardinal Ratzinger over the authority of local dioceses) — must be feeling demoralized today, along with their gently liberal colleagues. It is likely that even modestly independent bishops will be brought to heel, unless Ratzinger undergoes an abrupt reversal of style.

Since the actual electoral tally is unknown, it's impossible to say how muscular Ratzinger's support was, inside the chapel commissioned 530 years ago by Pope Sixtus IV. But it's fairly clear he won on just the fourth ballot — the second quickest election in a century — and that the much-rumoured attempt to block his ascendancy never got off the ground. Ratzinger, Dean of the College of Cardinals until a week ago, went in as the favourite and came out the victor.

Yet it still comes as rather a surprise. The alacrity of the decision is itself remarkable, suggesting the pro-Ratzinger faction must have converted a considerable number of the iffy and that the 20 Italian cardinals — the largest single voting bloc — had failed to coalesce around a sturdy challenger. Such prompt agreement smacks more of clever politicking and powerful preparation than honest consensus and sober reflection.

Around the world, countless hearts must have sunk.

I cannot imagine a million young people doing the wave for Pope Benedict XVI and shouting PAPA! PAPA!

There is a chiaroscuro to this pope, a darkness and a light.

He is without question a brilliant theologian and scholar, for nearly a quarter-century a Curia insider and long removed from the pastoral phase of his career as archbishop of Munich.

His defenders claim that he is warm and personable, gracious in private dealings, a person of both humility and refinement.

But the curriculum vitae is worrisome, at least for those who live in the real world, a harsh place, outside the cradle of Vatican City.

One of only three current cardinals not appointed by John Paul — though their friendship went back four decades — Ratzinger is a razor-sharp intellectual, widely published, a master of church history. He has no difficulty defending the stridency of his Catholicism.

On Monday he delivered a stinging homily at the pre-conclave mass, railing against the seduction of secularism and the "dictatorship of relativism." It was a stunning last-word-in before the cardinals were sequestered in the chapel but it must have heartened those who believe — as does this pope — that the church needs to put even more lead in its pencil, stare down those whiny, noisy reformers, carry a big stick.

How far removed Ratzinger is from his younger, decidedly liberal self — the Hitler Youth childhood is not significant, since he would have had no choice in the matter — when he arrived in Rome as a theological adviser to reform-minded Cardinal Josef Frings at Vatican II.

Clergy ossify, in the hermetic environment of the Vatican. In those salad days, Ratzinger had some compassion for divorced Catholics, was willing to listen to those who argued in favour of allowing them the sacraments. He had even campaigned, once upon a time, on behalf of theologians under investigation from Head Office, arguing that they were entitled to counsel and should be allowed to view the files that had been amassed on their objectionable conduct.

That Ratzinger disappeared, by and by.

Not long after his election, Pope John Paul II named him to head the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the portfolio originally known as the Office of the Universal Inquisition.

From that lofty position, his increasingly bossy and obstructionist rule not in the least curtailed by John Paul, Ratzinger set himself to disciplining all purveyors of false doctrine. The consummate enforcer.

From the Vatican, he reached into the smallest of far-flung parishes, where females were participating in the mass; on to university campuses where academics were daring not to toe the theological line; into dioceses where bishops were permitting the dissemination of information on birth control. Under his encouragement, the Vatican adopted policies whereby dissent was forbidden and some subjects of dispute were not even allowed expression.

He quashed liberation theology movements in Latin America, although they had admittedly fallen into disrepute, cleaving too closely to Marxism and wielded for singularly political purposes.

He condemned homosexuality as an "intrinsic moral evil," said Muslim Turkey didn't belong in Christian Europe as Ankara sought European Union membership, and authored a document — Dominus Iesus — that alarmed even his most conservative brethren, with its claim that the one true way to heaven is through the Catholic Church and all others faiths are somehow deficient.

Although John Paul read out that statement, it seemed to fly in the face — a slap to the face — of the Pope himself, who'd so vigorously pursued ecumenism, and so respectfully reached out to other faiths, becoming the first pontiff to visit a synagogue and a mosque.

It was, further, Ratzinger who was put in charge of handling the legal fallout of the sex abuse scandal in the United States, a betrayal of epic proportions but one that has had few repercussions outside of North America. He blamed the media for hysterical reporting on the crisis.

In cardinal corners, he was applauded for that.

And he was applauded yesterday — because it would be unthinkable to do anything else.

Josephum Ratzinger — Benedictum XVI.

Let us pray.


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