A complex portrait replaces simplistic image of pope

(Published April 13, 2008)

Three years ago, when German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was introduced to the world as Pope Benedict, his public image seemed cast in iron, forged over a quarter-century as the Vatican’s top watchdog on all matters of doctrine.

Analysts and Vatican-watchers called him Catholicism’s tough guy, God’s Rottweiler, the conservative “hatchet man” for his wildly popular predecessor, John Paul II.

Pope Benedict
Pope Benedict

Today – as Benedict prepares for this week’s U.S. visit, his first as pope – that cartoonish image has given way to a more favorable and complex portrait.

Though Benedict has sparked his share of controversies as pope, he has charted a more moderate course than either church liberals or conservatives expected.

Even more surprising to some, the reserved and bookish pope, a lifelong academic and Vatican bureaucrat, seems to have embraced his role as evangelizer-in-chief to the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics.

Benedict, who turns 81 on Wednesday, might not have the star power or taste for travel possessed by John Paul, but he has said he hopes to foster an “inner renewal” of the church and spur the masses to take a “radical turning to God.”

“He has shown a side that many people simply didn’t know about,” said Monsignor Robert Wister, a professor of church history at Seton Hall University. “Some of the more liberal voices were apocalyptically hysterical at the election of Cardinal Ratzinger. I would imagine that today they’re relieved and happy.”

Nancy Dallavalle called Benedict’s ascension to pope a “bitter pill” three years ago, saying at the time that many in the church had hoped for a more pastoral pontiff who would be open to dialogue. Her position has since softened.

“His election has not been the slap in the face that progressives feared,” said Dallavalle, an associate professor of religious studies at Fairfield University in Connecticut. “What’s interesting is that he has really presented the important core of Catholic teaching in a pastoral way. I think it’s surprised and intrigued people.”

Benedict’s conservative views haven’t appreciably changed since he became pope – he’s no more likely to condone women priests or condom use than he was before – but he also is no longer pigeonholed by his old Vatican job, Dallavalle and others said.

As head of the powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then-Cardinal Ratzinger was the Vatican’s longtime sheriff, charged with punishing priests or theologians who expressed heretical views. The post lent itself to caricature.

“The fear that he might behead people or burn them at the stake or do something drastic, that was never a well-founded fear, because that’s not the kind of person he is,” said the Rev. Joseph Fessio, a former student of Benedict’s and a theologian at Ave Maria University in Naples, Fla. “He does things in a moderate way.”

On bread-and-butter issues, Benedict has picked up where John Paul left off. He’s spoken out against the war in Iraq, the mass killings in Darfur, abortion, divorce and genetic manipulation, a practice he said could lead to a “catastrophe of unimaginable horror.”

He has warned of the “rising tide of secularism,” particularly in Europe, and railed against relativism, the idea that all religions and faith movements are equally valid.

A fundamentalist in the literal sense, he has focused on a back-to-basics message that prayer, the Mass and the rite of Communion should be at the center of Christian life. If the church is to win new converts and keep its membership, he has said, it must maintain its purity, its core values, in the face of myriad “winds of doctrine.”


That focus on the elementary is evident in Benedict’s first two encyclicals, among the most important documents a pope can issue. Rather than thundering calls for greater adherence to church orthodoxy, they are ruminations on God’s love and hope.

For conservative supporters who hoped to see in Benedict more of the old Cardinal Ratzinger, the pope’s first three years have been a bit of a disappointment, said Christopher Bellitto, an assistant professor of history at Kean University and author of the book “101 Questions and Answers About the Pope and the Papacy.”

“This is the George W. Bush papacy in that the irony is not that liberals are angry at him. It’s the conservatives who are angry at him,” Bellitto said. “Conservatives feel he is not acting as rigidly as pope as he had as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.”

The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of the journal “First Things,” acknowledges some discomfort among his fellow conservatives but says the worry has abated.

“Some of the positions he has been pressing more vigorously have rallied a lot of support to him,” Neuhaus said.

Among the moves, Benedict issued new guidelines aimed at keeping homosexuals out of seminaries and reaffirmed the primacy of the Catholic Church, saying even other Christian denominations were not “churches in the proper sense.”

In one widely debated action last year, he made it easier for congregations to reinstitute the traditional Latin Mass, which was largely replaced by Mass in local languages following the reforms of the Second Vatican Council four decades ago.

The move upset more liberal churchgoers and theologians who saw it as a retreat from the spirit of Vatican II. It also continues to affect the Vatican’s relationship with Jews, who object to a specific Latin Mass prayer – read during Holy Week – that calls for their conversion.

In an attempt to tamp down the row ahead of the pope’s visit, the Vatican on April 4 released a statement recognizing the “unique bond” between Christians and Jews. It also announced that Benedict would make the first visit by any pope to a U.S. synagogue during the New York leg of his trip.


No issue has charged up conservatives more – or stirred greater worldwide controversy during Benedict’s tenure – than a speech the pope gave in Regensburg, Germany, two years ago.

While discussing the relationship between faith and reason, Benedict quoted a 14th-century Byzantine emperor who spoke of the prophet Muhammad’s “command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”

What the pope didn’t include in his speech was a repudiation of the statement. To many Muslims, Benedict seemed to be suggesting that Islam was an irrational, inherently violent religion.

The address set off protests across the Muslim world, with a nun murdered in Somalia and the pope burned in effigy elsewhere.

Seeking to soothe the bruised feelings, Benedict apologized, and Vatican diplomats helped arrange a groundbreaking forum that will bring more than 100 Muslim leaders to Rome in November.

But tensions remain. On Easter Sunday, the pope personally baptized a prominent and controversial Muslim convert, Magdi Allam, an Egyptian-born newspaper and television commentator who has labeled Islam a religion of violence.

Muslim leaders blasted the move, saying the pope had engaged in a deliberate provocation and had learned nothing since Regensburg.

“It is sad that the intimate and personal act of a religious conversion is made into a triumphalist tool for scoring points,” Aref Ali Nayed, director of the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre in Jordan and a key organizer of the November forum, said in a statement late last month.

Allam’s baptism, Nayed added, came “at a most unfortunate time when sincere Muslims and Catholics are working very hard to mend ruptures between the two communities.”

Whether Benedict is simply in need of a good public relations man or is seeking to shake things up remains a matter of debate.

“He sometimes seems to still think he’s in a classroom where he’s defining the vocabulary and using language his students are supposed to understand when in fact the whole world is watching,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a senior research fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center, an independent think tank at Georgetown University in Washington.

“The result is that he sometimes comes across as insulting and demeaning when that’s not his intention,” Reese said.

Some church conservatives have another view, saying Benedict is sending the none-too-subtle message that Muslim leaders must take a harder line against Islamic jihadists.

“I think he did exactly as he intended,” Neuhaus said, adding that the November forum is a “direct result” of the pope’s “willingness to be straightforward.”

Benedict biographer George Weigel, a theologian at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, calls Regensburg the most important papal address in decades. Fessio, the Ave Maria theologian, said the address was “the only possible way of having a dialogue with Islam.”

“Thank God the pope does not have a PR man,” he said.

National Catholic Reporter correspondent John L. Allen Jr., a longtime Vatican analyst and the author of a book on Benedict before he became pope, sides with those who contend the pontiff knows precisely what he is doing.

In a recent column, Allen said the baptism “illustrates an important wrinkle to Benedict’s personality – stubborn indifference to the canons of political correctness.”

“Benedict is a gracious figure, but he also refuses to sanitize what he regards as important matters of belief or practice in order to avoid PR headaches,” Allen wrote.

Few expect any big surprises from Benedict during his six-day visit to Washington and New York, beginning Tuesday.

With a stop at the White House and an address before the United Nations, Benedict is likely to touch on human rights, Iraq and the larger issue of Middle East peace, religious freedom and the importance of safeguarding the environment – all topics he has raised in speeches.

He also will address the clergy abuse scandal, seeking to “open the path of healing and reconciliation,” when he speaks at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan Saturday morning, the Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, said last week.

Chiefly, however, Benedict will focus on the issue he sees as most important: getting Americans, a sometimes distracted bunch, excited about God.

“I have chosen as the theme of my journey three simple but essential words: Christ our hope,” Benedict said in a videotaped statement released last week. “Following in the footsteps of my venerable predecessors, Paul VI and John Paul II, I shall come to the United States of America as pope for the first time, to proclaim this great truth: Jesus Christ is hope for men and women of every language, race, culture and social condition.”

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