Two months ago Pope Benedict XVI marked the second anniversary of his election to the papacy. The early assessments of his pontificate can be summarized as follows: liberal, reform-minded Catholics have been relieved that the new pope has not cracked down as they feared he would, and conservative Catholics, who rejoiced in Cardinal Ratzinger’s election, have been disappointed that he has not, in fact, continued the hard-line approach adopted by his predecessor, John Paul II, and in keeping with the former cardinal’s record as longtime head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
However, now that the pope, at age 80, is in his third year in office, some pundits are insisting that the situation has changed and that the “old Ratzinger” is beginning to show his teeth.
David Gibson, author of a recent book on Benedict XVI, advanced this interpretation in an op-ed piece in The New York Times, “His Own Pope Yet?” (4/23/07).
There is at least an attempt at balance in his piece. Gibson points out, accurately enough, that Benedict XVI “remains an enigma to many ‚Ä¶ and something of a blank slate to a world curious to see what this new pontiff would be like.”
However, he stumbles when he describes Cardinal Ratzinger as “the most prominent and controversial head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in memory.” Perhaps Gibson is too young to remember the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), but the unquestioned leader of its resistant minority was Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, head of the Holy Office (the forerunner of the CDF). During a portion of the long reign of Pius XII (1939-58), Cardinal Ottaviani was the all-powerful defender of the faith and punisher of all who would dare tamper with it. Cardinal Ratzinger was relatively benign in comparison with Cardinal Ottaviani.
Gibson, however, is right in noting that Pope Benedict has “tried to tone down the emphasis on the person of the pope — a motif of his predecessor’s style — and put it back on the basics of the faith.” He also accurately underscores the more positive approach in his writings and pronouncements, citing the pope’s first and only encyclical thus far, “God Is Love.”
But then Gibson tries to make something of the pope’s insistence that “divine love does not brook anything that smacks of change in church teachings or traditions.” That may be right as far as it goes, but there are many degrees of church teachings and many levels of “traditions.”
Most recently, for example, the pope approved the International Theological Commission’s call for a reconsideration of the longstanding belief in limbo. I have pointed out several times in this column that a setting aside of limbo would cause serious problems for fundamentalist Catholics who wrongly believe that no one can be saved without being baptized.
Halfway through his column, Gibson begins to fashion his argument that Pope Benedict XVI is already re-emerging as his former, intransigent self, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the feared CDF.
He points to the ban on gays in the priesthood, the long-rumored restoration of the old Tridentine Latin Mass, and his renewed stands against married priests and against divorced-and-remarried Cath-
olics receiving holy Communion.
Gibson is possibly correct in his assessments, but the evidence is thus far inconclusive.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.Tags: Pope Benedict XVI