WSJ: sub-optimal article on Pope Benedict

I usually like the Wall Street Journal and I read it often, especially the opinion page. However, the WSJ has an article on the Holy Father right now that really misses the mark, both in its quality of writing and in its assessment of the situation. Here are excerpts from the article with my emphasis and comments.

A Tumultuous World Tests a Rigid Pope

Inside the Vatican, Benedict’s intellect and style intimidate. How will they play outside the Church?
Confronting Muslim anger
November 25, 2006; Page A1

Vatican City

On official trips, he rarely strays from the timetable or jokes with the crowds. He is wary of the mass media and disdains made-for-TV images like those that helped define the papacy of his predecessor, John Paul II. Friends describe him as a man who is shy in crowds and prefers thinking to talking. [And that’s bad, if you are the usual sort of journalist always in need of a quip.] He is more likely to settle down with a book than sit down at a crowded dinner table.

In private, colleagues say, Pope Benedict XVI can demonstrate a disarming humbleness. Whereas John Paul would spend hours chatting with guests, Benedict is businesslike. He always seems to know what time it is, says Robert Spaemann, a conservative German Catholic philosopher who has known Benedict for years. "Then he’ll stand up and say, ‘Right, it’s time,’ and end the meeting." [Hmmm… disarming, humble, businesslike, on schedule… and how is this not good for someone running the biggest international organization in the world?]

Nineteen months after being selected pope, Benedict is transforming the Vatican with a different style and a different stance. Beneath his blunt words and rigid style lies a profound divergence from John Paul’s buoyant optimism. [Blunt and rigid. Okay, this comes from speaking in a way that you can actually understand and, perhaps, from having a point of view that doesn’t shift with public opinion? You can see that the writers don’t get the Pope. They are pointing to what they think are contradictions and they seem unable to reconcile them.] Pope Benedict believes that the Roman Catholic Church must stand apart from the world of today rather than embrace it. [This is seriously wrong. Benedict is not saying that the Church must stand apart from the world. The Church must influence the world without being contaminated with a world view opposed to her mission.]

John Paul II was the master of the grand overture — from praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem to kissing a copy of the Quran — which dissolved tensions with even his harshest foes. [And the Regensburg Address and now going to Turkey are not grand gestures? As "grand" a gesture kissing the Koran might have been, it strikes me that tension didn’t dissolve with Islam after JPII did it.]

For Benedict, the modern age is defined by growing secularism in the West and the rise of religious fanaticism most everywhere else. [Note: the are extremes. The Pope isn’t trying to avoid the "world", be wants to check extremism.] In order to fulfill its mission, he believes, the Church needs to shun both forces. Benedict is "pessimistic about the compatibility of the Church and the modern world," says Mr. Spaemann. [Again, the Pope is saying that the the Church cannot coexist with extremes which either deny objective truth or try to impose some "truth" by force. He has said this explicitly.]

This vision has sweeping implications for the Church — both in its approach to Catholic doctrine and liturgy and in its outreach to other faiths, particularly Islam.

Benedict preaches a renewal of the Church’s fundamental teachings and rituals, and is considering expanding the use of the Latin Mass. [How long O Lord? When will people figure out that the LANGUAGE is not the point?] Benedict’s emphasis on tradition risks alienating a broad cross-section of Catholics who argue the Church needs to become more accessible [Remember how the writers try to make Benedict sound as if HE personally is inaccessible? This is the real problem, it seems. Accessibility? What on earth does that mean?] to maintain its increasingly diverse flock. Only once the Church has reclaimed its own distinct identity, he says, can it mount an effective resistance against its chief foe, a "dictatorship of relativism." [Sigh… the Pope is trying to correct the corrosion in the Church from relativism. Is the problem with the "broad cross section" or with the Pope?]

Benedict’s public call to arms fires the imaginations of many of the cardinals who elected him pope. They share Benedict’s view of a Church that is under siege, and they want a leader who is ready to confront the dual challenges of secularism and Islam, even if such confrontation brings danger. Some cardinals insist that Benedict’s brusque language on such delicate matters [Notice how they juxtapose "brusque" on the part of the aloof rigid Pope and the "delicacy" needed.] as the Church’s relationship with Islam is necessary in order to set the stage for frank and constructive dialogue in the future.

Now, Benedict’s approach faces the biggest test of his young pontificate [Yes, but Benedict is not young.] as he travels to Turkey this coming week, his first papal trip to a Muslim nation.

Catholic-Muslim tensions have soared in recent months, in part because of Benedict’s own actions. In a September speech in Germany, the pope cited a 15th-century Byzantine emperor’s description of Muhammad’s teachings as "evil and inhuman." The speech ricocheted around the Muslim world, leading to riots, church bombings and the killing of a nun.

The reaction unnerved both the Vatican and the pope. [Maybe it didn’t unnerve the Pope as much as people think.] But the speech itself laid out one of Benedict’s most crucial departures from John Paul’s path of aggressive outreach. [JP’s outreach was aggressive? What Benedict did wasn’t? Benedict has spurred more real dialogue in these short months than happened in years before.] John Paul believed fervently — some say foolishly — that Christians and others faiths, even Islam, could always find common ground. Benedict, on the other hand, believes Catholics and Muslims are divided by an ideological chasm, and makes little effort to temper his conviction. [Nooooo…. Benedict thinks that dialogue can’t take place if REASON is not used. REASON. It is not a matter of impossibility of dialogue with adherents of Islam. It is possible so long as there is reason. Why should Benedct "temper" that?]

…. [Here follows some less than useful filler. Then note how the article returns to the theme (above) but from a new "voice". The article is stitched together.]

In the speech, Benedict advanced a bold position: True interreligious dialogue between Islam and Catholicism is blocked because of the two faiths’ divergent interpretations of the role of reason. [YES YES!] Catholicism views reason as integral to understanding and interpreting God; Islam, he argues, sees God as being beyond reason. [A reduction, but… let’s move along…]

Father Fessio described Benedict’s position on Islam in this way: "He’s saying that if your view of God…is that he’s so transcendent that he transcends all human categories, including rationality, well then you can justify the irrational, including violence, to spread religion, including terrorism."

"You can’t dialogue with us because you won’t accept reason as a basis. Because the God you are obeying is above reason," Father Fessio added.

Some saw the speech as evidence of the pope’s political naiveté. [Oh really? I think the Pope knew exactly what he was doing.] At Regensburg, the university where he once taught and helped turn into a bastion of conservative Catholic thought, Benedict was in his intellectual comfort zone. "He thought he could slip back into the role of professor," says Mr. Spaemann. "Perhaps he didn’t realize that every word would be weighed around the world, and that he can never again speak as non-Pope." [I don’t buy that at all.]

Despite the tensions, some Church elders see the Regensburg speech as actually offering an opportunity to restart dialogue on a more frank footing. [That’s what is happening, too.] Cardinal Angelo Scola, the patriarch of Venice, for example, says the Regensburg speech doesn’t reject having mutual respect for other faiths but just recognizes their deep differences.

The speech, says Cardinal Scola, who has known Benedict for more than 30 years, "represents a foundation upon which interreligious dialogue will be built in the future."

Even before the xignited Muslim rage with his Regensburg address, he was well aware that relations with Islam had reached a boiling point. [So… what’s it going to be? He was naive or he was "well aware"?] In the library of the Apostolic Palace last February, Benedict listened as Bishop Luigi Padovese recounted a grim tale: A few weeks earlier, a gunman had burst into a church in Trabzon, Turkey, near the Black Sea, and opened fire on a priest who had been kneeling in prayer. The gunman later claimed to have been driven to violence by cartoons published in a Danish newspaper that lampooned the Muslim prophet Muhammad.

At the pope’s urging, Bishop Padovese described how the first bullet tore through the priest’s lung. Moments later the gunman fired a second shot, and the priest collapsed dead.

The pope "wanted to know how everything happened in detail," recalls Bishop Padovese, a prelate whose Anatolia-based region includes Trabzon. Bishop Padovese now travels with a police escort in Turkey after a botched attempt on his life. [Do you think that Pope Benedict somehow forget that Vatican/Muslim dialogue was influenced by a Turk in St. Peter’s Square?] Benedict is also running the Vatican much differently than John Paul did, leaving him in many ways more removed from the rest of the world. He is traveling less and has cut down on the number of protocol duties, holding fewer meetings. As a result, his contact with people from outside the Church is more limited. [Notice how we are back to the theme of being accesible? This Pope doesn’t give journalists lots of grist and he writes and says things that are really hard. He makes being a journalist hard.] He has filled top positions with people he has worked closely with for years, giving the Vatican an ideological homogeneity that didn’t exist as much under John Paul, when top officials often sparred. [Right… less conflict in the ranks… that doens’t sell either.]

Sandro Magister, a veteran Vatican expert who writes for Italian newsweekly L’Espresso, says Cardinal Bertone’s appointment is a sign that Vatican foreign policy is likely to be based more on ideals than on pragmatism. [Doing the right thing, in other words.]

In an essay recently posted on a Catholic Web site, 30 Days, Cardinal Bertone wrote that Vatican envoys to predominantly Muslim nations should take a more aggressive stance in promoting Christianity. "We must not cease to propose and proclaim the Gospel, to Muslims also."


Benedict is very conscious of his age, now 79, and comments on it frequently to colleagues. During a recent meeting with Mr. Spaemann, the German philosopher, he remarked: "I’m an old dog."

That makes Benedict more focused on changing the Church, instead of the world, and less concerned about whom he might offend in the process. [Okay… so maybe the Pontificate is not so "young".]

Last month several dozen top Catholic theologians crowded into a Vatican chapel for 7:30 a.m. mass with Benedict. The pontiff gave pointed marching orders:

"Speaking just to find applause or to tell people what they want to hear….is like prostitution," he told the theologians, according to a transcript. "Don’t look for applause, but look to obey the truth." [!]

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. I could care less what the press thinks of the Holy Father. No, he’s not
    John Paul II. I did not expect him to be-nor did anyone else that has really
    followed Joseph Ratzinger’s life and read his writings. The papacy
    has not changed Joseph Ratzinger. He’s the same man he’s always been.

    All I care about is his role as leader and teacher of the Faith. I’ve
    learned more about the 12 Apostles, thanks to the Pope’s weekly catechesis,
    then I’ve learned in the nearly 40 years of my life.

    Grand gestures? How about still going to Turkey despite threats on his life?
    That’s what I call a grand gesture; an heroic gesture.

  2. Geoffrey says:

    I always brace myself before reading anything in the secular press about the Church. Thank the Lord for good quality Catholic news sources!

  3. Adam van der Meer says:

    This article seems to be a classic example of one where the journalist was handed a pre-written headline and told to write a story about it. It’s the stuff that makes for good example material in a logic textbook.

  4. RBrown says:

    The editorial page of the WSJ is very favorable toward the Church.

    The news section is another matter. Articles are often written by liberals who are hostile. This is just a wild guess, but I doubt that GABRIEL KAHN and STACY MEICHTRY are Catholics.

  5. billsykes says:

    Father Z.:

    You don’t get out enough. The WSJ news pages are little different from the NYT or Wash. Post. The op-ed pages are, of course, as good as they get.

    I remember Robert Novak on a news show several years ago telling columnist Paul Gigot, now the op-ed editor, that Gigot’s paper (WSJ) was a “schizoid rag.”

  6. Please pray for Benedict XVI this week. We all love him like our own father.

  7. rich says:

    The MSM is generally not capable of understanding the Church because it views the world and the Church with “secular eyeglasses.” Nice blog!

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