I suppose it’s a good thing that he bothered to acknowledge some of the world’s worst violence, primarily in Africa and the Middle East, but I really wonder who he thinks he’s preaching to or who actually considers his words to be a “news flash.”
There are worldwide protests against the Iraq war, and we hear nothing from the Vatican. The United Nations, along with this country, appears to be totally impotent regarding the Darfur crisis (of course, we’ve squandered our moral authority and much of the world’s goodwill that we could have brought to bear in that region because of the war), and the best Benedict can do is call it an “underestimated humanitarian situation.”
Agree with him or not, but a healthy John Paul II would have “kicked butt and taken names” on this stuff long ago.
This article by Jane Kramer that recently appeared in The New Yorker gives us some insight into Benedict, I think, written from the perspective of Christianity’s relationship with Islam (actually, radical Islam is prominent in the article, which is appropriate unfortunately). I’ve highlighted the following passages that I think are particularly important.
It is well known that Benedict wants to transform the Church of Rome, which is not to say that he wants to make it more responsive to the realities of modern life as it is lived by Catholic women in the West, or by Catholic homosexuals, or even by the millions of desperately poor Catholic families in the Third World who are still waiting for some merciful dispensation on the use of contraception. He wants to purify the Church, to make it more definitively Christian, more observant, obedient, and disciplined—you could say more like the way he sees Islam. And never mind that he doesn’t seem to like much about Islam, or that he has doubts about Islam’s direction. (His doubts are not unusual in today’s world; many Muslims have them.) The Pope is a theologian—the first prominent theologian to sit on Peter’s throne since the eighteenth century. He views the world through a strictly theological frame, and his judgments about Islam, however defiant or reductive they sometimes sound, have finally to do with the idea of Theos—God—as he understands it. Those judgments have not changed much, in character, since he left Germany for the Vatican, twenty-six years ago.Kramer’s article describes the fallout from Benedict’s speech at the University of Regensburg in which (in a manner befitting a clueless academic, as far as I’m concerned), he quoted a Byzantine emperor who allegedly said the following to a Persian guest: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new…and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” And the hope apparently was that this would lead to an analysis of the rest of Benedict’s speech that would receive greater examination than the quote (and we know what happened as a result).
Ratzinger and (Karol) Wojtyla (the former Pope John Paul II) shared this: an exceptionally narrow view of what constitutes a morally acceptable Christian life. That view is reflected in the daily decisions of bishops who in the past few years have denied the sacraments to pro-choice politicians (St. Louis); refused to allow Muslims to pray at a church that was once a mosque (Córdoba); and denied Catholic burial to an incurably ailing man who, after years of suffering on a respirator, asked to die (Rome). But the resemblance ends there. Ratzinger did not really think that theological dialogue with non-Christians was useful, or meaningful, or even possible. John Paul II did. His papacy, he said, was going to be a peace papacy—a papacy of bridges. Unlike Ratzinger, he was not much concerned about whether a Trinitarian faith with an anthropomorphic God was “comprehensible” to a Muslim whose God is never manifest. He would talk to anyone about God. In twenty-six years as Pope, he made a hundred and two trips abroad, many of them to Muslim countries, and it didn’t matter whether the understanding of God was the same from one airport to the next.To illustrate a difference between John Paul and Benedict, Kramer notes the Assisi I prayer meeting that took place in 1986 in which John Paul prayed “together” with “a hodgepodge of interfaith holiness,” though, when Assisi II took place in 2002 (with John Paul in ill health and Ratzinger calling the shots at this point), the Pope prayed “not together, but beside” other faiths, and he was installed on a throne for the event to emphasize what Benedict believed was Catholic superiority.
God’s intentions tend to wobble from papacy to papacy, and the Church adjusts to the contradictions. Benedict, for all his doctrinal rigidity, remains extremely forthcoming as a scholar, and he is much more careful than his predecessor to distinguish between opinion and “truth.” John Paul II was untroubled by that sort of distinction, and, curiously, Benedict did very little to discourage his conflations of doctrine and what the Church calls “definitive teachings”—perhaps because, during the last years of the Pope’s long illness, those teachings were “guided” by Benedict himself. (“Ratzinger has been Pope much longer than you think,” Robert Mickens says.) Eventually, John Paul’s relations with other religions, especially with Islam, were also guided by Ratzinger, although this was obvious mainly to Rome’s vaticanisti, who could trace the change.
Kramer also notes the following…
Benedict, who is nearly eighty, is said to have set himself two goals for what he knows will be a short papacy. Neither of them involves Islam theologically, but they do involve it in very practical, political ways. His first goal is ecumenical. It has to do with reinvigorating, and perhaps enforcing, what he sees as Christianity’s nonnegotiable moral precepts. In other words, he wants to temper and constrain Western secularism with his own brand of Christian morality; he wants the leaders of other Christian fellowships to join him; and he wants to put the world on notice that, with more than fifteen million Muslims living in Western Europe, the only analogous mission in the West today is an Islamist one.I will freely admit that I am an imperfect Catholic and hardly a theologian; I’m just trying to “find my own way” as are we all. And maybe the kind of “tough love” Benedict is calling for with Islam may somehow yield to a greater understanding of our mutual faiths.
Benedict’s second goal is reciprocity with Islam. He wants to use his papacy to restore to Christian minorities in Muslim countries the same freedom of religion that most Muslims enjoy in the West. The question of reciprocity is hardly new, but it was never a priority at the Vatican before Benedict’s reign. John Paul II avoided it, on his travels, by saying, in effect, “I go for the country, not the religion.” Benedict has pretty much made it a precondition for relations between the Vatican and the Muslim world. He clearly thinks that the Judeo Christian West has been self-destructively shortsighted in its concessions to the Islamic diaspora, when few, if any, concessions are made to Christians and Jews in most of the Middle East.
But we’ve already seen an example of a leader on the world stage trying to force-feed an ideology and way of life down the throats of a Middle Eastern culture with disastrous results over these last four-plus years, and though faith is a wondrous thing, it must be tempered with reason, and I don’t see how Benedict can accomplish something theologically that George W. Bush and his gang couldn’t accomplish politically or militarily.