New papacy about more than church’s traditional’ versus ‘progressive’ ideas

Perhaps the safest prediction about Pope Benedict XVI, nee Joseph Ratzinger, is that he will surprise most of us, especially those who are now most certain about the nature and impact of his papacy. We look forward to his reign with a certain amount of anticipation.

From the perspective of modern political theory, the Roman Catholic Church is a private institution based on voluntary participation and assent. As the largest and most influential Christian denomination in the world, however, it has an impact beyond the church walls.

Those outside the church therefore have a legitimate interest in how its doctrines and practices are likely to influence the rest of the world. But the promulgation and carrying into action of those doctrines is the province of those who are members and leaders of the church. We are therefore disinclined to offer advice as to whether the church should become more “traditional” or “progressive” in the way it interacts with the secular world, and would offer a further caveat against those who would interpret the coming papacy in those terms.

As head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for many years, Cardinal Ratzinger was widely viewed as a staunch traditionalist and an enforcer of doctrinal orthodoxy.

Yet reading some of his statements reveals not only a subtle intellect but a focus on concerns well beyond a superficial or too political understanding of such terms.

Pope John Paul II also was regarded as a theological conservative, but he presided over an opening to Jews, an apology to Galileo and an outreach to millions outside the traditional church. Although few expect John Paul’s personal charisma from Benedict XVI, we could be surprised.

We would not be surprised to see Benedict XVI, as the first German-born pope since Victor II in 1055, pay special attention to the condition of the faith in an increasingly secular Europe, formerly the cradle of the faith and now something rather different. In that context and in other contexts it is also likely that he will have to consider how
Christians interact with Muslims in this young century.

The scandal of priestly sexual abuse of young boys and girls, and an institutional instinct to cover it up rather than correct it, will also surely demand attention. It is difficult to see how the church can maintain much moral authority while such acts, which seem counter to all the most important teaching of Jesus, are not addressed firmly and compassionately, with concern focused on the suffering of the victims.

Benedict XVI, in his first public statement as pope, chose to view himself as “a simple, humble worker in the Lord’s vineyard” who is “comforted by the fact that the Lord knows how to work and act even with insufficient instruments.” Maintaining that humility — which will not be easy in this era of media omnipresence and a culture of celebrity — will be his key to success.