Damian Thompson has written a profile of the Pope for an Abu Dhabi newspaper.
Unfortunately, I can't be overly enthusiastic about it because, like John Allen, Thompson appears to have a tendency to pander to readers of every persuasion by citing and sharing quite a few opinions that simply perpetrate the wrong impressions about the Pope.
Here is the article:
Benedict XVI will pay his first visit as Pope to the Holy Land on Friday. His itinerary will bring him into proximity to the sacred shrines of three religions in Jordan, Israel and Palestine.
Those famous red shoes – not Prada, as legend has it – will be tiptoeing
through a religious minefield.
[Benedict XVI, thank God, never tiptoes, literally or figuratively. He will stride forward as briskly as he always does, surrounded by his guardian-angel 'minesweepers' who will clear the way of the real 'mines', but not, alas, of any new mines that the media and other self-interest factions will be strewing willy-nilly!]
This is a gruelling challenge for an 82-year-old theologian who, until 2005, was convinced that he was going to spend his retirement browsing happily in libraries and listening to his beloved Mozart.
And matters are not made easier by the fact that this Pope has upset both Muslim and Jewish communities in the past three years, by accident rather than design.
The world was surprised when the name of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who had been John Paul II’s doctrinal watchdog for many years, was proclaimed from the balcony of St Peter’s four years ago.
Many Catholics were dismayed. One of them was Ratzinger himself, who had assumed that, at 78, he was safely out of the running. When conservative cardinals put him forward as a candidate he tried to dissuade them. He was too old for the job, he felt – and perhaps too controversial.
On the morning after the election, The Daily Telegraph
in London announced that the leadership of the world’s billion Catholics had gone to “God’s Rottweiler”. That was indeed Ratzinger’s nickname, acquired when he disciplined renegade theologians and approved documents reiterating the Catholic Church’s strict line on homosexuality.
Some liberal Catholics were beside themselves with rage and disappointment when they heard of Ratzinger’s election – one Vatican commentator, Robert Mickens, burst into tears on the spot.
They envisaged the Church being taken over by a hard-faced, ultra-conservative Bavarian, stroking a white cat like a Bond villain as he fed Catholic lefties and gays to the Vatican piranhas.
They soon changed their minds. These days, no one thinks that Benedict XVI is by nature a cruel enforcer. Now that his job no longer involves snapping at liberal heels, he has changed breed
[DIM88pt[=DIM][In the eyes of some observers, perhaps. He never has 'changed breed' - he is still the same Joseph Ratzinger who, in his 1977 memoir, called himself 'God's donkey...carrying my load to Rome".]
As they say in Rome, the Rottweiler has revealed himself
to be a German shepherd. ['Revealed himself"? Everyone who knew him and met him knew this for decades!]
This does not mean, however, that Pope Benedict’s liberal opponents inside the Church have been won over to his policies. They realise that many of his instincts are profoundly, even radically, conservative.
They strongly disapprove of his attempts to revive the traditional Latin Mass (effectively outlawed in 1970 after the Second Vatican Council) and they scan the media eagerly, anxious to exploit any papal misjudgements. They have been having a field day in the last few months.
Until this year Pope Benedict was judged by world opinion to have made only one gaffe. In September 2006, addressing the University of Regensburg in Germany, he quoted a medieval Byzantine emperor’s damning opinion of Islam.
He was not endorsing the opinion; the quotation formed part of a complex argument about faith and reason, but the clumsy translation of the Pope’s German text into English made matters worse.
Benedict’s speech was carefully nuanced and certainly not crudely anti-Islamic. Nevertheless, the Pontiff and his advisers had failed to anticipate the predictable outrage of many Muslim commentators.
Suspicions that this exceptionally clever
Pope ['clever' is somehow quite inappropriate when applied to someone like Benedict XVI, since it connotes calculation and even scheming, whereas he is genuinely wise and astute!]
lacked media skills were confirmed this year when, in a move designed to heal a tortuous dispute with the rebel traditional Catholics of the Society of St Pius X, he lifted the excommunications on four bishops, one of whom, an Englishman named Richard Williamson, was a Holocaust denier.
This was a crisis of the Vatican’s making: evidence of Williamson’s extreme views could be found all over the Internet [Thompson is perpetrating this terrible untruth - it was not, before January 21, 2009
, yet apparently no one had warned Benedict that he was about to make a gesture that would outrage the worldwide Jewish community.
Likewise, when the Pope visited Africa in March he answered a question about Aids and condoms aboard the papal plane in a way that could be taken to imply that condoms spread, rather than contained, the disease.
In fact, neither the Pope nor the Church has made a definitive statement about the morality of using condoms against disease. The Vatican press office later tried to tinker with the transcript of the interview to make the comments less controversial, confirming Catholic anxieties that Pope Benedict was badly advised
. [Again, a wrong term, because low-level decisions like some translator's wrong-headed initiative in the Secretariat of State to tamper with the Pope's actual words are obviously never cleared with the Pope!]
What went wrong? The answer lies in the remarkable fact that Joseph Ratzinger, despite working for nearly 30 years in the Vatican, is a loner
[Again, perpetrating a wrong impression. That he spends a lot of time by himself is not because he shuns company but because it's his only time, outside of official duties, to read and write and pray - in other words, to keep up the routine he has kept since he became a priest and which he advocates to all priests. He is a loner only in the sense that he has never been identified with a cabal or faction within the Curia, even if some of them are his personal friends.]
There are few visitors to the Apostolic Palace: the Pope wants to spend his spare time reading, writing and playing the piano (badly, alas
). [Is this comment really necessary? The Pope is an amateur pianist, after all, not a professional one!]
He does not possess, or want to possess, allies among the ambitious and gossipy monsignori of the Curia.
This gentle, cultivated Bavarian policeman’s son did not seek to become a bishop, let alone a cardinal or the supreme Pontiff. His personality bears the mark of the flowery piety of his childhood Bavaria and, in contrast, the dry rigour of the German universities where, as a young priest-professor, he made friends with Protestants and Catholic leftists.
Well into middle age he sometimes dressed in a suit and tie, just like the fashionable radical professors of the era. (These days, however, he proudly wears beautiful antique vestments [for official and liturgical events, obviously, not as regular wear! The Vatican is not spending money on these vestments - they are already there - and the Pope is paying tribute to other Popes by wearing vestments they wore]
, much to the horror of liberal puritans.)
Ratzinger’s compulsory membership in the Hitler Youth is utterly irrelevant to his thinking: nowhere in his writings is there the slightest sympathy for the clerical fascism embraced by Catholic ultra-traditionalists.
His politics, in so far as he has any, seem to be middle-of-the-road Christian Democrat. He flirted with mild theological liberalism at the time of the Second Vatican Council, but abandoned that after he became convinced radicals were interpreting the Council – which affirmed the role of lay people, reached out to other faiths and prepared the way for vernacular worship – as a moment of total rupture with the past.
Cardinal Ratzinger saw the papacy of the charismatic John Paul II as an opportunity to reassert the traditional teaching of the Catholic Church while reaching out to new audiences. His own project depends less on personal charisma or the thunderous condemnation of modern society.
At the heart of Benedict’s papacy is the belief that Catholics must worship God properly. He wants to heal the wounds caused by the liberals’ cruel repudiation of beautiful Latin services. In 2007 he dramatically removed all the restrictions on the celebration of the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass. Old and new worship should live side by side, enriching each other, he believes.
This policy has alarmed a generation of middle-aged and elderly Catholics (including bishops) brought up to regard Vatican II as a new beginning, a year zero.
And Benedict has paid a price for his lack of allies in the Vatican: some cardinals sought to exploit the crisis.
However, the new generation is on the side of the Pope, for younger active Catholics are surprisingly conservative. They see the Pope as a grandfatherly figure who is introducing them to ancient treasures rejected by their hippy parents. Rome these days is full of black-clad seminarians inspired by this “Benedictine” conservatism.
There are interesting parallels here with Islam. Benedict does not believe that Christianity and Islam can converge theologically [a thoroughly gratuitous and illogical statement, since nowhere in the Church is there any assumption that inter-religious dialog means 'convergence' on doctrine! Inter-religious dialog is not meant to promote syncretism, or to interfere with each other's religious doctrines!]
, but he shares an understanding with Muslim leaders who believe that the strength of a religious community lies in its traditions.
Liberal Catholicism and liberal Islam have one thing in common: they have a very poor track record of attracting followers
. [I don't know about liberal Catholicism's track record - it has a very good track record of attracting liberals in the West, who predominate in the ruling cultural classes. As for for 'liberal Islam' - is there is any such thing at all? There is a 'moderate Islam' at best, perhaps, but 'liberal Islam"? If they were liberal in the sense of the 'liberal' Catholics, they would promptly be the object of worldwide fatwas!]
Benedict rejects extremists of all faiths, but he is also unimpressed by diluted religion. And he is curious to learn more about how Islam is walking the tightrope of modernising without surrendering its identity because he is walking a similar tightrope.
[Excuse me, but what evidence is there that Islam, as a rule, is modernizing, or even wanting to modernize? It remains inflexible about its adherence to the very letter of the Koran and the approved commentaries on it, along with the sharia law that is based on their fundamental scriptures. Yes, King Faisal and the Jordanian Royal Institute and many moderate Muslim intellectuals are now reaching out for dialog with other faiths, but that does not mean modernizing Islam itself, any more than Vatican II 'modernized' Catholic doctrine.]
His visit to the Middle East is fraught with difficulties. So many things could go wrong. But Pope Benedict has a secret weapon: a deep, unaffected charm that breaks out through the shyness to win friends in unlikely places.
When he was a senior cardinal, he walked across St Peter’s Square every morning. He did not march ahead with an entourage of advisers: he was often on his own and only too delighted to chat to pilgrims, sometimes for as long as 20 minutes. That is the side of Joseph Ratzinger that the Muslims, Jews and Christians of the Holy Land are about to discover. Whether it is enough to produce a diplomatic triumph remains to be seen.
This is the rather questionable biographical outline that goes with the article:
April 16 1927 born Joseph Alois Ratzinger in Marktl am Inn, Bavaria, son of a police officer.
1941 enrolled in the Hitler Youth.
[The way it is presented, one would think he did it voluntarily!]
1943 called up to join the German anti-aircraft corps.
1945 placed in a prisoner of war camp by US troops and released at the end of the war.
June 29 1951 ordained with his brother in Freising.
1959 appointed professor at the University of Bonn.
1963 becomes Archbishop of Munich and Freising.
1966 takes up a chair in dogmatic theology at the University of Tübingen.
1977 made a cardinal.
Nov 25 1981 named Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly known as the Holy Office, the historical Inquisition.
Sept 1991 suffers stroke, temporarily impairing his eyesight.
April 19 2005 elected the successor to Pope John Paul II by papal conclave.
Sept 12 2006 upsets Muslim world by quoting a medieval Byzantine emperor’s damning comments on Islam during an address at the University of Regensburg
[If this was going to be singled out because the newspaper audience addressed is mainly Muslim, why not include the response A COMMON WORD and the Catholic-Muslim Forum that was born as a result of Regensburg?].