What the Pope Achieved in His First Year
We have watched Joseph Ratzinger for years. Since the papal election April 2005, when he took the title of Benedict xvi, our watching of this intriguing individual has become even more focused.
One year on, Ratzinger is beginning to show his true colors.
Careful to take full advantage of the legacy of his predecessor, John Paul ii, Ratzinger played on the popularity of the Polish pope at every opportunity throughout his first year in office, working subtly to enhance the world view that John Paul ii should be fast-tracked to sainthood within the Roman Catholic Church. From his hands-on, very direct involvement in the arrangements for, and the conduct of, John Paul ii’s funeral, to the commemoration last April of the anniversary of that pope’s death, Ratzinger has crafted a seamless and diplomatic transition from the populist papacy of Karol Wojtyla to the uniqueness of his own papacy.
What kept people guessing was trying to figure out just what would be the style and the agenda of this new German pope. We are now starting to detect both the specific agenda and the approach that Ratzinger, Pope Benedict xvi, will adopt.
The agenda is shaping up as a carefully, and, at present, diplomatically geared, crusade on four fronts.
The crusade itself, detected from readings of both actual statements spoken and written by this pope, as well as reading between the lines, is ultimately for the hearts and minds of mankind! The four fronts may be described as Vatican-stimulated “culture wars.”
The first front is the cultural war within the Catholic Church. Launched by Ratzinger during his term in office as the prefect for the Doctrine of the Faith under John Paul ii, this Vatican crusade was designed to eliminate liberalism from the priesthood. That campaign is well advanced. It started with John Paul ii’s first overseas visit, which included Mexico. That visit signaled the beginning of a confrontation between the Vatican and the liberal clerics which has deeply affected the church culture in Latin America since the 1960s.
This campaign will probably end in the United States, the last bastion of Catholic liberalism, the reputation of the Catholic Church in America having been largely destroyed through the lurid revelations of mass pedophilia that became rampant from the 1960s clear on to recent days.
The second cultural war is centered in Europe. It began on Nov. 9, 1982, with John Paul’s message for Europeans delivered at that great place of Catholic pilgrimage, the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain. There he cried out to the peoples of Europe to return to their roots! This began the Vatican’s cultural war against secularism and moral relativism in Europe, a movement which had bled the church of many of its adherents, corrupted its priesthood and watered down its traditions.
This particular cultural war is well advanced to the point that the secular moral relativists are having to speak louder, in strained voices, to be heard over the increasing dominance of the voice of Rome calling for a return to the old traditions. At a private audience on March 30 with members of the European Popular Party, Benedict said that “from the perspective of the Catholic Church, certain fundamental principles of European civilization are not negotiable” and that these principles apply “to all people, irrespective of any religious affiliation they may have.” The pope then declared that the European Union must “defend its Christian [Catholic] heritage” (www.cwn.com,March 30).
This crusade to unite Europe under the banner of Rome crosses the threshold into previously jealously guarded Russian territory. “Catholic and Russian Orthodox leaders met in Vienna [in early May] for an unprecedented joint conference on preserving the Christian heritage of modern Europe. Cardinal Paul Poupard, the president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, headed the Catholic delegation, and read a message of encouragement from Pope Benedict xvi in which the pontiff urged the participants to unite in ‘courageous and renewed evangelical action in the Europe of the third millennium’” (ibid., May 4).
The third front on which the pope’s cultural wars are being fought is against that which he once labeled as “aberrant religious dogma.” This is the cultural war that the church is now stepping up against the spread of Islamic extremism.
It morphs on over into the current debate on immigration. Europe’s great postwar wave of immigration has denigrated European culture as the Continent has struggled to keep the wheels of industry turning with a labor force increasingly depleted of European ethnics. This, in turn, impacts the cultural war against secularism. The combination of moral relativism and the teaching of post-enlightenment secular thought has resulted in the current gender confusion in Europe, increasingly working to wreck the very foundation of society, the traditional family structure.
This has led Europe into a downward spiral in the replacement of its aging ethnic population, as the Continent’s birthrate has plummeted since World War ii. The revival of traditional Roman Catholic teaching against birth control is an effort to counter this trend.
The fourth front is against godless societies that seek to work against the church’s interests of crusading for the universal conversion of mankind to Catholicism.
The present case in point is China. With rebellion against the government fomenting in the teeming provinces of mainland China, Chinese leadership has moved to assert its authority over the operations of the Catholic Church in that nation. It recently took things into its own, irreligious communist hands and ordained a number of bishops.
Benedict was scathing in his reaction. The Vatican immediately released a statement that labeled the ordination “a ‘grave violation of religious freedom.’ And it warned that the bishops ordained without the approval of the Holy See, and those who ordained them, are subject to excommunication. The strong statement released on May 4 by Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls expressed the ‘profound displeasure’ of Pope Benedict xvi …” (ibid.). Ultimately, both the two new bishops and those who ordained them were excommunicated.
Thus we witness the developing agenda of Pope Benedict xvi. What of his style? Previously labeled “die Panzer Kardinal” for his rigidly tough approach against liberalism in his previous office, observers are noticing a metamorphosis of character taking place within this pope.
The dissident theologian Hans Küng, former colleague of Ratzinger, interviewed by the Italian daily La Stampa, reflected on the first year of Benedict’s pontificate: “Since his election last April 19, he remarked, the pontiff has proven to be a leader who ‘takes his time and prefers to make small changes that lead to bigger ones.’ But he said that Pope Benedict will continue to surprise observers, with ‘the surprises of a conservative’” (ibid., April 13).
That description seems to fit Benedict’s performance during his first year. He has been careful to ride on the coattails of his predecessor and steadily nibble away behind the scenes with small changes, laying the groundwork for the bigger ones to come!
“As the first year of his pontificate drew toward an end, Pope Benedict seemed to be moving out of the shadow of his illustrious predecessor. The French daily La Croix remarked that the observances of April 2, marking the anniversary of John Paul’s death, seemed to signal ‘the end of the era’ of the Polish pontiff. As he celebrated Mass that day, Pope Benedict urged the faithful to look to the future” (ibid., April 19).
Catholic World News further reported that “Pope Benedict has won over many observers with his reserved, almost shy demeanor, the soft voice and gentle smile that have belied his previous reputation as a doctrinal hard-liner. … [H]e has drawn huge crowds to his audiences, and the chant of ‘Benedetto’ has become as commonplace among Roman crowds as the earlier cries of ‘John Paul ii, we love you!’” (ibid.).
That is a key observation! It is a description that indicates a complex character, one not much unlike that described by God’s Word as looking “like a lamb” but who “speaks like a dragon”! We would do well to watch this crusading pope as the small changes he has made in his first year in office evolve into the big changes that will impact the heart and soul of Europe and, indeed, result in consequences that will literally shake the nations to their very foundations!