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Posted June 17, 2005

Not many sound bites:
New pope's discourses defy simplistic headlines

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

Pope Benedict XVI has once again weighed in on pro-life and family issues in a way that offers clues to the style and substance of his still-young papacy.

To judge by media reports, the pope's talk June 6 to the Diocese of Rome was no less than a declaration of war against gay marriage, abortion and birth control. Newspapers plucked out phrases like "anarchic" and "pseudo-marriages" for some zinger headlines.

But that's one of the problems with Pope Benedict: Often, his well-reasoned discourses don't break down easily into sound bites and headlines.

As one veteran wire service reporter recently lamented in the Vatican press office, the new pope is hard to write about because short citations don't do justice to his complex arguments. You can't just cherry-pick quotes.

That was especially true when the pope spoke about the family to a packed Basilica of St. John Lateran. His 3,000-word speech was a seminar, not a tirade.

It began with an explanation of the "anthropological foundation" of the family and moved on to outline three sets of connections that give the family meaning: the relationship between God and man, between the body and the spirit, and between personal freedom and the concept of fidelity.

When these relationships are forgotten, he said, the result is a false idea of freedom -- an "anarchic freedom" -- that gives rise to various forms of marriage dissolution, such as cohabitation, 'trial' marriage and gay marriage.

He said the idea that freedom is simply the right to "do what one wants with oneself" ends up trivializing the human being and making the human body a secondary instrument of pleasure.

The pope also underlined the idea that the promises made in marriage have always had a public aspect, making it a core social institution. The generation of children in marriage flows from the natural desire not just to produce babies but also to give them the love provided by a family, he said.

Interestingly, Pope Benedict said little about specific church teachings on these issues. His goal was not to insist on Catholic doctrine, but to convince with arguments that have inspired the doctrine -- no doubt realizing that his audience was the wider society as well as the diocesan leaders sitting in front of him.

The lengthy text was so rich that one archbishop, rereading it carefully the next day, remarked the pope had given "a theology lesson on the family." It was a challenging talk even for pastoral experts.

"Everyone who listened had the impression that this was a text we had to go back and read again," said Luca Pasquale, who helps run the Diocese of Rome's Family Pastoral Center.

Some in his audience noted that Pope Benedict did not mention the many everyday problems faced by families in Rome, including housing, unemployment, inflation, child rearing or internal family tensions. There was a reason for that, Pasquale said.

"He knows that without understanding the foundations of the family, any discussion of everyday problems can be superficial," Pasquale said.

"The pope was connecting the family to the supernatural plan for creation, and this is a very important point. Our people need to know that the family is not a sociological category that could be replaced tomorrow," Pasquale said.

It was the fourth time since his election that the pope has delivered a major talk or sermon at the Lateran basilica, which is located across the city from the Vatican. In comparison, he has presided only once at an event in St. Peter's Basilica.

Catholics in Rome think that's significant. The Lateran basilica is the seat of the pope's diocese, and Pope Benedict has given every indication that he takes his role as bishop of Rome very seriously.

But that doesn't necessarily mean getting into the local political trenches. Noticeably absent from the pope's talk was any reference to the realpolitik decisions faced by Catholics as they respond to legislative and other initiatives on gay marriage, domestic partnership benefits, abortion or embryonic manipulation.

These are issues that are swirling around Rome, Europe and the world. The day before the pope's talk, voters in Switzerland upheld a law that grants gay couples greater rights. Spain's national assembly gave preliminary approval to a law legalizing gay marriage in April.

Italians were voting on a referendum June 12-13 that would repeal some restrictions on artificial reproduction and embryonic research. Italian bishops have urged Catholics to boycott the vote to help invalidate it -- a controversial strategy, even among Catholics.

In late May, Pope Benedict spoke about the referendum, but in very general terms. He praised Italy's bishops for "working to enlighten and inspire" Catholic voters, and also said he trusted in the Holy Spirit to influence the "consciences and hearts" of people.

He didn't mention the boycott strategy. He enunciated principles without issuing political directives.

U.S. Archbishop William J. Levada, the newly appointed head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, paid close attention to the pope's remarks on the Italian vote. He said he thought the pontiff was wisely leaving it to local church leaders to take the lead on local political issues.

"I thought to myself, that's helpful. He's supportive, but he's saying primarily it's the responsibility of the bishops of this country," Archbishop Levada said.