The Religious Consultation
on Population, Reproductive Health  and Ethics
 


 revisiting the world's sacred traditions


Associated Press, April 18, 2007

After 2 Years, Pope Turns Right

VATICAN CITY (AP) -- As he approaches the third year of his reign, Pope Benedict XVI is hardening into the kind of pontiff that liberals feared and conservatives hoped for.

Elected April 19, 2005, to succeed his dear friend John Paul II, the leader of the world's Roman Catholics slid smoothly into his job as pastor of an enormous flock. He reached out to dissidents, other faiths and countries long hostile to the church.

But recently, as his 80th birthday approached, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has drawn a tougher line.

He has rebuffed calls, including by bishops in his native Germany, to let divorced Catholics who remarry participate fully in the church.

He has warned Catholic politicians who must decide on such issues as abortion, euthanasia and marriage that the faith's values are ''not negotiable.'' And he has closed the door on any relaxation of the celibacy requirement for priests.

Benedict's persistent defense of the ''traditional family'' based on marriage between a man and a woman has emboldened Italy's bishops, who are waging a fierce battle against the government's proposal to extend some rights to unmarried couples, including same-sex unions.

And there was last September's trip to Germany, when the pope's references to Islam and holy war infuriated the Muslim world. Benedict has since stepped back a bit, while continuing to condemn violence in the name of religion and demanding freedom of religion, he has refrained from pointing a finger at Islam.

Indeed, Marco Politi, the Vatican correspondent for the Italian daily La Repubblica and a biographer of John Paul II, sees Benedict's tenure as mainly focused internally. The pope has been primarily interested in teaching Catholicism to Catholics.

''Ratzinger is a great cultural, spiritual and intellectual figure, but at the Vatican he's been a preacher. In history, a great professor is not always a great head of state,'' Politi said. ''There have been no internal reforms -- such as to give the faithful enough clergy -- or new initiatives on the international scene for dialogue among the great religions. There is a great deal of catechism and little politics.''

One of the pope's prime targets for a rekindling of the faith is Europe, which he recently described as ''going down a road which could lead it to take its leave from history.''

But Benedict has struggled to roll back the tide of secularism. He lost in predominantly Catholic Spain, which approved gay marriage, and now he has now turned his sights on his own backyard.

The debate has been particularly shrill in Italy, where the pope's words -- he is also bishop of Rome -- have immediate impact in the media. After Italians voted down a Vatican-backed attempt to overturn Italy's liberal abortion in 1981, John Paul II basically kept out of Italian politics.

Benedict seems willing to revisit social issues.

His choice as new head of the Italian bishops conference has taken a particularly hard line, and Italian police have given him special protection because of threats on his life.

The pope's stance is starting to have ripples elsewhere. The American bishops recently criticized pamphlets by a Marquette University theologian as incompatible with church teaching while a lesbian couple in Wyoming were told they couldn't receive Communion.

Appointments in key dioceses in the United States and elsewhere, where bishops are reaching retirement age, will be a test of the church Benedict is shaping.

Enrique Miret Magdalena, a respected moderate Spanish theologian who is himself 93, said Benedict, who turned 80 on Monday, is ''an old man, and the papacy weighs heavily upon him. He's afraid of change.''

As Benedict approached the anniversary date of his succession, the Vatican took the unusual step of setting down the fundamental principles of Benedict's papacy.

A speech given by its No. 2 official and longtime Benedict aide, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, to an audience of industrialists in Milan listed the fight against relativism and Benedict's vision of a Europe ''that must not only be an economic and political reality but must draw from its spiritual foundations.'' It cited the need for a ''Christian identity'' that contrasts with ''widespread secularism.''

Benedict's easy if somewhat shy manner with crowds, projecting the air of a university professor genuinely surprised at the multitudes flocking to his doorstep for his lectures, contrasted sharply with the image of a dour theologian in a Vatican office.

Among his early visitors was a leading dissident and former university colleague, the liberal theologian Hans Kueng, who fell from grace under John Paul.

Benedict also disciplined the founder of the conservative Legionaries of Christ, a John Paul protege who for decades has been dogged by sexual abuse allegations. Before becoming pope, Benedict had complained about the ''filth'' in the church, seen as a reference to priestly sex abuse.

Before his Germany trip in September, Benedict told a German TV interviewer that ''Christianity, Catholicism isn't a collection of prohibitions.'' But in March he issued a 131-page ''exhortation'' to ensure that bishops, priests and the world's 1.2 billion faithful strictly follow church teaching.

It included a nostalgic note about Latin, which has been in sharply declining use since the liberalizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s. He suggested that the faithful be taught to recite the more common prayers in Latin.

The pope is scheduled to visit Brazil next month to make a major policy address to Latin American bishops. The Vatican set the stage for the trip with its censure of a prominent champion of liberation theology in the region, the Rev. Jon Sobrino, condemning some of his works as ''erroneous or dangerous.''

It was Benedict's first such action as pope, but as the Vatican's chief guardian of doctrinal orthodoxy for more than two decades he disciplined a number of theologians.

In September, he will resume his European travels with a pilgrimage to Austria, where Catholics have been traditionally wary of directives from Rome.

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