Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Pope

An anonymous commenter says of my Pope posts:
All of this analysis is really premature. Couldn't we just morn the death of John Paul II, send the cardinals positive energy to make the right decision about the next Pope, and finally accept the decision from wise and moral figures with joy and hope? We don't really know how the Pope will act. He has been a Pope for a day. And the reason for taking on a new name is that he has promised to part with his old life and start anew. And even if we did know, we couldn't change the fact that he is the Pope. So this gets us back to the question, why do we need to analyze each of these steps? I think that most commentators have a distrust if not prejudice against Catholicism. That is unfortunate since these commentators claim to be good liberals who hold no prejudices at all.

Here's one person who is struggling with her Catholicism because of the selection of Cardinal Ratzinger as the next Pope. It's wrong to suggest that the criticism is coming only from anti-Catholic commentators. Many of the harshest critics of the selection of Ratzinger are Catholics themselves, or wrote memorials to John Paul II which praised the Church and his leadership of it. The Catholic Church is probably the most widely respected of the major churches among liberals.

Catholicism, like all of Christianity (and any human endeavor), has two competing tendencies. There is the inclusiv message of the social gospel – loving your neighbor, helping the poor, sick, meek, etc.– and there's the socially conservative tendency, the exclusivist tradition which Benedict XVI seems to draw on heavily. Consider the discussion of Dominus Iesus, a Vatican document written by Cardinal Ratzinger, in which he stated that all Christian churches other than the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches "suffer from defects" and are not "churches in the proper sense." It declared that any religion but Catholicism is "gravely deficient."

Of course the Catholic church will say it's better than everyone else. If someone else had a better church, why would you want to be Catholic? But Pope John Paul II prayed at the Wailing Wall and visited a mosque, showing respect for the religious traditions of other peoples. He worked to bring humanity together. Ratzinger, as the Grand Inquisitor, issued harsh condemnations of other religions, repressed internal movements which opposed his conservative vision, and stood in the way of women, gays and the laity in general as they sought a larger role in their church.

All that is fine. I wouldn't weigh in on the selection of the head of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, or the leadership of the Baptists, or whatever. Religious groups choose their leaders and that's that. To the extent that the papacy is a religious post, I agree with the commenter that Church doctrine will be governed however it's governed, and the rest of us can just suck it up.

But the Pope is more than a religious leader. Can you name the chief religious figure in any other religion, other than your own and the Dalai Lama? (Trivia buffs are getting a buzz by remembering that Queen Elizabeth II is the head of the Church of England. But can they name the Archbishop of Canterbury?) The Pope is the leader of a sovereign nation, and the public hears the Pope as the voice of Christianity, to the extent anyone can do that. So I can express dismay at the selection of this pope the same way I expressed concern about the rise of the ultra-nationalist right in France. I don't care what happens to France in particular, but the French exert great influence on the world, and the Pope exerts a different sort of influence.

Governors delay executions or commute sentences in honor of a papal visit. What other leader of a sovereign state would be given that consideration? What other religious leader? The pope matters to everyone, like it or not.

I can't speak for anyone but myself, but I expect that a lot of the public interest in the new Pope's selection, and disappointment at the choice, is driven by the deep respect that people have for the Catholic Church. Anything which has a chain of command stretching back 2000 years is pretty impressive. The marvels of St. Peter's and the Vatican museums are a constant source of amazement to people of all faiths. And the Church has done so much, especially under John Paul II, to give voice to the poor, weak, and powerless. It's a great tradition, one Catholics should be proud of, and we worry – Catholics and non-Catholics alike – that Pope Benedict XVI will betray that tradition in favor of the unfortunate heritage of the Benedict XIV. The tug of war between social inclusion and social exclusion has tipped with his selection, and that's a shame.

Tryin' To Throw Your Arms Around The World” by U2 from the album Achtung Baby (3:52).