A Man’s Best Friend
Canine metaphors seem to abound in reference to the new pope, Benedict. A local bishop referred to the newly elected pope as “our German Shepherd.” Benedict XVI has also been called a Rotweillor and a Doberman pinscher. To his credit, the bishop was trying to emphasize the pastoral qualities of the new pope. Others, with a more critical bent, have sought to portray the new pontiff as an attack dog with Nazi tendencies.
Before any appraisal of Pope Benedict, it is important to answer the question, “What is a pope?” Roman Catholics understand the office of the papacy to be that of the “guardian of sacred tradition.” The pope is to be the protector of the “sacred deposit of faith” first and foremost. Like a good guard dog, the pope is to be alert to any threat to the teachings and traditions of the Catholic Church. When a threat emerges, the pope can respond in any number of ways. A theologian who wanders from orthodoxy may be marginalized or censored. Government enacted laws or policies may be criticized with the intention of having them overturned or defied. Often the pope will move from defense to offense by explicating the Catholic Church’s position on certain topics such as abortion and birth control. Only rarely does the pope promulgate a new doctrine or teaching; his first responsibility is to conserve.
When the subject of women’s ordination came to the attention of Pope John Paul II, he responded by saying, “We have no power to change this practice.” Pope Benedict has said as much when he affirmed that marriage is between a man and a woman and cohabitation is sinful. The pope wasn’t just sharing his opinion; he was reflecting the teaching of the Catholic Church from time immemorial. Pope Benedict was doing what a pope is supposed to do. Popes may be liberal or conservative on a political spectrum. Pope John Paul was not enamored of capitalism and certainly not of communism. Terms like liberal or conservative are not germane to describing a pope’s political ideology. He may take a liberal position in one area and a conservative position in another area. Catholic orthodoxy cannot be measured by political stances. Theology is the pope’s turf. And on this turf the pope is a conservationist by definition. The differences among popes are based on style and emphasis and not on some theological continuum of liberal to conservative.
Now to our “German Shepherd.” Previous to being pope, Cardinal Ratizinger looked after the doctrines of the Catholic Church. It was his job to keep the troops in line or squared with the teachings of the Church. Because he publicly censored certain “liberal” theologians, he was roundly criticized by their fellow travelers. Hans Kung and friends were marginalized. While some rued this state of affairs, others danced in the street. I was one of the dancers in the street. I did not enter the Catholic Church to be among “open minded” people, people who were more concerned with questions than with answers. As G. K. Chesterton said, “A person opens his mouth for the purpose that he will close it again.” The Catholic Church has appropriately closed its mouth on certain theological and moral matters, believing that to open it wide lets in too much polluted air and tainted food. Faith and morals are not up for grabs in the Catholic Church. Questions about sexuality and the sanctity of human life are not propositions to be submitted to church assemblies for consideration and vote. The Catholic Church is democratic only in the sense that it gives votes to the Apostles and the Church Fathers and these are the votes that count the most. As Chesterton said, “Tradition means democracy for the dead.”
Vatican watchers expect Pope Benedict to be a strong administrator. Pope John Paul II did not excel as an administrator. Pope Benedict will fight tooth and claw to diminish the influence of “relativism.” Pope Benedict is willing to see the Catholic Church shrink in size rather than accommodate the latest fads that keep the membership roles fat. Pope Benedict will emphasize the “sanctity of human life.” He will not tolerate any agenda that weakens the human family and the sanctity of marriage. Pope Benedict will spend a great deal of energy seeking rapprochement with the Orthodox Church. He will reach out to evangelicals, but he will not spend much effort here. He will all but ignore Mainline denominations.
Some have described Pope Benedict XVI as a “neoconservative.” A noted magazine publisher goes a step farther and called him a “radical conservative.” Whatever the label, there are those who see this new pope as a gift of God to help bring the church out of the “age of relativism” and into the pure air of Catholic orthodoxy. I certainly pray that this will be his legacy.
This past summer close to one million Catholic youth from all over the world gathered on “World Youth Day” to witness Pope Benedict say Mass and urge them on to works of charity and attitudes of benevolence. Although not the charismatic presence exemplified by his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict found his way into the minds and hearts of his youthful flock.
A major issue for the new pope is what to do about the admission of homo sexually oriented candidates for the priesthood. Some are urging that those of a homosexual orientation not be admitted into seminaries. Others say that a candidate for the priesthood who has been celibate for three years should be admitted. The scandals of priestly sexual abuse of men and women has put this issue front and center for the new pope. Pope Benedict’s response will have far reaching implications for the future of the Catholic Church and the remainder of his papacy.