Benedict’s balancing act

 — Oct. 1, 20111 oct. 2011
An exposition of faith and reason in society was the highlight of Pope Benedict’s visit. But, with negotiations to bring the Lefebvrists back into the Catholic fold at a critical phase, he trod a tightrope when he met Protestants, Jews and Muslims.

Pope Benedict XVI’s third visit to Germany last week was billed as the 84-year-old pontiff’s latest effort to help convince people in highly secularised Europe that their society would be better and more human if God were at its centre. He won high praise for a deeply philosophical paper given to the Bundestag in Berlin on the foundations for a free state of law (see page 10). In that address, he said it was “urgent” to start a “public debate” on the necessity of retrieving the natural law tradition in developing legislation. As with his speech at Westminster Hall a year ago, the Pope was hailed for reaching across the political and religious divide of Germany’s parliament and its intellectual class.

But Benedict’s visit also came at an extremely troubled moment in the life of the Church in his native country, and in many other parts of the Western world. It took place at a time when record numbers of the baptised faithful have continued to leave the Catholic community, when groups of priests and theologians have joined committed lay people in calling for changes in church structures and discipline, and when clerical sex-abuse scandals (and their perceived mishandling and cover-up) have all but ruptured the trust that many believers once invested in their bishops and even the Vatican.

Furthermore, the visit started just days after the Vatican began anxiously waiting for leaders of the ultra-conservative Society of St Pius X (SSPX) or “Lefebvrists” to respond to a “doctrinal preamble” (which has not been published) that they must embrace in order to be readmitted to full communion in the Church. This element was a quiet, but essential subtext to the trip.

It was clear that Pope Benedict, who has shown a deep personal interest in healing the so-called Lefebvrist schism, tried to walk a tightrope while in Germany. On the one hand, he sought to re-spiritualise demoralised Catholics (including a number of bishops) who want more reforms in order to realise the Second Vatican Council. On the other hand, he sought to show the anti-Vatican II Lefebvrists that he could meet Muslims, Jews, Protestants and Orthodox in a way that did not betray the Catholic Church’s exclusivist claims of the past or fall into syncretism. The Pope specifically quoted the council only three times in his 17 speeches – making passing references to Lumen Gentium at two different Catholic liturgies and citing Nostra Aetate once in his meeting with Jews. He did so in a way in which the SSPX could take no offence. Additionally, all of the meetings with non-Catholics – with the exception of a Lutheran-led prayer service – were closed door events not broadcast to the public or press. Thus the images were safe from manipulation by those who would wish to provoke the SSPX and derail their return to Rome.

With so much on the line, it was troubling that in the days before his arrival surveys showed that a majority of German Catholics did not see Benedict’s visit as particularly significant. And yet, the tens of thousands of them who turned out for his public events were excited and showed him impeccable courtesy, with the exception of sizeable protests in Berlin and smaller ones in Erfurt and Freiburg. They listened respectfully to what he had to say and gave him sustained applause. Their hope was that he, too, would listen to their concerns and offer at least small signs of openness to their yearnings for change in a Church to which many of them have dedicated their lives.

But a headline in the Müddeutsche Zeitung, the influential Bavarian paper, seemed to sum up their feelings at the end of the visit. “He came, he spoke, he disappointed,” it said.

Indeed, Pope Benedict made it clear that he believed structures and certain church disciplines did not need reforming. The real cause of the Church’s current crisis and malaise, he said, was lack of faith – especially among those who profess to be believers. At almost every venue, beginning with a large Mass in Berlin, he said the reform that was most desperately needed was a spiritual one. “Dissatisfaction and discontent begin to spread when people’s superficial and mistaken notions of ‘Church’, their ‘dream Church’, fail to materialise!” he exclaimed.

A few days later in Freiburg, he said that Catholics needed to be more humbly obedient to Rome and their bishops, and less concerned with trying to reorganise (or over-organise) the Church. “We must honestly admit that we have more than enough by way of structure, but not enough by the way of Spirit,” he told the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZDK), an influential 150-year-old umbrella organisation of laity councils, associations and movements. “If we do not find a way of genuinely renewing our faith, all structural reform will remain ineffective.” Alois Glück, head of the ZDK, said that was a false dichotomy. “It’s not a question of either promoting introspection and prayer or changing the Church,” he said. “We have to link both these things.” The Pope was not ruling out reform completely, some hopefully pointed out. But later, in a meeting with Catholics who hold key posts in the Church and society, he appeared to dash such short-lived hopes. “Should the Church not change? Must she not adapt her offices and structures to the present day, in order to reach the searching and doubting people of today?” he asked provocatively, only to answer with an unequivocal “No”.

“It is a question of setting aside mere strategy and seeking total transparency, not bracketing or ignoring anything from the truth of our present situation, but living the faith fully here and now in the utterly sober light of day, appropriating it completely, and stripping away from it anything that only seems to belong to the faith, but in truth is mere convention,” he said. “In order to accomplish her true task adequately, the Church must constantly renew the effort to detach herself from the ‘worldliness’ of the world.” He said the Church usually had to be forced to do so by “secularising trends”, such as the appropriation of goods or elimination of its privilege. This “contributed significantly to her purification and inner reform”.

The Pope left reform-minded German Catholics to grapple with the meaning of those words and his refusal to address their calls for married priests, sacramental ministry for women, Communion for the divorced and remarried, and affirmation of committed gay relationships. There was further disappointment for them, and for the country’s Protestants who had hoped for an “ecumenical gift”, such as loosening restrictions on inter-Communion, especially for spouses in mixed marriage.

“Here I would say that this reflects a political misreading of the faith and ecumenism,” the Pope told a prayer service in the church in Erfurt where Martin Luther was ordained a priest before breaking from Rome in the sixteenth century. He made it clear that faith could not be worked out intellectually or negotiated.

The editor of L’Osservatore Romano, Gian Maria Vian, said Benedict XVI had “pulled off” one of the “most intense and important visits of his pontificate”. He had been “able to make himself understood and touch the hearts of a great many people”. But Vian blasted important sectors of the media, which he said had not been “up to the task” of understanding and reporting the real meaning of the Pope’s four days back home in Germany.

Actually, it was not really a visit “back home” at all, in the geographical or the emotional sense. Joseph Ratzinger spent all but 10 of his first 54 years in Bavaria, nestled in Germany’s south-east corner next to Austria. Between 1959 and 1969 he taught theology in Bonn, Münster and Tübingen, but he was back in Bavaria – first as a professor at Regensburg and then as Archbishop of Munich – when Pope John Paul II named him Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1981. Next February marks the thirtieth anniversary of his departure from Bavaria to take up residence in Rome.

A number of commentators and Catholics who followed the visit to Germany suggested that Benedict’s three decades in an office in Rome had put him further out of touch with the Church in their country. Many of them saw the visit as the Pope’s last best chance to show that he has heard their concerns for church reform and renewal. As one of the German papers observed: “The Pope has gone, the problems remain.” Unless Benedict decides to fix them back in the Vatican.

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