A church's assertive shift toward tradition
Pope Benedict XVI consolidates sweeping changes, reasserting the spiritual supremacy of the Vatican.
By Robert Marquand Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
Rome and Paris
The leader of 1.1 billion Catholics, Pope Benedict XVI, is completing a significant theological shift of the Roman Catholic church – a sweeping change that not only eclipses 40 years of a more moderate and collegial Catholicism, but seeks to reassert the spiritual supremacy of the Vatican and more openly proclaim the authority of the office of pope among all Christians. I believe this could be more accurately described as rectifying a false notion of Catholic theology that has plagued the Church for forty years. And though I believe that the effect of the Holy Father's recent actions will in time be monumental, at the moment I would hardly call them sweeping.
Some two years after taking the reins, say Protestant and Catholic theologians and religious experts, the Bavarian-born pope is moving swiftly to affirm orthodox doctrines and medieval church rituals that undermine the spirit of Vatican II, a period of modernization in which the church appeared to be rethinking its centuries-long insistence that it had exclusive claims to matters of grace, truth, salvation, and church structure in the Christian world. If you mean by "undermining the spirit of Vatican II" that the ancient (far more ancient than "medieval") Mass undermines the effort to toss the constant teaching of the Church into the wastebasket, then yes, it does do that. Part of the problem we face today is that the Church has "appeared to be rethinking" its constant teaching in certain areas, when in reality it did not, and could not.
Liberal Catholics go so far as to characterize Benedict as leading a counterreformation in the church – in which fervent backers of traditional Catholic identity and faith are favored, even at the expense of popularity. Let us fervently pray this is so. "While Vatican II said that the Holy Spirit was in operation among the people, now we are saying, no, the holy spirit is operating in the bishops. This is misleading-- the Holy Ghost operates everywhere, in a sense. He also operates in the Church, which is founded upon Peter. It is an enormous change." says Frank Flinn, author of the "Encyclopedia of Catholicism." Um, no. The "impression [previous Pope] John Paul II gave was to emphasize teaching so that all may be one. But Benedict is turning around and saying to churches, 'you aren't all one.' The Catholic Church is One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic. It has unity already, and does not need the other Christian denominations to make it whole. This is basic stuff here; read Mortalium Animos. It is destroying the ecumenical movement." If you mean ecumenism at the expense of the truth, then let it burn.
When the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became pope on April 8, 2005, many Catholics felt he might soften his reputation as a hard-line "enforcer of the faith." Really? Yet his tenure has shown few signs of mellowing. In the space of three days this month, for example, he promoted the old Latin Mass, which contains references to the conversion of the Jews (as does the new Mass, in much more oblique language), then issued a blockbuster doctrinal clarification statement saying that Orthodox and Protestant churches were "lacking" and only authentic through their relationship with Rome.
"Benedict has fought for the same thing for 30 years and now he is putting it to work," says Frederic Lenoir, editor of Le Monde's religious supplement in Paris. "His main aim in being pope is to unify the true believer groups – and he will lose (nominal) members or destroy (illusory) religious dialogues, if that's what it takes." Main aim? A bit oversimplified.
Radical reassertion is necessary
Defenders say that only by a radical reassertion of traditional Catholicism can the church become the body able to bring clarity, order, and moral authority to a troubled world. The various attempts to adapt the church to modernity in the 1960s, they argue, have resulted only in muddled meanings and a lack of proper moral concepts. Beyond that, the opening of the church allowed Jewish, Protestant, atheist, and Islamic ideas to compete against what is seen as God's church, instituted by Christ and the apostle Peter. Note that the Catholic faith as it has always been held is considered radical.
Since Vatican II (1964-1969), the Roman Catholic church in Europe has lost tens of millions of churchgoers at a time when Muslim populations are increasing in Europe. Benedict has stated his central mission is to restore the Catholic church in Europe and to bridge the gap with Eastern Orthodox churches that more closely share a traditional Catholic suspicion of modernity, the Enlightenment, the Reformation, pluralism, and secularism. But don't you see? All those lost Catholics and the cultural decimation are purely coincidental. Isn't that what we are told?
"We think this pope may be starting back on the proper pathway," says a friar at the St. Nicolas du Chardonnet church in Paris, a center of the ultratraditional Lefebvrist Catholic sect. "We think he understands the real faith. What we object to is his visiting of the mosque in Turkey. He shouldn't have done that." A bit of an out-of-context quote, linking the Turkey visit to this particular story. But to call the SSPX a "sect" is out of line. I would also dispute the term "ultraconservative". What is that supposed to mean, anyway?
Last September, the pope stirred the Muslim world following an academic talk that made reference to Islamic teachings as inherently violent. This is a bit of an overstatement. It was the kind of religious assertion, described later by the Vatican as a "misunderstanding," that was rarely if ever heard under Pope John Paul II.
"The previous pope was friendly, down-to-earth, and a good pastor," says Daniele Garrone, a Rome-based theologian of the Waldensian church, a reformed faith. "But Benedict is emphasizing theological clarity, and I think he is painting himself into a corner. If you believe the church is the sole authority, and you teach this, you have to pay the consequences. And Just what would these consequences be? Is this a threat? Benedict takes it seriously, so I really feel he is suffering right now. He doesn't take this lightly, but feels it is his duty. I wouldn't want to be pope at this point." I want to be charitable here, but though perhaps it is not a conscious choice of any particular person, it is a necessary consequence of rejecting Peter, or the Church, or Church teachings, that we seek to make ourselves our own Pope.
Pope Benedict was a German academic and prolific theologian. In the early years of his career, he studied with Hans Kung, a highly influential liberal Catholic theologian whom Benedict would one day reprimand for questioning the concept of papal infallibility.
Pope Benedict also contributed to Vatican II, a period when the church was engaging Martin Luther's concept of the "priesthood of all believers" and vesting more authority in and pastoral attention to ordinary churchgoers.
Yet during the German student riots of 1968, a chaotic time when many young Germans were demanding that their parents face up to the Nazi past, Ratzinger felt deeply that the Vatican II project was coming unhinged. I agree that he felt around this time that the "reform" was coming unhinged. But the article, despicably, sees the student riots at being anti-Nazi, and thus subtly accuses the Pope of starting to turn against Vatican II only when the Nazis were targeted for repudiation. This is truly outrageous.
He became archbishop, then cardinal in 1977, and in 1981 was made prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith at the Vatican – a meteoric rise. Ratzinger began to pursue and censure liberal theologians favorable to Vatican II. Note the absolutely false notion that a theologian who holds heterodox beliefs is equated with being favorable to Vatican II. This is the crux of the problem. He issued a paper, "Instruction Concerning Certain Aspects of the 'Theology of Liberation'" that started to quash liberation-theology movements, particularly in Latin America. Good. Keep it going.
His tenure as prefect became synonymous with a host of conservative (just go ahead and substitute "Catholic" here) positions on abortion, homosexuality, and birth control, earning him the informal nickname of "the enforcer." By whom? In 2002, he was made dean of the College of Cardinals, the pope's right-hand man. In the first year, he issued "Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life" that requested bishops not to allow communion to politicians that did not uphold the church teachings on abortion.
An end to 'confusion'
Pope Benedict's press officer, Fr. Federico Lombardi, told the Monitor that the church is not changing its theological positions but is simply clarifying them and seeking to "end the confusion" inside Catholic seminaries about church beliefs. He felt the main difference is a stronger emphasis on "Catholic identity," however.
Mr. Garrone argues that the church must appear to have continuity and can't admit it is changing. See! It is all done for appearances! There is no continuity. War is peace!
"Many nuns, priests, sisters, theologians, and Catholics felt that Vatican II was a new beginning in the history of the church. But by emphasizing 'continuity,' Benedict is saying the second Vatican council was not a new beginning." Correct.
The new papal favoring of Latin Mass is an example. Also known as the "Tridentine" mass, it is performed by priests who turn their back to the congregation and speak in Latin. Man, that really sounds rude! Turn back around-- look at me! Speak to me! It's all about me! Me! Me! Me! This mass was largely abandoned after Vatican II, partly because it was incomprehensible to lay Catholics and because it contained negative references to Jews. Probably my favorite line in the whole story. "Largely" abandoned because it was incomprehensible to lay Catholics and because it contained negative references to the Jews. Wow. We lay Catholics are so stupid that the form of the Mass for over 1500 years was totally incomprehensible. What were we thinking? And all those negative references to the Jews, like... well, um.... hold on-- wait! They were incomprehensible to lay Catholics, right? Only the Jews could understand them. Like a dog whistle, apparently, these subtle digs at the Jewish people could not be "comprehended" by just anyone. I think I know why, though. Because there aren't any such negative references. Unless praying for them, like we do for us, or Protestants, or anyone else, to come to believe in Christ is negative.
The Latin mass has long been hated by Jews (like St. Peter? St. Paul?) for its emphasis on the Jewish role in turning Jesus over to the Romans for crucifixion (that is just a blatant lie) and for its call for Jews to come into the church. Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, described the Latin mass initiative as "a theological setback in the religious life of Catholics and a body blow to Catholic-Jewish relations." Why is he competent to analyze what is or is not a theological setback in the religious life of Catholics? The arrogance is staggering.
While the Vatican is not forcing local Catholic churches to say the Latin mass (Is that accurate? I think not), it is encouraging local members who want it to lobby their parishes. Some priests argue that this may create further strains on their resources and possibly bring contention. Some priests think it is really great.
On July 10, the Vatican issued "Regarding Certain Aspects of Church Doctrine." It argued that churches emerging from the Reformation outside the direct authority of Rome "cannot be called 'churches' in the proper sense." Protestants, in particular, "suffer from defects," are properly called communities, not churches, and must one day recognize "the Catholic church, governed by the successor of Peter and the bishops in communion with him" – a major affirmation of papal authority. While Catholics may engage in ecumenical activities, they must do so through a stronger sense of Catholicism as the true church.
Not surprisingly, the July 10 statement brought a mixture of anger and irritation in other churches.
The Rev. David Phillips, an Anglican official, described it as "ludicrous" to "accept the idea that the pope is in some special way the successor of the apostle Peter," and added: "We are grateful (Are you really? Be honest.) that the Vatican has once again been honest in declaring their view that the Church of England is not a proper church…. We would wish to be equally open; unity will only be possible when the papacy renounces its errors and pretensions." Although he derides the Pope here, it is actually a very good thing that this person is now under no illusion that his denomination is sufficient. Now he knows the Church teaches that he must accept the Church Christ Himself founded. The truth shall set him, just like all of us, free.
The Vatican said it was surprised Protestants would feel anger at being described as less than churches in hundreds of stories in English-language papers around the world and asked them not to "overreact."
"This isn't about Protestants, it is an internal theological document for purposes of clarity," Father Lombardi stated.
Some analysts say that, as with the September controversy over Islam, the Vatican sought to downplay the issue even as the hard-line message was amplified in the world media, putting Rome in the position of defining the issue.
"Benedict wants to say that Vatican II is not threatened, but the document on July 10 shows a very different reading," says Christian Mercier, religion editor of the Paris-based Catholic magazine, La Vie. Benedict is saying that anyone who interprets Vatican II to support a belief that Catholic doctrine is changed is wrong. A correct reading of Vatican II is not threatened. But error is threatened indeed.
Not just tidying up doctrine
In the past year, the pope has visited the mosque in Turkey, met with Eastern Orthodox prelates, written to Catholics in China, visited Brazil, and authored a best-selling book about Jesus.
Many theologians say the shifts under Pope Benedict aren't simply a small matter of rules, rituals, clarifications, and a tidying up of doctrine. Perhaps one of the most significant, though little noticed, changes has to do with the changing concept of the meaning of the kingdom of heaven. The current pope has a different vision of time and eschatology. Under Vatican II, it was accepted that the coming of the kingdom is possible to experience on Earth and not simply in the afterlife. Vatican II stressed concepts like "becoming," "change," and "newness," and championed social justice and liberty as linked to ideas of grace. Reaching for pepto-bismol...
Pope Benedict has begun to roll back such ideas, says Mr. Flinn, the Catholic theologian at Washington University in St. Louis, and his theology is "pessimistic, in the sense that heaven and earth are separate concepts, and that Christ's kingdom can't be experienced here." If this world were the fulfillment of Christ's kingdom, THAT would be depressing and would make me pessimistic.
"It is the old (by "old" he means "bad") vertical eschatology," Flinn says. "Liberal Catholics read the scriptures as saying the kingdom is already here, but not yet. The Vatican seems to be saying the kingdom is not yet, not yet, until the end of time, when Jesus returns. Meanwhile, the church is in charge, the pope is the vicar of Christ, and the church has the full truth."