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Benedict XVI will test religion's 'red-blue' divide

In his first homily Wednesday, he pledged 'sincere dialogue' with all believers.

By , Sophie Arie / April 21, 2005


Moving rapidly to assuage fears that he would turn the Roman Catholic Church inward, Joseph Ratzinger pledged in his first sermon as Pope Benedict XVI Wednesday to reach out to believers of all faiths and none, promising to "continue ... sincere dialogue with them.'"

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His "primary task" would be to "reconstitute the full and visible unity of all Christ's followers," he said in Latin at a Mass in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel. "Good sentiments" are not enough, he added. "Concrete acts that enter souls and move consciences are needed."

Observers inside and outside the church wonder how the man who enforced orthodox doctrine for 24 years will do this. He has balked at the prospect of Muslim-majority Turkey joining the European Union, and wrote that other Christian churches "suffer from defects."

Supporters welcome a global figure unwilling to water down his faith. Others see his election as widening the global religious "red-blue" divide between conservative moral absolutists and liberals of all faiths who say religion must be more inclusive.

In his last homily as a cardinal, Pope Benedict XVI said that "We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one's own ego and one's own desires."

Benedict has dismissed anyone who tried to find "feminist" meanings in the Bible, and last year told American bishops it was appropriate to deny Communion to those who support abortion and euthanasia.

"He'll continue the dialogue" with other Christian churches and other faiths, says Father Jerome Murphy O'Connor, a biblical scholar in Jerusalem who once studied under Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. "But he won't draw any consequences from it. His door will always be open, but don't expect to get what you want."

The new pope's choice of the name Benedict, harking back to the saint who helped Christianize Europe in the sixth century, suggests that he sees his role as reinforcing the faith on an increasingly secular continent, the hearth of Christianity where the ashes appear to be cooling.

Against the dominantly secular and relativist mood in Europe, Benedict seems likely to present a firm Catholic conviction, rooted in a starkly black-and-white view of the world.

That view is likely to clash with mainstream European thinking over many issues widely regarded here as human rights: birth control, gay unions, women's rights, euthanasia, and stem cell research, all areas where European governments tend more and more to ignore Catholic teaching.

In a speech earlier this month in St. Benedict's hometown of Subiaco, in Italy, then Cardinal Ratzinger bemoaned a Europe that he said "constitutes the most radical contradiction not only of Christianity, but also of religious and moral traditions of all humanity."

"He is clearly a person who believes in absolute truth and the clarity of truth - and the possession of truth by the Roman Catholic Church" says Chester Gillis, chair of the theology department at Georgetown University in Washington. "He is very unbending about that."

Some analysts wonder whether a man like that is best placed to relate easily with people of other faiths, or with the non-believers he would like to convert - especially since by his own admission he lacks the charisma of his predecessor, John Paul II.

Others suggest he may not try, and will concentrate instead on shoring up the faith of those within the church.

"He is very negative about the world of modern culture, and I share his criticisms," says Leo Laeyendecker, a Catholic professor of sociology at Leiden University in Holland. "But either you try to understand and change its direction, or you turn inward so as not to meet these cultural directions. I think that he is inclined to take the second attitude."

Ernst-Ludwig Erlich, a pioneer of Jewish-Catholic relations who has often visited the Vatican, shares that view. "I don't think he can" build bridges to the secular world, he argues. "He will try to keep his Catholics within a certain space, but I don't know how big that space will be."