December 13, 2009


The Great Consolidator (Jeremy Lott, December 2009-January 2010, American Spectator)

After Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's election as the 265th bishop of Rome, most attention focused on his biography and the sharp-edged message that he had delivered to the conclave of cardinals before the vote. He had been called "God's Rottweiler" as the head of the CDF not because of his personal demeanor -- he rarely snarls -- but because he censured several theologians and priests for heresy. In his message to fellow cardinals at the last Mass before they locked themselves into the Vatican Palace to choose the next pope, he warned against the "trivialization of evil" that is often promoted by ideological fashions.

In that homily, Ratzinger denounced Marxism, liberalism, libertinism, collectivism, radical individualism, atheism, vague religious mysticism, agnosticism, syncretism, and relativism -- all by name -- and spoke up for what "is often labeled today as fundamentalism." Liberals inside and outside of the church tended to take his message as some sort of a personal attack, even though that "radical individualism" bit could have been construed as a dig at political conservatives as well.

Less attention was focused on Benedict's first homily as pope, at a Mass of the College of Cardinals. He opened with the usual boilerplate. "Catholics cannot but feel encouraged to strive for the full unity for which Christ expressed so ardent a hope," he said. He promised to be "especially responsible" for promoting that unity. Benedict acknowledged that he had been "entrusted with the task" of strengthening his "brethren" -- a word that is fraught with meaning in ecumenical circles as Rome has taken to referring to non-Catholic Christians as "separated brethren."

Then he said something extraordinary and perhaps unprecedented: "With full the beginning of his ministry in the Church of Rome which Peter bathed in his blood, Peter's current Successor" -- that is, I, Pope Benedict XVI -- "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." These words were brought to my attention by Keith Fournier, an ordained Catholic deacon who enthused on Catholic Online that "What happened [in October] is just the beginning."

THE ONLY THING IS, it wasn't the beginning. Far from it. The present pope may not go down as the Great Unifier, exactly. He's likely what people today call "too divisive" to pull that off, and it's hard to see why he would want to. Benedict knows how to use divisions to great effect. He takes Christ's statement from the Gospel of Matthew, "I did not come to bring peace but a sword," quite seriously.

When a group of traditionalist Episcopalians held a conference in Dallas in 2003 to talk about breaking away from the U.S. Episcopal Church over its increasing liberal drift, then Cardinal Ratzinger sent them a message egging them on. He assured them of his "heartfelt prayers" and said that the "significance of your meeting is sensed far beyond [Dallas] and even in this city, from which Saint Augustine of Canterbury was sent to confirm and strengthen the preaching of Christ's Gospel in England." According to Dairmaid MacCulloch, writing in the Guardian, when the delegates heard this, "There was wild applause."

In fact, the pope's recent actions with the Anglicans mirrored an earlier act of his papacy that was also hugely controversial but that was seen by outsiders mostly as a family squabble with some ugly repercussions. It involved the Society of Saint Pius X. These were traditionalist Catholic priests who, because of the reforms that followed the Second Vatican Council and especially the de facto suppression of the Latin Mass, formed a rebel sect within the Church.

The Society's late founder, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, was eventually excommunicated when the aging prince of the Church ordained four new bishops to continue his work in 1988, in defiance of the explicit orders of John Paul II. Millions of otherwise loyal Catholics, especially in France, attended the Society's beautiful, ancient Mass because they had a hard time finding it anywhere else.

As head of the CDF, Benedict pleaded with Lefebvre not to ordain more rebel bishops, but didn't succeed. As pope, he moved to reincorporate the Society into the Church, first, by issuing a universal indult in July 2008 mandating that bishops allow the Latin Mass in their dioceses, and, second, in January 2009, by lifting the excommunications of the four men that Lefebvre ordained bishops. This wouldn't have raised too many eyebrows outside the Church but for the fact that one of those men, Richard Williamson, turned out to be a Holocaust denier and a 9/11 "truther" conspiracy theorist.

The press had a field day with that one. But there was another story lurking beneath the obvious scandal. Benedict's Latin Mass decree greatly increased the rights of the faithful against their sometimes imperious bishops. Now, a bishop has to explicitly prohibit the Latin Mass, give a good reason for doing so, and risk losing an appeal to Rome. That ended the need for a Society of Pius X as an outside agitator.

Now, Rome wants more priests trained to perform the Latin Mass, and it wants those parishioners back who had turned to the Society for its ceremony. So it swallowed hard and lifted those excommunications and is in talks to bring the Society's priests back in. If talks stall, expect Benedict to personally intervene.

OR TAKE THAT OTHER great flashpoint of Benedict's papacy, the speech delivered at his old college, the University of Regensburg, on September 12, 2006. The line that set the world on fire was Benedict's quotation of Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus, who said, "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."

Benedict teed up the quote by warning of its "startling brusqueness...that we find unacceptable" today, he reminded people of that Koran's sura that counsels "there is no compulsion in religion," and he never agreed with Paleologus's assessment (" forcefully") of Islam, and he quickly apologized for having caused offense. That did little to prevent churches from being firebombed in Palestine, a nun being killed in Somalia, Christians being attacked in Iraq, riots from breaking out all over the Middle East, or the militant Muslim group Lashkar-e-Taiba from issuing a fatwa calling on faithful followers of Allah to kill the pope. In a direct challenge to these violent Islamists, the pope then visited Turkey -- a nominally Muslim nation whose entrance into the European Union he had opposed.

Most attention was focused on the Muslim rage that the pope's quote provoked but very few people stopped to consider what Benedict was doing quoting Paleologus at all. He was the kind of person previous popes would have been wary of, at the very least. Paleologus, recall, was a Byzantine emperor from well after the Great Schism, and thus Orthodox, and not exactly an ex-emplar of ecumenism.

In good times, Paleologus worked to conquer the Latin part of the old Roman empire, or the pope's own backyard. In bad times, the emperor was forced to contemplate the nature of Islam, because the Turks packed a pretty good wallop. As Benedict said, "It was presumably the emperor himself who set down this dialogue [that was quoted], during the siege of Constantinople between 1394 and 1402."

We cannot know all the reasons why Benedict chose to quote that particular authority, but it is consistent with his view of a faith that is beset by constant threats, secular and religious. And it sure didn't hurt Vatican relations with Orthodox churches, which had been icy in the past. When John Paul II tried to visit Moscow, the Russian Orthodox Church vetoed it. In October, the same month as the Anglican overture, the AP reported that Benedict may soon meet with the Russian patriarch, and that a papal visit to Moscow in the next few years is likely. Cardinal Walter Kasper, head of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, said, "We have overcome all the tensions in recent years." Not "some tensions"-- all of them.

The Orthodox would be a tougher nut to crack than disaffected Protestants. The schism is much older and the Orthodox have done a better job with church governance and holding the line against theological innovation. Benedict wouldn't dare issue the sort of unilateral open-ended invitation that he did with Anglicans, because it wouldn't work.

Yet if he can bring the two ancient churches together, my sense is that he will do nearly anything, including placing new limits on his own powers, including editing the Nicene Creed to remove the so-called filioque clause (which states that the Holy Spirit "proceeds from the Father and the Son"), which drives the Eastern half of the ancient Church to distraction.

He's a republican, not an authoritarian.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 13, 2009 9:22 AM
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