A church's assertive shift toward tradition

Pope Benedict XVI consolidates sweeping changes, reasserting the spiritual supremacy of the Vatican.

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.

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."

Last September, the pope stirred the Muslim world following an academic talk that made reference to Islamic teachings as inherently violent. It was the kind of religious assertion, described later by the Vatican as a "misunderstanding," that was rarely if ever heard under Pope John Paul II.

"The previous pope was friendly, down-to-earth, and a good pastor," says Daniele Garrone, a Rome-based theologian of the Waldensian church, a reformed faith. "But Benedict is emphasizing theological clarity, and I think he is painting himself into a corner. If you believe the church is the sole authority, and you teach this, you have to pay the consequences. Benedict takes it seriously, so I really feel he is suffering right now. He doesn't take this lightly, but feels it is his duty. I wouldn't want to be pope at this point."

Pope Benedict was a German academic and prolific theologian. In the early years of his career, he studied with Hans Kung, a highly influential liberal Catholic theologian whom Benedict would one day reprimand for questioning the concept of papal infallibility.

Pope Benedict also contributed to Vatican II, a period when the church was engaging Martin Luther's concept of the "priesthood of all believers" and vesting more authority in and pastoral attention to ordinary churchgoers.

Yet during the German student riots of 1968, a chaotic time when many young Germans were demanding that their parents face up to the Nazi past, Ratzinger felt deeply that the Vatican II project was coming unhinged.

He became archbishop, then cardinal in 1977, and in 1981 was made prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith at the Vatican – a meteoric rise. Ratzinger began to pursue and censure liberal theologians favorable to Vatican II. He issued a paper, "Instruction Concerning Certain Aspects of the 'Theology of Liberation'" that started to quash liberation-theology movements, particularly in Latin America.

His tenure as prefect became synonymous with a host of conservative positions on abortion, homosexuality, and birth control, earning him the informal nickname of "the enforcer." In 2002, he was made dean of the College of Cardinals, the pope's right-hand man. In the first year, he issued "Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life" that requested bishops not to allow communion to politicians that did not uphold the church teachings on abortion.

An end to 'confusion'

Pope Benedict's press officer, Fr. Federico Lombardi, told the Monitor that the church is not changing its theological positions but is simply clarifying them and seeking to "end the confusion" inside Catholic seminaries about church beliefs. He felt the main difference is a stronger emphasis on "Catholic identity," however.

Mr. Garrone argues that the church must appear to have continuity and can't admit it is changing.

"Many nuns, priests, sisters, theologians, and Catholics felt that Vatican II was a new beginning in the history of the church. But by emphasizing 'continuity,' Benedict is saying the second Vatican council was not a new beginning."

The new papal favoring of Latin Mass is an example. Also known as the "Tridentine" mass, it is performed by priests who turn their back to the congregation and speak in Latin. This mass was largely abandoned after Vatican II, partly because it was incomprehensible to lay Catholics and because it contained negative references to Jews.

The Latin mass has long been hated by Jews for its emphasis on the Jewish role in turning Jesus over to the Romans for crucifixion and for its call for Jews to come into the church. Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, described the Latin mass initiative as "a theological setback in the religious life of Catholics and a body blow to Catholic-Jewish relations."

While the Vatican is not forcing local Catholic churches to say the Latin mass, it is encouraging local members who want it to lobby their parishes. Some priests argue that this may create further strains on their resources and possibly bring contention.

On July 10, the Vatican issued "Regarding Certain Aspects of Church Doctrine." It argued that churches emerging from the Reformation outside the direct authority of Rome "cannot be called 'churches' in the proper sense." Protestants, in particular, "suffer from defects," are properly called communities, not churches, and must one day recognize "the Catholic church, governed by the successor of Peter and the bishops in communion with him" – a major affirmation of papal authority. While Catholics may engage in ecumenical activities, they must do so through a stronger sense of Catholicism as the true church.

Not surprisingly, the July 10 statement brought a mixture of anger and irritation in other churches.

The Rev. David Phillips, an Anglican official, described it as "ludicrous" to "accept the idea that the pope is in some special way the successor of the apostle Peter," and added: "We are grateful that the Vatican has once again been honest in declaring their view that the Church of England is not a proper church…. We would wish to be equally open; unity will only be possible when the papacy renounces its errors and pretensions."

The Vatican said it was surprised Protestants would feel anger at being described as less than churches in hundreds of stories in English-language papers around the world and asked them not to "overreact."

"This isn't about Protestants, it is an internal theological document for purposes of clarity," Father Lombardi stated.

Some analysts say that, as with the September controversy over Islam, the Vatican sought to downplay the issue even as the hard-line message was amplified in the world media, putting Rome in the position of defining the issue.

"Benedict wants to say that Vatican II is not threatened, but the document on July 10 shows a very different reading," says Christian Mercier, religion editor of the Paris-based Catholic magazine, La Vie.

Not just tidying up doctrine

In the past year, the pope has visited the mosque in Turkey, met with Eastern Orthodox prelates, written to Catholics in China, visited Brazil, and authored a best-selling book about Jesus.

Many theologians say the shifts under Pope Benedict aren't simply a small matter of rules, rituals, clarifications, and a tidying up of doctrine. Perhaps one of the most significant, though little noticed, changes has to do with the changing concept of the meaning of the kingdom of heaven. The current pope has a different vision of time and eschatology. Under Vatican II, it was accepted that the coming of the kingdom is possible to experience on Earth and not simply in the afterlife. Vatican II stressed concepts like "becoming," "change," and "newness," and championed social justice and liberty as linked to ideas of grace.

Pope Benedict has begun to roll back such ideas, says Mr. Flinn, the Catholic theologian at Washington University in St. Louis, and his theology is "pessimistic, in the sense that heaven and earth are separate concepts, and that Christ's kingdom can't be experienced here."

"It is the old vertical eschatology," Flinn says. "Liberal Catholics read the scriptures as saying the kingdom is already here, but not yet. The Vatican seems to be saying the kingdom is not yet, not yet, until the end of time, when Jesus returns. Meanwhile, the church is in charge, the pope is the vicar of Christ, and the church has the full truth."

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