Friday, May 29, 2009

Alcuin Reid: We are Lucky this Pope is Ecclesiastically Incorrect

Dr. Alcuin Reid has an article in today's edition of The Catholic Herald, We are lucky this Pope is "ecclesiastically incorrect"

On April 18 2005 a 78-year-old cardinal, at the end of his working life, preached the sermon for the cardinal-electors before they entered the conclave to elect a new pope. Joseph Ratzinger spoke that evening of the Church "moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognise anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one's own ego and one's own desires", and reminded the cardinals that the Church's true role is "to distinguish the true from the false, and deceit from truth".

His remarks were direct and incisive. They were the words of a man utterly without ambition who was ready to retire under the new pope. So "ecclesiastically incorrect" were they that one cardinal-elector, a strong supporter of his candidacy, later remarked that he wondered whether, by speaking thus, Ratzinger was deliberately trying not to be elected pope.

But the following day he was elected. Journalists, most famously Margaret Hebblethwaite on BBC television, bewailed that "Rottweiler Ratzinger" now held the Keys of St Peter. Even those of us who had read him for decades and who had known him as cardinal in brief but profoundly convincing encounters could barely believe that the cardinal who had so resolutely held and reaffirmed the Church's teaching on faith and morals - with the clear support of Pope John Paul II - and who had pioneered critical debate about the state of the Church following the Second Vatican Council, in fact emerged on the balcony of St Peter's as the Successor of St Peter.

But the cardinals knew Ratzinger personally, better than anyone, which is why, under the influence of God the Holy Spirit, they elected him. The media and most Catholics only knew his public reputation, which is why we had such hysteria.

The Tablet took a more nuanced tack. Whilst reporting the "shock and dismay" of many at Ratzinger's election, it expressed the hope that the "gamekeeper" would become more of a "pastor". And for a while his critics fell silent as they came to know the professor, the priest and the new pope, almost for the first time. Some asserted that one could no longer attribute to him the stances of the former cardinal - as if his new office had put him above such "intemperate" behaviour.

But events this year have shown that this honeymoon, within and without the Church, is well and truly over. We now have world figures such as Alain Juppé presuming to assert that "this Pope is becoming a real problem', and Catholic journals publishing articles lamenting that Benedict XVI stands "like a solitary monarch in a curia that has lost its bearings". Why? Yes, one can point to some real mismanagement of papal initiatives in the Vatican which do require urgent remedy. The handling of the Regensburg address and of the recent lifting of the excommunication from the SSPX bishops was unsatisfactory. The appointment of Fr Wagner as an auxiliary bishop in Austria may not have been wise (less unwise, though, than Pope John Paul II's 1986 appointment of Hans Hermann Groër to Vienna). And perhaps the Pope should have addressed the "condom question" in an extended discourse rather than in a brief reply on an aeroplane.

But these matters of management are not the root cause of the discontent. When Pope Benedict freed the older liturgical rites from legal restrictions in July 2007, one Catholic commentator stated that "this is the strongest indication so far that the theological conservatism of Cardinal Ratzinger... is still in place in the papacy of Benedict XVI". Until then it was hoped that it was not. "A secret liberal at heart he is not," they lamented.

Indeed. That much ought to have been clear from his seminal and apparently programmatic address of December 2005 in which he distinguished an acceptable "hermeneutic of reform in continuity" from the unacceptable "hermeneutic of rupture" espoused By many following the Second Vatican Council. What Cardinal Ratzinger had been arguing for years was proposed by the Pope.

If we understand this - that the Pope is concerned that all aspects of the Church's life are in (or, where necessary, are restored to) clear continuity with her Tradition, without excluding legitimate development that does not break from her past - we can see why he acted so decisively on the older liturgy, why he does not fear to re-assert the Church's unpopular but life-giving teaching on human sexuality, why he did not hesitate to show real paternal mercy to the SSPX bishops in the hope of reconciliation and why he does not shrink from substantial dialogue with other faiths, even when he may be misunderstood.

We also need to understand that the Pope has a pretty clear understanding of his role. As Cardinal Ratzinger he observed that "the Successor of Peter is the rock which guarantees a rigorous fidelity to the Word of God against arbitrariness and conformism: hence the martyrological nature of his primacy". Pope Benedict is prepared to suffer the price of misinterpretation and even ridicule in his battle against relativism. That's his job.

It is interesting that his assertion in Africa "that without Christ life lacks something" and his insistence on the traditional Catholic missionary stance that "we do no injustice to anyone if we present Christ to them and thus grant them the opportunity of finding their truest and most authentic selves, the joy of finding life," as well as that "it is our duty to offer everyone this possibility of attaining eternal life," has not provoked much reaction. Perhaps the outcry over his refusal to worship the condom-god has deafened people to this clear restatement of the Church's belief in the definitive revelation of God in Christ.

"What he will say next?" Christopher Howse asked recently in the Daily Telegraph. Whatever words Pope Benedict chooses to utter, it will be out of the prophetic fear of Almighty God, to whom he must give an account of his stewardship, and not out of timidity for the opinions of men or the media. Those who seek to understand Pope Benedict XVI would do well to grasp this.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: