When this week’s column appears, Pope Benedict XVI will be in the midst or nearing the end of his pastoral visit to the United States. It is a visit that has been confined to Washington, D.C., and New York City, but with significant items on his agenda in both places, not least his address on Friday morning, April 18th, before the General Assembly of the United Nations.
Because these columns are written in advance, I will await an opportunity to reflect on the content and tone of the pope’s visit, as well as its likely impact on the life of the Catholic Church in the United States.
On Saturday, April 19th, the pope will have marked the third anniversary of his election to the papacy. Three years ago, many mistakenly expected –f or opposite reasons — that the newly elected pope would wield a mighty hammer of vengeance against dissident members of the Catholic Church, especially theologians.
While head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was known as the watchdog of orthodoxy. That is what Pope John Paul II wanted him to be, and Cardinal Ratzinger was always faithful to the will of his superior.
As pope, however, he is now the pastoral leader of all Catholics throughout the world. His job description is essentially inclusive. He is not the leader of a faction but rather a pontifex, or bridge-maker, between factions.
In choosing the name Benedict, Cardinal Ratzinger signaled that he wanted to be a healer rather than a divider. Pope Benedict XV had come into office just prior to the First World War when not only Europe but the church itself were embroiled in conflict. One militant group of Catholics accused others of being unfaithful, and defined themselves as the only “true” or “integral” Catholics.
Within three months of his election, Benedict XV called a halt to this internecine warfare, insisting that Catholics need no epithets to describe themselves. We are all Catholics, and should accept one another as such.
By late 2005, there were already grumblings about the other Pope Benedict within his “base” on the Catholic right. In September, Benedict XVI had hosted a friendly meeting with bete noire conservative Catholic, the Swiss theologian Father Hans K√ºng.
When it came time to issue a statement to the media, the pope would not do so until Father K√ºng had read and approved it. By contrast, John Paul II had for 25 years refused to grant an audience to Father K√ºng, much less invite him to dinner and a four-hour conversation.
One of Pope Benedict’s staunchest supporters, Father Richard John Neuhaus, expressed the concern of a growing number of conservative Catholics in the February 2006 issue of his journal, First Things. He indicated that there was a “palpable uneasiness” in that quarter because the pope had not yet made the needed personnel changes at the top levels of the Curia.
Father Neuhaus criticized the newly appointed head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, now-Cardinal William Levada, for a certain softness on the issue of homosexuality during his years as the archbishop of San Francisco — “commonly called the gay capital of the world,” Father Neuhaus pointed out.
Father Neuhaus also was unhappy about the appointment of Cardinal Levada’s successor in San Francisco, Archbishop George Niederauer, accusing him of having had “a reputation of being … gay-friendly” while serving as bishop of Salt Lake City.
The pope’s nervous critics on the right have undoubtedly come to some accommodation in the meantime, but the true measure of this pontificate may be that many Catholics of the center and moderate left are relatively content with it. At worst, they are simply indifferent.
In spite of a few initiatives with which they strongly disagree, such as Benedict’s granting of permission last September for the Latin Mass without the local bishop’s approval, Catholics formed by Vatican II generally prefer Benedict’s papal style to that of his predecessor. He is laid-back, self-effacing and humble. He does not personalize the papacy, nor put himself at center stage.
This is not to say that there have been no other missteps during Benedict’s three years as pope. In the judgment of some, the pope’s academic address at Regensburg University in September 2006, which stirred so much controversy in the worldwide Muslim community, was one such instance.
By contrast, his two encyclicals — one on faith and the other on hope — have been generally well-received, even if not widely read. What actual readers have liked is not only their serious theological content, but their moderate, noncensorious tone.
Such adjectives describe this pontificate as well as any other.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.