The popular wisdom surrounding the election of Pope Benedict XVI is that it is too early to speculate much about his papacy.
Even the former Cardinal Ratzinger’s recent record as the gatekeeper of church doctrine may not mean as much in his broader and more pastoral role as the universal shepherd of the world’s Catholics. Nevetheless, observers note that Benedict’s papacy will likely be marked by both continuity and change. At a recent symposium on the Benedict papacy and its significance for Germany at New York University attended by RW, participants were mainly positive about the cultural significance of the election.
Hubert Kohl, Germany’s cultural minister to the U.S., said the election will help the nation’s image abroad, showing non-Germans that a “conservative intellectual can come from Germany.” He added that Benedict’s leadership style may reflect Bavarian Catholicism: “tough on principles but more flexible in practice.”
But Peter Steinfels, religion writer for the New York Times, added that Benedict’s theological writings are heavily German, often carrying few non-German references, and are preoccupied with ideas to the exclusion of first hand experience, perhaps hampering a down-to-earth approach in his papacy. Steinfels noted that the name the new pope took can be read in several ways. Benedict, taken from the founder of the monastic order, can mean hospitality, or it could refer to the role of the saint in fending off the dark ages by creating islands of Christianity .
The former Cardinal Ratzinger’s writings and interviews have stressed the creation and maintenance of small groups as remnants of Christianity in secularized societies. Steinfels noted that other writings have stressed the mystical and communal nature of the church and are critical of its bureaucratic dimension. Britain’s The Tablet magazine (April 23) forecasts that it will be the problems stemming from the curial bureaucracy that Benedict will first address. He has indicated, quietly, that “some form of decentralization of authority must be taken for the future good,” writes Robert Mickens.
Because Pope John Paul II left a number of top Vatican officials in their post well past retirement age, “Benedict XVI will have a much greater freedom in replacing these officials without having to resort to power politics and causing dissent in the Roman curia.” The choices made in replacing the Vatican Secretary of State and the new prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith will be an “important signal of the way the new pope chooses to exercise his ministry.”
Back at the NYU symposium, Steinfels said that another indicator of the direction of Benedict’s papacy will be next fall’s World Synod of Bishops (far more than the much publicized World Youth Day). “If he revises procedures [to allow] for more open discussions, rather than restricting [them], that would be a good sign of a `listening papacy.'”
Another speaker, New School sociologist Jose Casanova, added that a sign of Benedict’s commitment to giving greater freedom to the world’s bishops and their national and regional conferences may also be seen if Latin American bishops are permitted to hold their 1996 gathering in Latin America rather than in Rome.
Meanwhile, Benedict’s commitment to battling secularism in Europe–evident long before he became pope– was clearly on display in the Vatican’s tough response to Spain same-sex marriage bill. The Wall Street Journal (April 28) reports that the bill, which would allow same-sex couples to marry and adopt children, was met with a Vatican rebuke and an unusual call for civil servants to resist implementing the measure through civil disobedience.
The article adds that the “response surprised many church observers, who wonder if this marks the beginning of a more aggressive response to creeping secularism, which Pope Benedict has described as one of the greatest evils facing Europe.”