The Word From Rome
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June 3, 2005
Vol. 4, No. 34

John L. Allen Jr.


Benedict the teacher;The five 'big ideas' of the Ratzinger pontificate; Benedict the governor; Benedict the collegial pope; Benedict the sanctifier


As this column is published, the pontificate of Benedict XVI will be 45 days old, meaning more or less halfway towards the magical "100 day mark" at which new regimes are usually assessed.

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In truth, 100 days isn't much time to assess a parish council presidency, let alone a papacy. Given the Holy See's tendency to think in centuries, to ponder every option carefully before taking even the tiniest of steps, it's unrealistic to think that the pope would have launched momentous new initiatives within this span of time. Since Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was one of the intellectual architects of the papacy of John Paul II, the dominant storyline is likely to be continuity rather than change.

Still, having been elected at 78, Benedict is conscious that his time may be limited. He is a pope of no small ambition, who aims to challenge four centuries of intellectual development in the West towards subjectivity and relativism. While he will be patient and prudent, he also intends to get things done.

It's a legitimate exercise, therefore, to examine his track record over this brief period for clues about where his papacy might be heading.

The three-fold function of the bishop of Rome, as with any bishop in the Catholic church, is to teach, govern and sanctify. I'll organize this analysis in terms of these three responsibilities.

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In a sense, the pope teaches every time he opens his mouth or puts pen to paper, though not every utterance enjoys the same level of authority. Even when a particular text or set of remarks is not terribly majestic, however, it can be revealing.

By my count, Benedict XVI has now spoken or published roughly 43,500 words, which amounts to almost 1,000 words day. That teaching has come in the form of one urbi et orbi blessing, 16 addresses delivered during encounters with different groups, six homilies, six catechetical addresses from his Wednesday general audiences, five Regina Coeli/Angelus messages, three addresses to bishops during their ad limina visits, three written messages to different groups, one welcome to a new ambassador to the Holy See and two addresses for other visiting dignitaries, and one motu proprio (meaning a document enacting a change in church law on the pope's authority). Most of the teaching has been in Italian, although a couple of the messages for audiences were in German, or in some cases, were multi-lingual, while a few texts were in French.

Benedict's magisterium is thus already almost enough to fill a small book. Reading carefully through this material, a couple of things stand out by way of initial impressions.

First, despite Benedict's reputation as the "great corrector," the Vatican's top heresy hunter during almost 24 years at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, there are only two instances to date where he has explicitly denounced something as a doctrinal error:

  • In his May 7 homily on the occasion of taking possession of the Cathedral of St. John Lateran, Pope Benedict rejected the thesis advanced by some theologians that there is a "pneumatic revelation" of the Holy Spirit alongside that of Christ, a concept usually invoked to argue that the sacred literature of other religions can also be considered "revelation."

    "The Holy Spirit does not provide anything different or anything beyond Christ," the pope said.

  • In an address to Roman clergy on May 13, Benedict rejected the view that non-Christians ought to be "left in peace," that is, not made the object of Christian evangelization, out of respect for the authenticity of their beliefs.

    "But how can this be realized if the true authenticity of every person is found in communion with Christ and not without him?" the pope asked. "Isn't it our duty to offer them this essential reality?"

The pope has been more critical in describing negative trends in the broader culture. Yet so far, the overwhelming tone of his teaching has been positive, rather than the condemnation of error. Benedict XVI may prove to be less censorious than many had expected.

Second, it's interesting to note that despite Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's frequent criticism of what he described as hasty or excessive reforms following the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), Vatican II is by far the most-cited source in Pope Benedict's teaching other than his immediate predecessor, John Paul II. So far, the pope has explicitly cited Vatican II fifteen times. That seems a signal that Benedict, who was a peritus, or theological expert, at Vatican II, intends to align himself with the council, at least as he understands and interprets it.

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Every pope is responsible for defending and proclaiming the entire deposit of church teaching, but within that vast body of material, every pope also has particular passions that he tends to emphasize.

To date, five "big ideas" of the Ratzinger pontificate seem to be emerging:

1) Truth and freedom: Truth, and the laws which arise from truth, are not a suppression of human freedom, the pope believes, but the necessary condition for its realization. The laws given by God on Mount Sinai, Benedict argued in a homily on May 15 during a Mass in which he ordained new priests, "were not a restriction or an abolition of liberty, but the foundation of true liberty."

"Christ does not take anything away from the human person, but gives him fullness of life, of joy, and of hope," the pope said in an audience for the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, the Vatican's elite school for diplomats, on May 20.

His most lengthy treatment of the theme came in his April 24 installation Mass.

"If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us?" the pope asked. "Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom?"

Invoking John Paul II, Pope Benedict answered: "No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation."

This concern with truth and freedom betokens what is likely to emerge as the intellectual heart of Benedict's papacy. On April 18, the opening morning of the conclave, then-Cardinal Ratzinger identified the "dictatorship of relativism" in the West as a grave threat. In effect, Benedict intends to challenge that dictatorship on its own turf. Relativists often assert that their position best safeguards human liberty, by protecting people from having the truths of others imposed upon them. In fact, the pope argues, true "liberty" is not the freedom to do anything one wants, but the freedom to become the creature God wants one to be, and in so doing to find fulfillment.

2) Church and culture: Benedict believes that while church and state must remain distinct, the church is nevertheless a custodian and advocate for a "true humanism," meaning a social order based on the truth about human nature and destiny. This conviction means that Benedict XVI will lead a politically engaged papacy, as witnessed by his May 31 statement in favor of a position taken by the Italian bishops on a June 12-13 Italian referendum on assisted procreation.

In that address, the pope warned the bishops against "that form of culture based on a purely functional rationality that contradicts and tends to exclude Christianity, and in general the religious and moral traditions of humanity," an attitude that he said "constitutes a grotesque mutilation of humanity and its reason."

In a May 23 message to the bishops of Spain, on the occasion of their pilgrimage to a famed Marian shrine in Zaragoza, Benedict likewise urged them to take part in public debates in order to promote the common good.

"The transmission of the faith and the religious practice of believers cannot be restricted to a purely private sphere," he said.

Spain offers an especially interesting test-case, since the leftist government there is pursuing a range of social policies opposed by the church, including a liberalized gay marriage law. For that reason, Spain will be on the front line of Benedict's efforts to reawaken what he has called the "irrevocable" Christian roots of Europe.

3) Eucharist: In his address to the cardinals on the morning after the conclave ended, Benedict XVI noted that he had been elected during what John Paul II had designated as the "Year of the Eucharist," leading up to a synod on the Eucharist in October.

"How can one not see in this providential coincidence an element that must characterize the ministry to which I've been called?" he asked. The pope called the celebration of the Eucharist "the heart of Christian life and the source of the evangelizing mission of the church."

One can expect a wide range of eucharistic allusions and references from this pope. To date, Pope Benedict has invoked the word "Eucharist" in one context or another 53 times, making it the most common proper noun other than "church" in his writings and speeches. The pope will strive to revitalize the celebration of the Sunday Mass, will emphasize eucharistic adoration outside the Mass, and will use the Eucharist as a "hermeneutic key" for reading issues in the church.

For Benedict XVI, the Eucharist is preeminently Christ's gift of himself to the church, and hence sustains its members in pursuing lives of holiness. Beyond that, the Eucharist is a sacrament of unity, calling Catholics to unity among themselves, with other Christians, and with the entire human family.

"We cannot communicate with the Lord, if we don't communicate with one another," the pope said at Bari on May 29, during his Mass for the conclusion of an Italian Eucharistic Congress.

4) Christian Unity: To the surprise of some observers accustomed to thinking of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as a skeptic about the ecumenical movement, on the grounds that it might weaken Catholic identity, Pope Benedict XVI has so far been a remarkably ecumenical pope.

In his April 20 remarks to cardinals, he vowed to assume "as a primary responsibility working without sparing any energy for the reconstruction of the full and visible unity of all the followers of Christ." Pope Benedict has invoked that aim of "full and visible unity" eight times in just over a month of speaking and writing.

In a meeting with ecumenical representatives on April 25, the day after his installation Mass, Benedict pledged the Catholic church to "irreversible engagement" in the quest for unity. It was not just his words, observers said, that made a difference on this occasion. Sources say that when other Christian leaders approached the pope to kiss his ring, he gently had them shake hands instead, a symbol of humility and fraternity.

"I'm aware that for [unity], the manifestation of good sentiments is not enough," the pope said on April 20, and repeated in Bari on May 29. "Concrete gestures are needed that can enter into souls and stir consciences, soliciting everyone to that interior conversion that is the presupposition of all progress on the path of ecumenism."

Most observers believe that Benedict's top ecumenical priority will be the Orthodox, as opposed to the Christian denominations of the West. The split between East and West is in a sense the primordial Christian schism, and the Catholic church already recognizes the validity of Orthodox sacraments and ministries. Further, the strong doctrinal conservatism of the Orthodox churches is of a piece with the pope's own outlook. In that sense, ecumenists expect a "preferential option" for the East.

5) Ministry as Service Rather than Power: Pope Benedict has long been skeptical of the bureaucratic dimension of church life, and is stressing that power in the church must not be an end in itself.

In the first place, the pope has said, this applies to his own role.

"The power conferred by Christ to Peter and his successors is, in an absolute sense, a mandate for service," Benedict said in his May 7 homily at St. John Lateran. "The power to teach, in the church, implies a commitment to service in obedience to the faith. The pope is not an absolute sovereign, whose thoughts and desires are the law."

More broadly, he's argued, it applies to any leadership position. In his May 20 address to the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, the Vatican's elite school for diplomats, he cautioned its graduates to "never allow yourselves to be tempted by the logic of careerism or power."

The pope has also warned that if the Spirit no longer animates an institution in the church, it can get in the way of the gospel.

"Without the Holy Spirit, the church would be reduced to a merely human organization, weighed down by its own structures," he said in his May 15 Regina Coeli address, on Pentecost. He prayed that the church would remain always "open and docile" to the guidance of the Spirit in order to be a "credible" sign to the world.

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What about Benedict the governor?

Here we have less to go on, because the new pope has so far made few big moves. Perhaps the most important story of Pope Benedict's first 45 days is what has not happened. Given Ratzinger's oft-invoked image of Catholicism as a "creative minority" reduced in size but fortified by stronger fidelity, many expected a "night of the long knives," a purge of dissident voices and a reassertion of order and discipline.

To date, that has not materialized. The lone disciplinary move was the resignation of Fr. Thomas Reese at America magazine under Vatican pressure, something in the works for more than five years.

This does not mean Benedict's papacy will be "soft" on dissent; on the contrary, the pope is concerned with Catholic identity, and will insist that agents of the church uphold its teaching. At the same time, the assertion of discipline may not be quite the defining feature of his papacy that some had expected.

Neither does the May 13 appointment of Archbishop William J. Levada of San Francisco as Ratzinger's successor at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith seem to augur a clampdown. Levada is, by reputation, a man of forbearance who will seek creative ways to diffuse conflict when possible, though without compromise on matters of principle.

Beyond Levada, Pope Benedict has kept the rest of his Vatican team intact. On April 21, he reconfirmed Cardinal Angelo Sodano as the Secretary of State, and confirmed other officials in the various departments donec aliter provideatur, roughly meaning "for the time being."

The "other shoe" that most people are expecting to drop on the governance front is a change in the culture of the Roman curia.

Although Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was a staunch defender of papal primacy, like many conservatives he also has an innate distrust of bureaucracies, fearing that they become self-aggrandizing and self-perpetuating.

One cardinal said to me immediately after the conclave that Pope Benedict will appoint "more experts and fewer bureaucrats," meaning that he will want to name leaders of substance, people with the proper expertise and an outlook rooted in the gospel rather than institutional logic. Pope Benedict is also likely to ask hard questions about whether all the structures and institutions of the curia are truly necessary, a question that he will encourage church leaders at other levels of authority to ask about their own bureaucracies.

What these initial days suggest, however, is that any such moves will be slow and deliberate.

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Early on, Benedict XVI vowed to be a collegial pope.

"My real program of governance is not to do my own will, not to pursue my own ideas, but to listen, together with the whole church, to the word and the will of the Lord," Benedict said in his April 24 installation Mass.

In April 20 remarks to the cardinals in the Sistine Chapel, he asked for their "constant, active and wise collaboration," and said he wanted the bishops of the world to aid him with both "prayer and advice."

What does the scorecard suggest so far?

First, Pope Benedict announced May 13 that he was waiving the normal five-year waiting period before a cause for beatification can be opened for John Paul II. At one level, this was an easy move for him to make, since Benedict has already said publicly that he believes John Paul is "in his father's house," tantamount to calling him a saint.

Yet Benedict is a man of the law, who believes that waiting periods are there for a reason -- to ensure that the church thinks carefully, to protect itself against being rushed prematurely into a decision by the passions of the moment.

So, why do it?

One primary reason is that a substantial number of cardinals signed a petition during the interregnum asking the next pope to do just that. Had Benedict not acted, it might have been perceived as a "snub" of the very collaboration and advice he requested. Instead, he followed the clear desire of many cardinals.

Second, Benedict issued a motu proprio on May 31 on the juridical status of the Basilica of St. Paul's Outside the Walls, assigning it an archpriest like the other major basilicas in Rome and clarifying who has jurisdiction over its various properties.

Among other things, the motu proprio confirmed the presence of the Benedictines at St. Paul's. This is significant, because a year ago Ratzinger told a group of Argentinian bishops that he wanted to assign St. Paul's to the Institute of the Incarnate Word, a religious order founded in Argentina in 1984 that has grown rapidly in the last two decades, now numbering some 200 priests. It has a profile similar to the Legionaries of Christ -- young, dynamic, and very faithful to the papacy. The Benedictine community at the basilica, Ratzinger felt, had become enervated.

Over the last year, however, the Benedictines made changes, transforming the community at St. Paul's from a predominantly Italian house to an international one, and expanding it from 12 to 25 monks. The new abbot, an Englishman named Fr. Edmund Power, was elected on April 9. The community has a strong ecumenical commitment, in keeping with the tradition of St. Paul's.

Those moves reassured the Secretariat of State and other Vatican offices, so that last October a motu proprio was ready to go confirming the Benedictine presence. It was held up, however, first by other business, and then by John Paul's health. Pope Benedict could have set it aside, but since an arrangement with which others seemed satisfied had been worked out, he issued the document, despite his own previous position. This too has been greeted by observers as a collegial act.

Finally, there is the matter of papal "style."

While John Paul II was an actor who loved being the center of attention, Benedict's personality is quieter, less theatrical. He's a humble man, whose papacy seems likely to be less "personal," less shaped by his own vision and instincts. In that sense, church leaders who sometimes felt a bit eclipsed by John Paul's charisma may find this pope to have a more collaborative, collective approach. Further, the mere fact of being 78, coupled with his own caution and patience, means that Benedict XVI will not be the human dynamo that John Paul II was, especially in his early years. This will allow more space for initiative and leadership at other levels, which could help restore some of the balance between the papacy and the episcopacy that critics felt was sometimes missing in the John Paul years.

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What about Benedict the sanctifier?

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger over the years expressed strong views on liturgical matters, at one stage calling for a "reform of the reform," recapturing some traditional practices that had been abandoned or modified after Vatican II. Observers have thus been anxious to see how Benedict XVI would approach the liturgy as pope.

We've seen the pope lead several important rites, beginning with his installation Mass on April 24, through Corpus Christ on May 26 and the eucharistic congress in Bari on May 29. This week I called some Roman liturgists to get an early review, and most seemed enthusiastic.

First, several mentioned the quality of the pope's preaching. It's clear that a lifetime of theological reflection has not been wasted; his homilies have been generally well crafted and thoughtful.

Jesuit Fr. Keith Pecklers, who teaches at the Gregorian University, noted that the pope's homilies reflect sound liturgical theology, in that they are rooted in scripture, the fathers of the church, and the particular liturgical feast being celebrated.

Blessed Sacrament Fr. Anthony McSweeny agreed, pointing out that on the Feast of Corpus Christi, for example, Pope Benedict focused not just on the static presence of Christ in the Eucharist, what Catholics call his "real presence," but also the way the Eucharist impels us to dynamic engagement with the broader world.

McSweeney said that approach "corresponds to the original vision of what Corpus Christi is supposed to be about. For Blessed Juliana of Cornillon and Pope Urban IV, who instituted the feast in the 13th century, it was not just the real presence that was important, but the affects in us it produces."

Second, observers stressed the humility and reverence of Benedict's style as a celebrant. When he says Mass, they said, it's clear that he wants the focus to be on the rite, not on himself.

"He doesn't call any more attention to himself than absolutely necessary," one said.

As an example, Italian journalist Sandro Magister reported that Benedict initially intended to celebrate his inaugural Mass inside St. Peter's Basilica, rather than in the square. "There the architecture better directs the attention toward Christ, instead of the pope," Magister quoted Benedict as saying. He relented only because of the large number of people who wished to attend.

Third, observers noted that there's little evidence that Pope Benedict intends to impose his personal tastes on the liturgy in unyielding fashion. During the Corpus Christi Mass, for example, he prayed the second eucharistic prayer, the shortest of the four options, rather than the first prayer, the roman canon, which some traditionalists regard as the only "fully legitimate" choice.

Benedict's instincts, to be sure, have come through in certain small flourishes. Most of the music at his liturgies has been traditional; the use of Gregorian chant and classic polyphony, all in Latin, at his inaugural Mass is one example.

Yet he has not demanded an exclusive use of Latin in the Mass. In Bari, for example, some of the Mass texts were read in Italian.

Fourth, in his homily at the eucharistic congress in Bari, which gave him an opportunity to address the celebration of the Sunday Mass, Pope Benedict did not "go negative." That is to say, he did not condemn liturgical abuses, in the style of the April 2004 Vatican document, Redemptionis sacramentum. The pope's silence about abuses does not mean he's unconcerned, but it does suggest that curbing malpractice will not be his top priority. He seems to want to call Catholics to contemplate the deep meaning of the rites.

"I thought his silence on the disciplinary matters was telling," McSweeney observed. "His focus was positive, rooted in good theology."

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Readers in the New York area may be interested to know that I'll be speaking at St. Paul the Apostle Church at Columbus Avenue and 60th Street on Tuesday, June 7, at 7 p.m. I'll also be signing copies of my new book, The Rise of Benedict XVI: The Inside Story of How the Pope was Elected and Where He Will Take the Catholic Church. You can order the book at

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is

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