Benedict XVI: Signs of Contradiction? (An Editorial)
By: Christine Schenk csj
It is a matter of public record that as head of the Congregation
for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), Pope Benedict XVI (then Cardinal
Ratzinger) issued statements about women, ecumenism, gays and lesbians,
Muslims, clergy child sex abuse and the roles of bishops conferences
that many inside and outside the Catholic Church found polarizing
In light of this history many see little hope for dialogue about
some of the
most pressing issues facing the Church.
Early statements from the new Pope seemed promising. Pope Benedict
committed himself to episcopal collegiality, Vatican II, and
ecumenical outreach. Apparently
responding to less than enthusiastic media coverage, U.S. Cardinals held a press
conference immediately after the conclave to tell the world that Benedict XVI
was really a kind and humble man and asked us not to judge him by his previous
role as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Our new Pope chose the name Benedict in honor of Benedict XV and
Benedict of Nursia as signs of his desire to bring worldwide
peace and reconciliation. He
promised to be a “listening Pope.”
But at press time there was distressing evidence that rather than “listening,” Pope
Benedict seemed to be choosing “silencing” instead.
America Editor Ousted
On May 6, because of longtime pressure from the Congregation of the Doctrine
of the Faith, Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese was forced to resign after seven years
as the editor of the widely respected Jesuit weekly America. The CDF didn’t
like some of Reese’s publishing decisions, including: an editorial
criticizing lack of due process in CDF procedures for investigating theologians;
several critical analyses of the Vatican’s Dominus Iesus (which also
received worldwide criticism by ecumenists inside and outside the Church);
an essay about homosexual priests; and a guest essay from U.S. Rep. David
Obey of Wisconsin, challenging suggestions that the church should refuse
Communion to Catholic politicians who do not vote as a number of bishops
believe they should vote. In all these instances, America also published
articles with opposing points of view. (See www.america.org for two articles
from their archives expressing contrasting views on how the Universal Church
relates to the Local Church. The author of one is Cardinal Walter Kasper,
and the other Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger).
For U.S. Catholics, the ousting of Reese, who is widely regarded as a moderate,
will be seen as a chilling way to begin a papacy.
Signs of Hope
However there remain other signs that some changes important to Catholic progressives
may yet come to pass. Here is my list:
1. As Cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger first trivialized
the U.S. sex abuse crisis as a product of anti-Catholic media.
he ignored normal protocol
by accepting a faxed request to meet with members of the U.S. Bishops’ Lay
Review Board on Clergy Child Sex Abuse. Justice Anne Burke tells us he met
with them for two hours and took their concerns very seriously (see full text
of Burke’s speech on the FutureChurch website). Not long after the meeting,
Pope John Paul II suddenly made unprecedented statements to U.S. Bishops, quoting
Vatican II and urging them to involve the laity in diocesan decision-making.
Later Cardinal Ratzinger reversed an earlier decision and reinstated the canonical
investigation of Legionnaires of Christ founder, Fr. Gabriel Maciel whose case
had become notorious because of Vatican inaction despite many credible allegations
of sexual abuse of seminarians (see News Briefs).
2. Recent decisions from the CDF allowing Swiss
Bishops to implement lay preaching and intercommunion (see News
may indicate a new openness
to the pastoral realities of mixed marriages and of trying to keep a parish together where there are
3. Last year at Cardinal Koenig’s funeral, then Cardinal Ratzinger acknowledged
that perhaps centralization of Church decision-making had gone too. This gives
some hope, albeit slim, for a more open process at next October’s Synod
on the Eucharist.
4. The worldwide priest shortage isn’t going away and, if nothing is
done, will bring significant change to the Church, regardless of who is Pope.
This means our efforts to open the discussion about optional celibacy and the
female diaconate at next October’s Synod are more important than ever.
Significantly, conservative commentators have left optional celibacy off their
list of things the new Pope won’t change.
In his role as Pope, Joseph Ratzinger has been given a new mission. Now he
must be a sign of unity. Now he must be a spiritual leader to all Catholics,
not only to the ultra conservative few who view him as their hero.
I don’t know yet if Benedict XVI will live up to the vision of his predecessor Benedict XV who healed divisions between conservatives and
I do know that ousting Fr. Thomas Reese is a terrible way to begin his new
Open Discussion Necessary
Just after the conclave I received an anonymous message on my office voicemail
expressing the hope that “God’s Rottweiler” will come to
the U.S. and attack FutureChurch and Bishop Pilla “to get all the filth
out of the Diocese” (except they used a four letter word for filth).
Like it or not, some ultraconservative Catholics are hoping groups
like FutureChurch will be eradicated by our new Pope.
An editorial in the April 25 issue of America said: “A church that cannot
openly discuss issues is a church retreating into an intellectual ghetto.” Among
issues listed were birth control, divorce, women priests, married priests,
selection of bishops, and the centralization of decision making in the Vatican.
If Benedict XVI is to really become a listening Pope, open discussion of important
issues in the Church must not only be permitted but also encouraged.
Silencing the conscience-driven voices of the people of God isn’t the
way a gentle, humble leader behaves.