Pope provocateurFATHER RAYMOND J. DE SOUZA
Since he arrived in Rome more than 25 years ago, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has repeatedly and deliberately been provocative, kicking up enormous media storms on sensitive subjects.
For the last three weeks, everyone from the papal spokesman to the tawdriest German tabloid has taken shots at the Vatican’s mishandling of reconciliation efforts with breakaway traditionalist Catholics in the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX). The Holocaust denial of Bishop Richard Williamson, one of the four bishops whose excommunication was lifted for reasons unrelated to his unsustainable historical views, made for an international uproar and understandable expressions of pain and anger from many Jewish groups.
No doubt Pope Benedict XVI has had some harsh words for his advisers, who let him down badly in the handling of this episode. Yet three weeks out, the Holy Father can take satisfaction in how this will be resolved. Today in Rome he will grant a special audience to American Jewish leaders, and address them about the Shoah. Meetings hastily cancelled by the chief rabbinate of Israel are back on, plans are proceeding for a papal visit to Israel in May, the German Chancellor who publicly rebuked Benedict has now acknowledged what everyone knows, that the Pope is a friend of the Jewish people and does not endorse Holocaust denial.
Even more extraordinary, the breakaway group to which Bishop Williamson belongs, the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX), has moved publicly and decisively to distance itself from anti-Semitism (a long-standing problem in far-right French culture). More remarkable still, the SSPX first silenced Williamson, and then relieved him of his duties as rector of their Argentine seminary.
The breach in Catholic-Jewish relations is quickly mending and more change has been wrought in the SSPX on matters related to Jews in the last three weeks than in the last three decades. The cunning plan of a master strategist? Not likely this time; mistakes are mistakes. But the Williamson imbroglio does point to a distinctive feature in the style of Benedict XVI.
Since he arrived in Rome more than 25 years ago, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has repeatedly and deliberately been provocative, kicking up enormous media storms on sensitive subjects. His calculated risk is that his interventions will not move the debate one way or the other within the given parameters, but change the parameters of debate altogether.
He is willing to play with fire in order to bring both heat and light; the obvious danger is that on occasion the fire scorches the Vatican itself.
We first saw this clearly in his 1985 interview book The Ratzinger Report. Commenting 20 years after Vatican II, Cardinal Ratzinger deliberately used the word "restoration" to speak about what was necessary to correct post-conciliar abuses. It sparked a fevered debate in the Church and earned criticism from other bishops, but his remarks framed the debate for the synod of bishops that year -- the synod which called forth Ratzinger's single most important work, the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
The Catechism itself is the perfect Ratzingerian provocation. After 20 years of fighting a rearguard action against heterodox catechetical materials, Pope John Paul II and Ratzinger shifted the debate entirely. They produced their own authoritative catechism, which 15 years on, has utterly changed Catholic catechetics the world over. The theological dissenters denounced and opposed the project at every turn, predicting it would never be finished. That one forgets those debates now is an indication of how thoroughly they were routed by Ratzinger's signal project.
Fifteen years later, during the Great Jubilee of 2000, Ratzinger published Dominus Iesus, and used the words "gravely deficient" and "defects" to describe the situation of those outside of full communion with the Catholic Church. That firestorm required Pope John Paul II himself to publicly defend the document; this time there was public criticism even from senior Vatican officials. Yet again, Ratzinger's intervention reshaped the debate, making it absolutely clear that genuine ecumenism cannot mean relativism or indifferentism.
In 2005, just weeks before John Paul's death, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote the meditations for the papal Via Crucis at the Colosseum. Writing of the Church, he wrote of the "filth" in the priesthood, and that the ship of faith was "taking on water from all sides." It too made international headlines and remains today the most memorable and dramatic condemnation of priestly sexual abuse. Last year on his American visit, Benedict spoke repeatedly about sex abuse and met personally with victims, again changing the tone and substance of that crisis.
At the funeral Mass of John Paul, it was Ratzinger who moved the world to tears with the evocative image of the Holy Father standing at the window of the house of the Father. A few days later, on the threshold of the conclave, Ratzinger used the phrase "dictatorship of relativism," which instantly made the front pages of every newspaper in the world, and framed the challenge facing the Church in electing a new pope.
Then there was Regensburg, where, in 2006, the Holy Father raised in an indirect but unmistakable fashion the question of the status of violence within Islam. The rioting and anti-Christian violence which followed sent Benedict and the Vatican into the fence-mending operations we have seen again these last weeks. Yet Regensburg was a historic turning point -- for the first time Catholics and Muslims met last year at the Vatican for theological dialogue. A frank challenge was met with a breakthrough response. Another debate he entered in order to change it.
Father Raymond J. de Souza, "Pope provocateur." National Post, (Canada) February 12, 2009.
Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.
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