Pope Benedict XVI - Guest Posting - Part I
So the Roman Catholic Church has a new Pope. As a Protestant, I really have no useful knowledge or history from which I could draw an accurate opinion. However, even I can tell that most of reporting by the mainstream media - right or left - has smacked of personal agendas and outright ignorance. To the faithful of any denomination, it's clear the vast majority of the press corps. has no clue on how to report religious news. Maybe journalism is one of those jobs that attract an inordinate number of agnostics just as intelligence agencies, with their bizarre purity in hiring requirements, tends to attract Mormons (you can never have done any illegal drugs, ever - which immediately disqualifies most college grads who didn't attend Brigham Young).
Anyway, it dawned on me that I know someone who is an intelligent, informed Catholic who does have the knowledge and historical perspective to have a good feel for Pope Benedict XVI and what is Papacy might mean for the church, so I asked her if she would do a guest posting. We go way back. We were on many of the same religion discussion boards together, and her posts never failed to be forthright, thoughtful, and so informed, once she chimed in the discussion was usually over, or at least shoved in a more productive direction.
So let me shut up and get the hell away from the podium here, and hand it over to Sharon:
Part I: The German Shepherd Attack Dog of the Vatican, and Why He Isn't a Conservative
Okay, here's your quick tutorial in Catholic liberalism, Catholic conservatism, what they aren't, what they are, and why mainstream media sources, well-meaning but clueless, are reduced to bizarre unexplained hand-waving assertions that, in his youth a liberal, something--something--(Vatican II? the European student rebellions? bad liturgy?) transmuted Joseph Ratzinger into a right-wing hard-line conservative.
Right off the bat, let me self-identify as a liberal Catholic, who is a great fan of the German Shepherd (ha ha, you heard it here first). I'll get to how that's possible later, like in Part II of this meandering post.
Let's get the red herrings out of the way first. I'm not even going to touch the current "But isn't he a **NAZI** nastiness that even the mainstream American press (take note, you who like to chant "liberal media bias!") disdained to touch, despite Ratzinger's front-runner status throughout the conclave. Go read the Jerusalem Post article debunking the accusation; go read the Anti-Defamation League's defense of the man; I'm not interested in rehashing it.
Just ask yourself this question: How heroically did a fourteen-year old boy living in Nazi Germany need to act in order to be forgiven, sixty years later, after a lifetime working to achieve a stunning pro-Jewish shift in the theology of the largest Christian body on earth? Please give a concrete answer, and then compare it to the facts of the adolescent Ratzinger's actions. Them come back to me with the "Nazi" charge.
Let's go for the second red herring, the one about whether the new pope is an ultra-conservative right-winger.
If he's a conservative Catholic, then presumably there were moderate and liberal cardinals to choose from. With all the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments over the election of a "conservative" pope, who on earth were the "liberal" candidates envisioned? Ratzinger/Benedict's "ultra-conservatism" (I'll go into why the persistent scare quotes later) is often summarized as his opposition to (deep breath for litany) abortion contraception homosexuality female priests. Okay, so which of the cardinals in conclave was anyone expecting to support those things? No, seriously. Find me a name.
More fundamentally, let's look at the dull media pondering over what the new pope's "policies" were going to be. Maybe Cokie Roberts and Christiane Amanpour were just in U.S. election mode, but the pope doesn't have policies. His job description is basically "Don't change anything." The whole point of the much disputed charism of infallibility is a promise (whether you think there's really a promise or not) that the pope, no matter how much of a wretch, dullard, or personal heretic he might be, won't change anything.
Now, ask yourself: Which of the past popes had policies permitting any of the Hot Four listed above? When was it again that Catholics could, with ecclesial blessing, go on the pill, have abortions, ordain women, or have non-heterosexual sex? Wait, let me get my other hand to count.... okay, zero. So by that reckoning, they were all ultra-conservatives. Which may be the case, but it makes the sharp intake of breath at having a new pope who is going to--my stars!--keep doing what they've all been doing for two thousand years seem a little histrionic. If we're looking for a political word that means "just like the rest of the lot," I think what we're reaching for is "moderate."
The old charge by Jack Chick and Bob Jones types was always that the pope announces as binding edict whatever whims cross his mitred mind, and the romish masses fall timidly in line. It's a little weird to hear that particular canard being promoted by media commenters who really have nothing against Catholicism, they just don't know any better. Shall we, here, resolve to know better? Now you know better. If the Catholic Church were ever to become "liberal" in the way that Cardinal Ratzinger has always been described as "conservative," it would cease in a fundamental way to be the Catholic Church, inasmuch as its claim to catholicity (universality) is founded in great part of having the same teaching always and everywhere. One might argue that this is not in fact so; but if the Church itself were to renounce that claim, it would be renouncing the core of its identity.
So that's why Pope Benedict XVI is not "conservative" in the way that most people think; and why what most Americans define as "conservativism" is in fact definitive of the nature of the Catholic Church. But there are legitimate meanings to the words "liberal" and "conservative" in a Catholic context. And, pace the neo-con Catholics who increasingly would like to align those words with membership in American political parties, they have nothing to do with the hot-button issues on the political landscape. And taken in a true sense, Pope Benedict XVI is the first genuinely liberal pope the Catholic Church has had in the preceding century.
Part II: Why Pope Benedict XVI is a Liberal's Liberal.