Wednesday, April 16, 2008

On Pope Benedict

~from The Telegraph by Damien Thompson
Pope Benedict XVI began his visit to the United States yesterday with a typically forthright declaration. He was "deeply ashamed" of the Catholic Church's sexual abuse scandals in America, he told reporters on the papal plane. And he added: "I would not speak at this moment about homosexuality, but paedophilia, which is another thing."

That strikes me as a perfectly judged statement. On the one hand, the Pope has said what so many Catholics have been longing to hear for years: the successor of Peter expressing personal shame at the record of the institution he heads. On the other - and without signalling any change in the Church's teaching - he has refused to endorse the elision of child abuse and homosexuality that is so crucial to the rhetoric of certain Catholic conservatives.

Joseph Ratzinger possesses a sureness of touch that Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has never had. Even his most famous supposed "gaffe" - his historical reference to Muslim aggression at Regensburg - provoked a much-needed debate and won him many new admirers.

We should not be surprised. The image of a clerical "Rottweiler" was never more than a lazy caricature. An intriguing article by Michael Sean appeared on the Slate website the other day, arguing that Ratzinger was never seriously Right-wing and has disappointed his more hard-line admirers - by, for example, refusing to endorse the free market theology of American neocon Catholics or to initiate a witch-hunt against gay seminarians.

He does not bang on about sex, as his predecessor did; nor does he share John Paul II's uncomprehending rage at a degenerate West. He is a former liberal himself, whose formative years were spent teaching alongside Left-wing Protestant theologians. (To really disconcert a clerical conservative, show him a picture of a middle-aged Fr Ratzinger wearing a suit with a collar and tie.)

It goes without saying that Pope Benedict XVI is a conservative, and in his former incarnation as the Vatican's doctrinal watchdog, he was forced to be a fairly combative one. But confrontation does not come naturally to him: that much is clear from even a cursory glance at his writings on the liturgy, which seek to combine every strand of authentic Catholic tradition into living worship that slips the bounds of secular time. Many people have discovered or rediscovered their faith as a result of reading Ratzinger's luminous books on worship, which are among the theological masterpieces of the 20th century and now inform his joyful papal letters.

On Saturday, at the end of his American trip, Benedict XVI will celebrate three years as Pope. Most Catholics believe that this has been a period of almost unblemished achievement. His two encyclicals - the first on love, the second on hope - have received wide acclaim, not least because they are so elegantly written. Their literary clarity is mirrored by papal reforms to the liturgy that are intended to sweep away the trashy vulgarity of "folk Masses" devised by doctrinaire, Left-wing baby boomers. If we worship God with proper dignity, says Benedict, then the rest will follow.

But here lies the problem. The Pope's liturgical restoration only really began last July, when he removed the restriction on the celebration of the ancient Latin Mass, which was never abolished by the Second Vatican Council and for which there is new enthusiasm among young Catholics tired of being patronised by ex-hippy "worship leaders".

Alas, that was also the moment at which Ratzinger's liberal opponents - well entrenched in American and British dioceses - began to fight back. The Bishops of England and Wales reacted to the Pope's ruling with surly bad grace; they have either refused to implement it, or done so in a nitpicking manner that reminds me of a go-slow by 1970s trade unionists. Meanwhile, their bureaucracy continues to spew out barbarously ill-written, politically correct statements that seem entirely disengaged from the Benedictine reforms.
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