Posted April 4, 2006
Reflections on the first year of Pope Benedict XVI
By John L. Allen, Jr.
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As the one-year anniversary of Benedict XVI's election nears, I've been
doing a round of interviews with newspapers, news magazines, and TV and
radio outlets, trying to outline what the last 12 months have taught us
about the new leader of the 1.1-billion strong Roman Catholic Church.
In many ways, such analysis depends on the level of magnification you want
to employ. One could talk a great deal just about Benedict's catechesis, his
papal "style," his approach to the Roman Curia, or even his positions on
specific questions such as social justice or the interpretation of the
Second Vatican Council (1962-65). An entire essay could be crafted just
around Benedict's decision in early March to drop the title "Patriarch of
the West," and the subsequent way in which it was presented -- reflecting
Benedict's desire to expunge any ambivalence concerning the nature of the
papacy, while at the same time holding fast to the desire for ecumenical
Benedict is a supple thinker, and unpacking his approach on any given
question requires nuance. Because his points of departure are the 2,000-year
tradition of the church, coupled with his own judgments about the character
of people under consideration, rather than the ideological categories of
secular politics, his decisions will sometimes strike the outside world as
surprising and out of character. Nor has his direction over the first year
been entirely uniform, as if one can generalize from a single document or
papal act to explain everything else.
All this, however, constitutes an "insider" perspective, crafted from the
point of view of devotees of the papacy and of Vatican politics. Generally
speaking, that's not what secular media outlets are after. What they want to
know is, in the "biggest picture" sense possible, what are the most striking
or surprising aspects of Benedict XVI's first year, and what do they teach
us about where things are going?
That's the question I'll try to answer here. I'll organize my reflections
under five broad headings:
What Hasn't Happened
Who's Paying Attention?
The Dictatorship of Relativism
Benedict the Teacher
In the "big picture" sense, perhaps the most important pope story of the
first year is what hasn't happened.
When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected on April 19, he was not an
unknown quantity. After John Paul II, he was the most visible figure in
Roman Catholicism over the last quarter-century, a man associated with all
of the most important controversies in the church over that stretch of
time -- liberation theology, the limits of dissent, battles over what
theological sense to make of other religions, and so on. He was seen as the
Vatican's "Enforcer" (a title I bestowed upon him in my 1999 biography),
"God's Rottweiler," the "Panzer Cardinal," and the "German Shepherd."
Hence in the immediate aftermath of his election, most commentators fell
back upon tried-and-true labels: "archconservative," "authoritarian,"
Probably the best expression of all this came in an editorial cartoon in
L'Unità, the newspaper of the old Communist Party in Italy. Understanding
the cartoon requires a bit of background. In Italy, perhaps the most revered
pope of modern times is John XXIII, know as il papa buono, "The Good Pope."
One treasured memory of John XXIII is an evening in October 1962, the
opening of the Second Vatican Council, when the Catholic Action movement
organized a torchlight parade that finished in St. Peter's Square. The pope
was not scheduled to address the crowd, but when it arrived, John XXIII
wanted to speak. He said something burned into the consciousness of most
Italians, repeated endlessly on television and radio. Smiling down on the
crowd, he said: Tornando a casa, troverete i bambini. Date una carezza ai
vostri bambini e dite: questa è la carezza del Papa. It means, "When you go
home, you'll find your children. Give them a kiss, and tell them that this
kiss comes from the pope." It summed up the legendary love of the man.
Thus the L'Unità cartoon showed Benedict XVI at the same window, saying,
"Tonight, when you go home, I want you to give your children a spanking, and
tell them that this spanking comes from the pope."
It perfectly crystallized the expectations many had of this allegedly
draconian, Darth Vader figure. Many people expected that if Ratzinger were
elected on a Tuesday, by Wednesday priests would be saying Mass in Latin
with their backs to the people, and one would hear a great flushing sound
across the Catholic world as all the dissidents and liberals were washed out
of the system.
The most striking thing about Benedict's first year, therefore, is how
relatively little of this sort of thing we've seen.
To be sure, there have been tough moments. One came early on, when news
broke that Jesuit Fr. Tom Reese had left America magazine under Vatican
pressure; another came on Nov. 29, when the Vatican, with Benedict's
approval, released its long-awaited document barring men with "deep-seated
homosexual tendencies" from the priesthood. This is a pope with a strong
sense of Catholic identity, who will insist that those who teach, preach and
publish in the name of the church do so in fidelity to official church
Yet on the whole, Benedict's first year has not produced the swift,
hard-line action many expected (or, depending upon one's point of view,
feared). No theologian has been publicly censured, there have been no en
masse firings of personnel, there is no discernible drift towards radically
conservative figures either in bishops' appointments or in the Roman Curia,
and there has been no earthquake in either liturgy or doctrine. We even had
the unanticipated spectacle on Sept. 24 of a friendly four-hour reunion
between Benedict XVI and the enfant terrible of the Catholic left, Swiss
theologian Hans Küng, old friends from their days together on the theology
faculty in Tübingen.
This positive tone has been remarkably consistent. When Benedict went to
Bari, Italy, for a Eucharist Congress, he did not lament liturgical abuses,
but spoke movingly about the inner momentum of the Eucharist towards
Christian unity. When he went to Cologne, he did not scold German dissidents
or complain about youth not going to church, but described the Eucharist as
a "kind of nuclear fission at the heart of existence" which sets off a chain
reaction of acts of love.
How to explain this?
First, anyone who expected Benedict XVI to ride into town and turn the
Catholic church on its ear had an overheated imagination. Benedict is
profoundly conscious of himself as the carrier of a 2,000 year old tradition
and as the universal pastor of a very large and complex global community,
not as a president or prime minister elected to pursue a personal agenda.
In the homily for his installation Mass on April 24, Benedict said: "My real
program of governance is not to do my own will, not to pursue my own ideas,
but to listen, together with the whole church, to the word and the will of
the Lord, to be guided by him, so that he himself will lead the church at
this hour of our history."
The surprise for some appears to be that he meant what he said.
Second, a key to understanding the mind of Benedict XVI is to realize that
he makes a sharp distinction between what he considers matters of faith and
morals, about which he is tenacious, and "judgment calls" in specific
circumstances where there is no clear answer in the Catechism of the
In reality, probably 95 percent of the decisions a pope has to make fall
into this second category. Questions such as, "Who should be the bishop in
this diocese?" "How should the Roman Curia be reorganized?" "What should our
approach be to Islam?" "What line should we take on the reconstruction of
While there are doctrinal principles underlying these matters, specific
choices draw upon the fallible, contingent judgment of the pope and his
On those sorts of things, Benedict has made it clear that he intends to
operate on the basis of consultation and, where possible, consensus. We have
seen his desire to listen at the Synod of Bishops last October, for example,
where he created a period for "open discussion" each evening, and made a
point of listening carefully to what the bishops had to say. The same thing
happened in conjunction with last week's consistory, when Benedict asked the
cardinals to come to Rome a day early for a business meeting to discuss
Islam, the Lefebvrites, and retired bishops, in addition to whatever else
was on their minds.
Moreover, there is evidence that he is acting on what he hears. To take just
one example, he's spoken repeatedly about Africa over his first year, and
announced plans to hold a special Synod for Africa, in part in response to
heart-felt pleas made by African cardinals during the daily General
Congregation meetings leading up to the April conclave.
The pope has also shown caution about moving forward with swift
reconciliation with the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X, the grouped
founded by the late French Archbishop Marcel Lefevbre, in part because of
concerns among bishops about the group's attitude toward the teaching of the
Vatican on religious freedom, ecumenism, and inter-religious dialogue. Those
concerns were most recently voiced during the meeting of the cardinals last
All this means that Benedict XVI will, most of the time, come across as a
much more cautious, consultative and moderate figure than some of the most
fevered comments last April suggested.
I recall being on CNN immediately after the conclave, when Christiane
Amanpour asked me if we were going to get "Ratzinger the hard-liner," or a
"kindler, gentler" figure. The only honest answer, I said, was, "Both." When
Benedict thinks the faith is at stake, he will be unyielding. When he's
trying to make pastoral decisions on contingent matters, however, he'll be
surprisingly open and flexible, with a real desire to listen.
So far, that's held up pretty well.
One consequence is that to date, the most serious criticism of the papacy
has come from the Catholic right, which had the greatest expectations one
year ago. Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, writing in First Things, has described a
"palpable uneasiness" with the way Benedict XVI has allowed what he sees as
spin and open dissent from the document on gay priests to proceed unimpeded.
To be sure, Neuhaus is an admirer of Benedict. Yet the comment suggests that
in the end, it may be his constituency that's most disillusioned with the
pontificate -- not for what it does, but for what it fails to do.
One prominent American conservative put it this way, speaking on background:
"We thought we were electing Ronald Reagan, but so far we're stuck with
The second "big picture" observation about Benedict XVI is how little most
of what I wrote above has registered on the broad public radar screen.
After the first year of the papacy of John Paul II, when it was clear that
the modernization and reform unleashed by Vatican II would yield to a much
more robust assertion of Catholic identity, the most important division was
between those who liked what they saw and those who didn't. The dramatic arc
of John Paul's charisma meant the world was paying attention, and he left
After Benedict's first year, on the other hand, the most important
distinction appears to be between those who are paying attention and those
who aren't, with the vast majority of people falling into the second
Papal aficionados, those who hang on every utterance, are by and large
tremendously impressed with Benedict XVI, regardless of whether they come
from the left, right or center. Benedict is an extraordinarily erudite
figure, easily the most intellectually profound world leader on the stage
today. He is a gifted writer, and his texts to date have been well received,
both at the level of content and of tradecraft. He is also a surprisingly
adept public figure, projecting an air of warmth and gentleness that people
tend to find charming.
He is, in short, a pope of whom Catholics seem to feel proud.
Yet he does not have the cinematic qualities of John Paul II. Indeed, the
secret of his success to date has been that he has not tried to ape the
approach of his predecessor, but has instead given himself permission to be
pope his way -- more low-key, more cerebral, with fewer grand events and
less elaborate road shows. That approach plays to his strengths, but it also
means that he has not grabbed the world's attention as John Paul did, and
hence attention to the papacy, outside a fairly small circle of motivated
Catholics, has become more episodic and random.
If one were to stop the average Catholic in the United States, to say
nothing of the average person, and ask, "What do you know about the new
pope?" I suspect many could say that he put out something about gay priests,
and quite a few would be aware that he wears Prada shoes -- and that's about
In terms of any real sense of what the pope's trying to say, or where he's
trying to lead the church, most would be a blank slate.
Benedict's determination to "go positive" has also left the media, which
thrives on stories of conflict and controversy, occasionally flummoxed about
how to get its hands around this figure.
At the end of Benedict's first year, the Catholic church thus faces a new
communications problem. For 26 years, the church had the best story in the
world in John Paul II. Now, the church can no longer assume the world will
pay attention simply because the pope says or does something. That poses the
question of how to "sell" the pope -- how to be sure that people are aware
of what he's actually saying and doing, as opposed to random aspects of his
activity that happen to catch the interest of the talk shows and editorial
pages, which can produce a terribly distorted image of his real priorities.
After a year, church officials are still grappling with this new challenge.
In terms of content, no one has to speculate about Benedict XVI's most
important teaching concern. He told us, the day before his election, in his
homily pro eligendo papa on April 18: the challenge to a "dictatorship of
relativism" in the developed West.
Job number one of this pontificate, therefore, is the reassertion of
objective truth in a culture often allergic to the very concept. The beating
heart of his pontificate can be expressed in three core concepts: truth,
freedom and love. Truth, as the pope sees it, is the doorway a human person
must walk through in order to be really free, meaning free to realize one's
full human potential; and love is both the ultimate aim of freedom, and the
motive for which the church talks about truth and freedom in the first
Because Benedict has not yet issued any dramatic jeremiads about the crisis
of secularization in Europe, some wonder if he's forgotten about it. Quite
often, reporters ask me, "When is he going to do something about this whole
In fact, he's been doing quite a lot.
No one realizes better than Benedict XVI that many people have a hard time
today taking the church seriously on matters such as truth and freedom,
because the tendency is to see all that talk as a rhetorical smokescreen for
maintaining power over peoples' lives. The tendency in secular circles is to
see the church as a defensive, authoritarian structure, fearful of both
modernity and of what men and women might do once they learn to think for
The church faces a tough sell on issues such as homosexuality, the family,
abortion, stem cell research and euthanasia, in part because some people
can't help thinking that the church is simply afraid of change and afraid of
Benedict understands that one can't break through such perceptions with
finger-wagging and condemnation, which reinforce the prejudice rather than
challenging it. The church must first seem a credible witness to love.
The effort of this first year has to some extent been to put the church's
teaching in a new context. That was the thrust of Deus Caritas Est, his
first encyclical, which surprised many people with its endorsement of eros,
or human erotic love, and its overall positive tone. Writing without
anathema or interdict, Benedict argued that no one is more committed to
human love than the Christian, but that the church wants people to love so
deeply and so eternally that it pushes them to a deeper kind of love, a
lasting love, expressed in caritas.
To put Benedict's point in street language, it boils down to this: You may
not like what we have to say, but at least give us credit for our motives.
We're not talking about truth because we want to chain you down, but because
we want to set you free. It's not a matter of love and joy versus a fussy,
legalistic church. It's a question of two different visions of what real
love is all about -- Baywatch, so to speak, versus the gospel. We too want
happy, healthy, liberated people, we just have a different idea of how to
"Benedict's Wager" is that by reframing the debate in this way, the church
can get a new hearing in a cultural milieu in which many people long ago
made up their minds. Whether that's the case remains to be seen, but judging
from the reaction to Deus Caritas Est, he at least seems to have some people
scratching their heads, reconsidering impressions of Catholic teaching they
long regarded as settled.
As a footnote, for all the talk about Benedict as an Augustinian pessimist,
he actually seems to believe there are still people out there who can be
persuaded by unadorned argument -- if you think about it, a rather
Again at the level of content, the dominant storyline in the transition from
John Paul II to Benedict XVI is obviously continuity. He was elected with
precisely that expectation.
There is, however, one intriguing area of contrast: Islam. To put it
bluntly, Benedict is more of a hawk, pursuing a kind of interaction with
Muslims one might call "tough love."
The new climate has in part been driven by widely publicized incidents of
anti-Christian backlash in the Islamic world, most dramatically the Feb. 5
slaying of Italian missionary Fr. Andrea Santoro in Trabzon, Turkey, a small
hamlet on the country's Black Sea coast. A 16-year-old Turk entered St.
Mary's Church in Trabzon and pumped two bullets into Santoro's lungs and
heart, shouting Allah akbar, "Allah is great." He later said he had been
agitated by the controversy surrounding the Danish cartoons.
Though the teenager's father told reporters his son is psychologically
disturbed, most senior figures in the Vatican, where the Santoro murder made
a deep impression, saw it as part of a rising tide of anti-Christian
sentiment in fundamentalist Islamic circles. That impression was underscored
by the recent death sentence for Abdul Rahman, a Christian convert from
Islam in Afghanistan.
In his March 23 session with cardinals, much conversation turned on Islam,
and there was general agreement with Benedict's policy of a more muscular
challenge on what Catholics call "reciprocity." In essence, it means that if
Muslim immigrants can claim the benefit of religious liberty in the West,
then Christian minorities ought to get the same treatment in majority Muslim
To take the most notorious example, if the Saudis can spend $65 million to
build the largest mosque in Europe in Rome, in the shadows of the Vatican,
then Christians ought to be able to build churches in Saudi Arabia. Or, if
that's not possible, Christians should at least be able to import Bibles,
and the Capuchin priests who serve the Arabian peninsula ought to be able to
set foot off the oil industry compounds or embassy grounds in Saudi Arabia
without fear of harassment by the mutawa, the religious police. The bishop
in charge of the Catholic church in that part of the world recently
described the situation in Saudi Arabia as "reminiscent of the catacombs."
It's the kind of imbalance that has long stuck in the craw of many senior
figures in the Catholic Church, but these complaints were largely suppressed
in the John Paul years as part of the pope's Islamic Ostpolitik. John Paul,
who met with Muslims more than 60 times over the course of his papacy, and
who during a 2001 trip to Damascus became the first pope to enter a mosque,
believed in reaching out to Islamic moderates and avoiding confrontational
Benedict XVI clearly wants good relations with Islam, and chose to meet with
a group of Muslim leaders during his August trip to Cologne, Germany. Yet he
will not purse that relationship at the expense of what he considers to be
No doubt, Benedict intends this tougher line as a stimulus to Islamic
leaders to take seriously the challenge of expressing their faith in a
multi-cultural, pluralistic world. Whether it's received that way, or
whether it simply reinforces the conviction of many jihadists about an
eternal struggle with the Christian West, remains to be seen.
I'll close this "big picture" review of Year One with one other contrast
between Benedict XVI and John Paul II.
John Paul II will likely be remembered in history as a great evangelist. He
took his show on the road, dramatically expanding the visibility and
relevance of the papacy, awakening a much stronger sense among Catholics of
the need to bring their faith convictions to their public and professional
responsibilities. He was a pope who moved history as few have. His texts,
however, could sometimes be a bit wooden and hard to follow, laden as they
sometimes were with the vocabulary of philosophical personalism.
Benedict, on the other hand, is shaping up as a great teacher. It has struck
many observers in Rome that he is still drawing larger-than-usual crowds for
his Wednesday General Audience and for the Sunday Angelus address. Speaking
afterwards with the people who show up, it's striking how often they give
some version of the following reaction: "I can understand him."
Benedict has a remarkable capacity to express complex theological ideas with
clarity and simplicity. To take just one example, during a meeting with
Roman youth making their First Communion, a young man asked the pope how
it's possible that Jesus is present in the bread and wine at the Mass, since
he's not visible. Benedict responded that it's like electricity: we don't
see the electricity directly, but we see the light. Similarly, we see Jesus
in the effects he produces in us through communion, in the new "light" he
brings into our lives.
By John L. Allen, Jr.
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