Pope Benedict XVI has been in office for more than seven months. It is only natural that people inside and outside the Catholic Church should be asking how he is doing so far — whether he is living up to expectations or creating any surprises.
Apart from the forced dismissal of Father Thomas Reese as editor-in-chief of the Jesuit weekly, America, within weeks of Cardinal Ratzinger’s election to the papacy, the new pontificate has thus far not struck any false or discordant notes. The change at America, which had been under confidential review for at least a few years, seems to have been more a matter of unbelievably bad timing than a deliberate signal on Benedict’s part of how he intends to govern.
That seriously negative development aside, it can be said that Benedict XVI’s pontificate represents already a distinct change from his predecessor’s.
Most significantly, the new pope has had a lengthy and entirely friendly meeting with Father Hans K√ºng, one of the Catholic Church’s leading reform-minded theologians. Father K√ºng had requested an audience with John Paul II for 25 years following the removal in 1979 of his canonical mission to teach as a Catholic theologian. He was rebuffed at every turn.
However, when he submitted a similar request to the new pope, soon after the April conclave, it was accepted immediately, and the meeting was scheduled for late September when the pope expected to be at the summer residence at Castel Gandolfo.
The two aging theologians had not been on speaking terms since the removal of Father K√ºng’s canonical mission 26 years earlier. Cardinal Ratzinger was the archbishop of Munich at the time. His appointment to head the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith would not come for another two years. But because he supported the Vatican’s action against his friend and former colleague at T√ºbingen, it opened a personal rift that did not heal until two months ago.
For several hours, which included a private dinner together, the two former adversaries discussed questions of mutual concern. At the end, the pope himself drafted a statement for the press that was not released until after it was shown to Father K√ºng for his approval.
Father K√ºng came out of the meeting full of praise for the pope whose election he had publicly disapproved of the previous April. In a subsequent interview with John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter, Father K√ºng characterized the meeting with Benedict XVI as a “sign of hope for many in the church with the same vision as mine.” He described the session as “very joyful” with “no reproaches (or) polemics.”
“It is clear,” Father K√ºng said, “that we have different positions, but the things we have in common are more fundamental. We are both Christians, both priests in service of the church, and we have great personal respect for one another.”
There were also many who expected the former head of the CDF and the principal author of the controversial document, Dominus Iesus, released in September of 2000, to reverse the gains achieved by John Paul II in his outreach to Jews and other non-Christians. Their expectations have thus far not been realized.
In connection with the World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany, this past August, Benedict reached out to both Jews and Muslims, becoming only the second pope in history to meet with Jewish leaders in a synagogue.
In early May he had sent greetings and prayers to the national synod of the Reformed Church of France and later that month, at a eucharistic festival in southern Italy, he called for Christian unity, citing his “fundamental commitment to work with all my energies” in the cause of ecumenism.
At the recently concluded Synod on the Eucharist, however one evaluates its work, it was the new pope who, unlike his predecessor, declared no topic off limits and who added an hourlong period each day for open discussion. Several bishops seized the opportunity to voice concerns about the shortage of priests, clerical celibacy and the status of divorced-and-remarried Catholics.
It remains to be seen how the apostolic visitation of U.S. seminaries will be played out and whether the pope will approve an initiative preventing gays from entering seminaries and expelling others already there. There is reason to believe, however, that he will urge a more pastorally cautious approach, one that encourages the use of prudential judgment on the part of bishops and seminary officials.
When asked directly by one of his former students whether he would implement as pope the traditionalist ideas he had previously expressed about the liturgy, Benedict XVI did not respond.
That silence may speak louder than words.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.Tags: Pope Benedict XVI