A church's assertive shift toward tradition
Pope Benedict XVI consolidates sweeping changes, reasserting the spiritual supremacy of the Vatican.
Rome and Paris
The leader of 1.1 billion Catholics, Pope Benedict XVI, is completing a significant theological shift of the Roman Catholic church – a sweeping change that not only eclipses 40 years of a more moderate and collegial Catholicism, but seeks to reassert the spiritual supremacy of the Vatican and more openly proclaim the authority of the office of pope among all Christians.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Some two years after taking the reins, say Protestant and Catholic theologians and religious experts, the Bavarian-born pope is moving swiftly to affirm orthodox doctrines and medieval church rituals that undermine the spirit of Vatican II, a period of modernization in which the church appeared to be rethinking its centuries-long insistence that it had exclusive claims to matters of grace, truth, salvation, and church structure in the Christian world.
Liberal Catholics go so far as to characterize Benedict as leading a counterreformation in the church – in which fervent backers of traditional Catholic identity and faith are favored, even at the expense of popularity. "While Vatican II said that the Holy Spirit was in operation among the people, now we are saying, no, the holy spirit is operating in the bishops. It is an enormous change." says Frank Flinn, author of the "Encyclopedia of Catholicism." The "impression [previous Pope] John Paul II gave was to emphasize teaching so that all may be one. But Benedict is turning around and saying to churches, 'you aren't all one.' It is destroying the ecumenical movement."
When the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became pope on April 8, 2005, many Catholics felt he might soften his reputation as a hard-line "enforcer of the faith." Yet his tenure has shown few signs of mellowing. In the space of three days this month, for example, he promoted the old Latin Mass, which contains references to the conversion of the Jews, then issued a blockbuster doctrinal clarification statement saying that Orthodox and Protestant churches were "lacking" and only authentic through their relationship with Rome.
"Benedict has fought for the same thing for 30 years and now he is putting it to work," says Frederic Lenoir, editor of Le Monde's religious supplement in Paris. "His main aim in being pope is to unify the true believer groups – and he will lose members or destroy religious dialogues, if that's what it takes."
Radical reassertion is necessary
Defenders say that only by a radical reassertion of traditional Catholicism can the church become the body able to bring clarity, order, and moral authority to a troubled world. The various attempts to adapt the church to modernity in the 1960s, they argue, have resulted only in muddled meanings and a lack of proper moral concepts. Beyond that, the opening of the church allowed Jewish, Protestant, atheist, and Islamic ideas to compete against what is seen as God's church, instituted by Christ and the apostle Peter.
Since Vatican II (1964-1969), the Roman Catholic church in Europe has lost tens of millions of churchgoers at a time when Muslim populations are increasing in Europe. Benedict has stated his central mission is to restore the Catholic church in Europe and to bridge the gap with Eastern Orthodox churches that more closely share a traditional Catholic suspicion of modernity, the Enlightenment, the Reformation, pluralism, and secularism.
"We think this pope may be starting back on the proper pathway," says a friar at the St. Nicolas du Chardonnet church in Paris, a center of the ultratraditional Lefebvrist Catholic sect. "We think he understands the real faith. What we object to is his visiting of the mosque in Turkey. He shouldn't have done that."