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Posted April 23, 2006

Learning More About Pope Benedict XVI

John Allen Reporting from Rome -- National Catholic Reporter

In that sense, Benedict is a "back to basics" pope.

The church doesn't need new paradigms or initiatives, he believes, so much as the capacity to explain its core teachings well, and to inspire a desire to live them. Benedict's theology is never speculative, but pastoral and "kneeling."

This focus on the fundamentals is reflected in how he has approached the papacy. Statistics help tell the story: At the end of his first year, John Paul II had given 569 talks, and held 68 major public events. Benedict over his first twelve months gave 291 talks, and held 31 events. (One might profitably ask if the church has really missed those other 278 papal speeches!)

Benedict has pared the papacy back to what he considers its core functions, and when he does take the stage, he is determined to get to the heart of the matter.

None of this, however, means Benedict is incapable of surprise.

In his homily during the Easter vigil, for example, he described the resurrection as a kind of evolutionary "leap," awakening echoes of the late French Jesuit theologian and scientist Teilhard de Chardin, whose thought indirectly influenced the document Gaudium et Spes at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), and who saw physical evolution as part of a broader cosmic and spiritual process. At the time, then-Fr. Joseph Ratzinger was critical of what he saw as an overly optimistic thrust in Teilhard, and in French theology generally, but he never dismissed the core insight.

"If we may borrow the language of the theory of evolution," Benedict said, "it [the Resurrection] is the greatest 'mutation,' absolutely the most crucial leap into a totally new dimension that there has ever been in the long history of life and its development. It is a qualitative leap towards a new future life, towards a new world which, starting from Christ, already continuously permeates this world of ours, transforms it and draws it to itself."

One well-known theologian in Rome told me this week that he always holds his breath when Benedict XVI speaks, because he may hear something that will take him off guard -- generally in the sense of opening up a new perspective on a topic he thought he already understood.

This will not be a papacy of great innovation, but neither will it be about stagnation or "glorious repetition." Instead, it is shaping up as a case study in the "return to the sources," or ressourcement, which has always been Benedict XVI's theological and pastoral style.