Pope Benedict XVI’s pastoral visit to the United States was a remarkable success. The reasons are many and varied, but they perhaps come down to the force of his personality: shy and self-effacing, but at the same time warm and engaging.
Many Catholics on both sides of the ecclesiastical spectrum had been wrong in their original expectations of the pope’s visit.
Those in sympathy with the renewal and reforms of Vatican II, whether they were alive at the time of the council or not, had assumed (perhaps “feared” is more accurate) that the pope would speak and act during his visit in accordance with the reputation he had acquired as Pope John Paul II’s enforcer of orthodoxy.
Catholics who had welcomed with almost unbridled enthusiasm the election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger three years ago were expecting him finally to drop the hammer on their perceived adversaries in the church.
One of the self-described traditionalist Catholics went so far as to express the hope that, in his address to leaders of Catholic higher education, the pope would insist that the mandatum, or licensing by the local bishop, be required of all Catholic theologians teaching in a Catholic university or college. Needless to say, the pope did not do so.
Catholics in the first category were pleasantly surprised. Pope Benedict XVI came across as someone far different from the former head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In none of his various addresses, homilies and personal appearances did he scold, condemn or strike an unhappy, negative posture.
He was firm in his convictions of faith and of theology (although closely linked, the two are not the same), but never harsh, censorious or threatening. Just the opposite. And a number of editorials and op-ed pieces have noted the same thing.
It is highly probable that many centrist and progressive U.S. Catholics will have a more benign opinion of this pope because of the pastoral visit. Not that they will agree with him on every initiative he takes or pronouncement he makes, but they are likely to see him in a different light.
It is more evident now that Benedict’s pontificate is not simply an extension of his predecessor’s. He is his own man, so to speak, and will address issues in his own way.
Nowhere is this contrast more apparent than in the open, forthright manner in which Benedict XVI addressed the sexual-abuse scandal that has so deeply wounded not only the Catholic Church and its priesthood, but more importantly the hundreds of its victims and survivors — men and women scarred for life.
The pope’s willingness to meet with five survivors of sexual abuse at the hands of trusted priests was perhaps the major development of the entire visit.
To be sure, this column has no wish to promote Benedict XVI by downgrading his predecessor, to whom many substantial achievements can readily be attached. But Benedict’s meeting with these survivors would have been as unthinkable for Pope John Paul II as Benedict’s four-hour meeting with the famous Swiss theologian Father Hans K√ºng in September 2005.
Just as John Paul II had refused to see Father K√ºng despite the latter’s persistent requests for an audience over the course of 25 years, so John Paul II refused to heed the warnings of some of his closest advisers about certain high-ranking bishops whom he himself had appointed — the former cardinal-archbishop of Vienna was one; a Polish archbishop, whom the local seminary rectory had to forbid from stepping foot on seminary grounds, was another. The pope eventually removed them from their positions, but only belatedly and reluctantly.
Another striking contrast was in the way each dealt with the case of the late Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legionaries of Christ.
In spite of numerous allegations of sexual misconduct brought against Father Maciel, Pope John Paul II appointed him a delegate to the Synod of the Americas in 1997, and publicly praised him on more than one occasion, proclaiming him, during the papal trip to Mexico in 1994, “an efficacious guide to youth,” congratulating him in 2004 on his 60th anniversary of ordination and again in January 2005, shortly before the pope’s own death, thanking him for his “paternal affection and his experience.”
In May 2006, however, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, with the approval of Pope Benedict XVI, formally prohibited Father Maciel from exercising a public ministry in the church because the CDF and the pope had found the allegations against Father Maciel to have been credible.
Even at age 81, Benedict XVI seems to have made a promising beginning.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.