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May 19, 2005

For pope, dialogue does not mean
toning down doctrinal teachings

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

ROME (CNS) -- Soon after his election in April, Pope Benedict XVI said promoting unity in the church and dialogue with the world were high priorities of his papal ministry.

In early May, the pope made it clear that those goals do not mean toning down the church's doctrinal teachings.

The occasion was the new pope's installation as the bishop of Rome May 7 at the Basilica of St. John Lateran. The Mass was packed with Romans who turned out to welcome the German-born pontiff as one of their own.

Pope Benedict decided to speak at length about the meaning of the "cathedra" or chair that he now occupies as bishop of Rome, the symbol of his episcopal power and responsibility.

In a special way, he said, it is a symbol of "the authority to teach" that has been handed down by Christ to St. Peter and his other disciples.

This ministry includes that of authentically interpreting Scripture, which surpasses the interpretations and analyses of scholars, he said.

"Where Holy Scripture is disjoined from the living voice of the church, it falls prey to the disputes of experts," he said. While scholarly study is important, he said, "science alone cannot furnish us with a definitive and binding interpretation."

"For this is needed a greater mandate, one that cannot stem from mere human abilities. For this is needed the voice of the living church," he said.

Pope Benedict acknowledged that the church's teaching ministry is not always popular.

"This authority to teach frightens many people inside and outside the church. They ask themselves whether this doesn't threaten the freedom of conscience, or whether it is not a presumption that goes against freedom of thought," he said.

"It is not so," he said. He added that the church's authority to teach should not be seen as an imposition on others but as an act of service to the church and obedience to the faith.

In that sense, he said, the pope is not "an absolute sovereign" who proclaims his own ideas, but one who must strongly defend the word of God from "all attempts of adaptation or watering down."

The pope's words echoed many of his statements made during his 24-year tenure as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, but he took care to emphasize that he was speaking not as a doctrinal expert but as the universal shepherd.

He noted that his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, held the same strong views about the need to defend church teaching, especially on human life issues. That includes the "inviolability of human life from conception to natural death," he said.

"The freedom to kill is not true freedom, but rather a tyranny that reduces the human being to slavery," he said.

The fact that Pope Benedict used his first major appearance in Rome to underline church teachings on life issues like abortion and euthanasia was quickly noticed by the Italian media. Some observers felt that this sermon may have been designed to set the tone of his papacy.

The pope seemed to suggest it could not be otherwise -- that it was not a question of papal policies or personalities but of his fundamental duty to be a "guide in the profession of the faith."

He said that when it comes to big decisions any pope feels tied to the "binding interpretations that have grown up along the pilgrim path of the church."

The pope, he said, bears the huge responsibility of defending the purity of the word of God and making sure it is "not torn to pieces by continuous changes in fashion."

In early appearances after his election, Pope Benedict described himself as a humble servant. With his latest remarks, he made it clear that this form of service also means wielding the church's teaching authority against "erroneous interpretations of freedom."