The two most significant developments for the Catholic Church in 2005 were the death of Pope John Paul II on April 2 after more than 26 years in office and the election on April 19 of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who took the name Benedict XVI.
We can be reasonably certain that in 2006 historians, pastoral leaders, theologians and pundits generally will continue to offer their own assessments of both pontificates.
The wheels leading possibly to the beatification and eventual canonization of John Paul II will also continue to grind slowly and deliberately, without fanfare and with little or no public notice. The new pope may have dispensed with the usual waiting period before initiating such proceedings, but he did not exercise his papal prerogative and simply declare his predecessor a saint without further scrutiny, as some in the crowd at the papal funeral were hoping.
There have also been some preliminary assessments of the new pontificate. Thus far, Benedict XVI has been a surprise to many observers.
One suspects that at least some of his most partisan supporters are now experiencing some measure of doubt about the direction his pontificate will take. Thus far, he has shown no inclination to use the enormous powers of the office to roll back the reforms of Vatican II and to suppress and punish those who had been critical of some of John Paul II’s teachings and disciplinary initiatives.
On the contrary, in what may be the most remarkable and unexpected event of the new pontificate, Benedict XVI welcomed his former colleague, Father Hans K√ºng, in a lengthy private audience. Father K√ºng had sought a similar audience with John Paul II following the removal in 1979 of his canonical license to teach as a Catholic theologian. The previous pope, however, rebuffed the Swiss-born theologian for 25 years.
Although Father K√ºng had greeted Cardinal Ratzinger’s election with undisguised disappointment, he now sang the new pope’s praises, insisting that, while they still had their disagreements, they had much more in common as fellow Christians and fellow priests.
On the other hand, some observers are wondering now if Benedict XVI is finally showing his true colors with the November release of the document on gays in seminaries, or if the first warning shot came even earlier with the dismissal of Father Thomas Reese as editor-in-chief of the Jesuit weekly magazine, America.
It needs to be pointed out that both of these initiatives were already in process during the previous pontificate — not that Cardinal Ratzinger himself had no hand in the negotiations over the fate of Father Reese. But that particular decision, coming so soon after the April conclave, was probably more a mistake in timing than a deliberate signal of the course that Benedict intended to follow.
The even more ominous development, however, was the release of the Vatican instruction on homosexuality, seminary formation and the priesthood. What, in fact, will happen as a result of that document?
Will there be a concerted effort to drive gays out of seminaries and keep them from being ordained? Will a pall be cast over the many thousands of gay priests who are already serving with pastoral distinction in the ordained ministry? And what of those at every level of the hierarchy who are also gay?
It is unlikely that this new document will be implemented because it is unenforceable. Were an attempt made to do so, however, even more serious problems would erupt in the church.
Benedict XVI surely does not want 2006 to be that kind of year.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.