I wrote earlier this week about the many different types of popes, who have reigned in the Vatican. Among other things, I mentioned that there were Vicars of Christ who were PR popes. To me, Pope John Paul II represents that kind of Pope and Carl Bernstein, his biographer, agrees wholeheartedly here.
But Bernstein’s column is not really about Pope John Paul as it is about Pope Benedict XVI and his recent failure. In more ways than one, Pope John Paul comes out smelling like a rose in this article. Pope Benedict, on the other hand… Well, let’s just unpack this thing blow by blow.
One of the things pointed out in this article is that Pope Benedict XVI’s thoughts are not easily discernible. As Bernstein writes, John Paul II was extremely clear about what he intended to do and that the message was alway clearly received. The problem is that Pope Benedict is not John Paul II. Pope Benedict is a theologian and, therefore, needs a great deal of time to come to his decisions. One reason why so many rumors tend to swirl around the Vatican these days is that this pope needs a great deal of time to think things over.
The Motu Proprio, for instance, was a rumor for months before the document was published and promulgated. I suppose that Pope Benedict XVI needed time to pray over what he was doing. Bishop Dolan’s nomination to the see of New York has also been filled with rumors lately. Yet the Vatican refuses to respond to these. Once again, Benedict is probably thinking about the correct course of action. I feel that Pope Benedict knows what he is doing, but he is also a man that needs to deliberate over things like any good theologian or philosopher does. He simply cannot act without thinking since he is the head of the Catholic Church.
If Pope Benedict is a man who is difficult to read, then it is also entirely possible that Pope Benedict is a man who acts alone. One of the things that has come up since the Austrian bishops’ letter is the notion that the Church is a democracy. Actually, this idea is soemthing that is relatively new. Before Vatican II, the Pope was able to legislate on many differen things and the bishops had no choice but to listen. Why? Because bishops’ conferences were much more different than they are today. Back in those times, it was possible for the Pope to work alone and to come up with documents and encyclicals.
Pope Pius XII, for example, was a man who handled the entire bureaucracy of the Vatican with one hand. For a while, he was both the Pope and the secretary of state for the Vatican. In many of the great matters for his pontificate, which I do not have time to enumerate here, Pope Pius XII acted alone and consulted with the Curia and other theologians. The keyword here is “consulted.” The Pope only asked for opinions and ideas.
In contrast to Benedict, Marco Politi says that Pope John Paul II was “a spin doctor” and “a man who knew the power of the media.” It seems to me that Pope John Paul II’s experience as an actor helped him to get good publicity. Even when things at the Vatican went awfully wrong, the Pope always ended up in the best of lights. Yet Pope Benedict is doing something completely different by NOT pandering to the media.
The so-called “missteps” of his pontificate cannot be seen as such when looked at in context. The Regensburg address, one of the most incendiary incidents during his early years, gained notoriety because of a passage in which Islam was called out for what it is. As the leader of a large portion of the Christian world, Pope Benedict XVI has a right to speak about the issues that are affecting Catholics and Islam is one of them. Yet we seem to be living in a very PC world. When the Pope made his statement, it was all over the news. Why? Because we cannot say anymore with any honesty that Islam is not and never can be a religion of peace.
L’Affaire Wagner, the most recent example of a mis-step by the Pope, should not be viewed as a mistake. Most of the media have latched onto the idea that Fr. Gerhard Wagner condemned New Orleans and said that it deserved Katrina. I agree with Fr. Wagner on this particular point. God does not tolerate sin and sin is always punished. Sodom and Gomorrah were eliminated from the face of the earth because they were dens of sin. If God can reduce entire cities to rubble, why can’t He send a hurricane? It’s entirely possible, is it not?
Not only this, but Fr. Wagner seems to be a theologian after the heart of the Pope. What frightened the Austrian bishops was this very conservatism. If Fr. Wagner became next in line at Linz, which is what he would have been, then things would not have been quite so rosy out in Vienna. But such was the indignation of the bishops and priests in Austria that Fr. Gerhard Wagner was forced to send his withdrawal to the Pope. My own opinion is that Pope Benedict did not make a mistake with regard to Fr. Wagner, but that is my own humble opinion.
If Pope Benedict is not media friendly, makes tons of mistakes, alienates some more liberal members of his flock, and acts alone, then are there any redeeming qualities? It seems to me that Bernstein does not offer any.
One of the things that I have noticed on my own is that Pope Benedict is a wise man. His theological background and intelligence make him similar to Pope Paul VI and Pope Pius XII. Clearly, Pope Benedict understands the tremendous task that he has been given when he was elected and he knows that he must be a good shepherd. If he does not pander to the media or consult others, it is not because he is out of touch with the times. Rather, it is because he is constantly thinking about Holy Mother Church and how to make things better. As a deep man of prayer, Pope Benedict understands that God’s will is the most important thing and not his own. If scandals arise and if the winds continue changing, he must continue to steer the barque of Peter in the right direction.
Our Lady of the Angels, pray for us!
Sts. Peter and Paul, pray for us!