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Posted August 15, 2006

An Excellent Model of Ongoing Study Priests and Former Teachers Might Emulate,
and Priests and their Bishops Might Try
as a way of energizing our priesthood and the church

Creation and Evolution

John L. Allen, Jr.
Reporting From Rome

Leaders generally can't afford the luxury of "thinking out loud," since anything they say is subject to scrutiny and, often enough, misunderstanding. For creative minds accustomed to examining issues from a variety of perspectives before reaching conclusions, it's therefore crucial to carve out a few safety zones where ideas can be tossed around freely.

In that spirit, Pope Benedict XVI has his own "kitchen cabinets," and perhaps his favorite is a group of former doctoral students with whom he meets each year, known in German as his Schülerkreis.

In German academic life, the bonds between a Doktorvater and his disciples have always been strong, but even by that standard Joseph Ratzinger seems to inspire a special loyalty among those who studied under him. After Pope Paul VI called him out of the academy in 1977 by naming him Archbishop of Munich-Freising, Ratzinger and his students adopted the custom of meeting over a weekend once a year, in a cross between a retreat and an academic seminar.

You can take the professor out of the classroom, but you can't take the classroom out of the professor.

When Ratzinger was elected as Benedict XVI, his students feared the new pope's calendar would render these gatherings impossible. In fact, however, Benedict appears to savor them now more than ever. Two days after the pope's April 24 installation Mass, he met with 72-year-old German Salvatorian Fr. Stephan Horn, the informal chair of the Schülerkreis, to tell him he wanted the meetings to go forward. In late August 2005, the group assembled at Castegandolfo, where the pope has his summer residence, for a two-day meeting.

They will do so again Sept. 1-3 of this year.

If these sessions were merely a case of Benedict catching up with old friends, it would perhaps be noteworthy only as a color story about how the pope spends his "down time." In fact, however, the Schülerkreis has become an opportunity for Benedict to gather thoughts on some of the most important issues on his docket.

Last year, the group discussed God in Islam. Though these are closed-door events, leaks indicated that Benedict XVI expressed reservations about the capacity of Islam to adapt to pluralistic Western cultures, given that the Koran is regarded by Muslims as the literal word of Allah and hence less amenable to interpretation than the Christian Bible.

This year, the theme for the Schülerkreis's Sept. 1-3 meeting is an equally explosive subject -- "Creation and Evolution."

Understanding who takes part in these gatherings, and what kind of thinking they represent, is fast becoming an important "hermeneutical key" in interpreting where the pontificate of Benedict XVI may go.

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