Spero: For the pope, all questions must be entertained

Here is an interesting perspective from Spero with my emphases and comments.

For the pope, all questions must be entertained

Much of what Pope Benedict XVI said was obscured by the media’s focus on his response to sexual abuse by clerics. The pope fills a new role in a life story of integrity and dialogue.

By Martin Barillas 

The April 15-20 visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the United States offered Americans, and the rest of the world, grist for further evaluation of the pontiff not only as a man but also as a messenger. Caricatures of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who became the current pope, have abounded.

As prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, a Vatican office that oversees the orthodoxy of priests, prelates, and theologians, he was called “the pope’s Rottweiler”, “Inquisitor”, and even “Nazi”. As pontiff, he has been called “panzer pope” and “enforcer”, among other epithets.

Benedict is the third pontiff to tread American soil and has a much more avuncular appearance than his detractors had heralded. While he may not have delivered as much as some of his detractors, and fans, had wished

Brennan Pursell, author of Benedict of Bavaria and associate professor at DeSales University, Pennsylvania, offered in an interview some insights into the pope and his message to the United States. Pursell said Benedict, as pope, is consistent with his life story and a life teaching theology and philosophy. He has served variously as parish priest, professor, academic administrator, Cardinal-Archbishop, and personal advisor to Pope John Paul II.

When Pursell was asked whether the man who was Cardinal Ratzinger is different from the man who is now Pope Benedict XVI, he quoted Hans Kung, a former Catholic theologian and colleague, as saying “Oh no, there is only one Ratzinger. He now has a different role”.

In visiting Americans, the pope’s intention, said Pursell, is “to uplift and to get their eyes off the ground…It is a challenge to step out of their comfort zone and to point out things they should not be doing.” Moreover, said Pursell, “The dimensions and complexity of one’s comfort zone is the measure of a person’s self-love.” The pope means to demonstrate that “We cannot improve ourselves if we don’t abandon self-love”.

The pope was not addressing merely Catholics, said Pursell, but all Americans so that they might examine policies and practices at odds with Judeo-Christian values of justice and charity. Hence, the pope had to bring up the scandal of sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic priests and others, said Pursell. Even before the pope landed in the US, he brought up the issue with reporters on board his plane. Later, to assembled bishops, he said that the clergy sex abuse scandal had sometimes been "very badly handled”.

Pursell says that bringing up the issue of sexual abuse was necessary for Benedict XVI, just as it was necessary for him to bring up the issue of immigration: a controversial issue of much concern to the pope since it impacts families. The pope is saying that the family is an underpinning of society that “is prior to the State”, averred Pursell.

The pope, therefore, is making a special plea in favor of families divided through the irregular application of immigration law by Federal and local governments. In the interview, Pursell assured that the pope is not challenging the legalities of immigration to the US but is pleading for humane treatment for all immigrants.

That some of the pope’s statements caused discomfort among Americans was brought to the fore by CNN’s Lou Dobbs who, in reference to the pope’s exhortation about immigration said that the pontiff showed “bad manners” on his visit. Other commentators expressed wishes that he had said more, or done more, about sexual predators or relations with other religions.

But much of what the pope said may have been obscured by the media attention to the issue of clerical sexual abuse, said Pursell. In the intellectual sphere, the pope’s message about dialogue is at least equally important. Dialogue with other religions, especially with Judaism, is also at the heart of the pope’s message. The pope spoke to Catholic intellectuals and educators while on his visit and exhorted them to take seriously their Catholic identity. Pursell commented that Benedict is asking them “to figure out a way to uphold academic freedom, yet protect the Catholic faith and all things holy from broadsides and denigration in all forms. He pointed out a way”.

One way then is that “all questions must be entertained”, said Pursell. “But for statements, speeches, exhibitions, and performances, there has got to be limitations on speech as there are at other universities.” As Pursell points out, there is no place anywhere for Holocaust deniers. So, there is no absolute freedom even in the academic sphere. He added, “But there can be no restriction on questions because the questioner shows himself or herself to be open to further correction and dialogue”, in the pope’s view.

Pursell said that it is his hope that the pope’s visit will engender sympathy among Catholics and non-Catholics for the Church’s view that it cannot simply “say yes to everything new. By giving its blessing to all innovations, it would simply cease to be”.  [This is a good and important point.]

Another analyst of the papacy, Matthew Bunson – Senior Fellow at St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and General Editor of Our Sunday Visitor’s Catholic Almanac – gave some insight into the pope’s visit. When asked about the significance of the meetings with members of the Jewish community, Bunson noted that as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the pope was a “known quantity” in discussions between Catholics and Jews worldwide.

“He is respected as a Biblical scholar” and “one of the leading voices of Catholic-Jewish relations”. With these established credentials, Benedict XVI “hopes to add to the furtherance of good relations as pope”.

Despite some objections to Summorum Pontificum, an encyclical [No, it is an Apostolic Letter motu proprio data.] released in July 2007 that granted greater freedom in the use of the Tridentine liturgy and certain prayers used on Good Friday, the pope, said Bunson, wishes to reassure “that the Catholic Church has no desire to step back in Catholic-Jewish relations”.

Despite the objections of some members of the Jewish faith who find unacceptable the Tridentine Rite Good Friday prayers for the conversion of Jews, Bunson said there remains considerable “common ground with some members of Islam and Orthodox Judaism”.

“Especially among Orthodox Jews”, said Bunson, the pope hopes to emphasize common ground in values placed on human life and family life and in the wider concern to promote “a culture of life”.

Said Bunson of the pope, “He is firmly convinced that there has to be found a place [and basis] for building peace and harmony amongst the nations.” The pope is concerned over the power of religious extremism [cf. Pope Benedict’s Message for the 2006 World Day of Peace.  I think anyone who wants to grasp what Pope Benedict’s view of the greatest threats to society and peace are should read this Message.] in the world today, and wants to emphasize a return towards the Judeo-Christian roots of culture and away from the “toxic effects of secularism and rampant consumerism – what his predecessor John Paul II called ‘the culture of death’”.

While the clerical sexual abuse scandal was not the only issue touched upon by the pope, Bunson called it “perhaps the worst crisis to face the Church in over one hundred years.” Bunson said that under Pope John Paul II, the former Cardinal Ratzinger “played a very significant role in the Vatican response to paedophile abuse” and is seeking “authentic justice for the victims.”

For the pope, the abuse of children is “unacceptable”. But the pope’s aim is also to bolster the morale of good priests and bishops who have been faithful. He seeks to encourage the priesthood, rather than engaging in reprobation.

“Remember,” said Bunson, “the overarching theme of the visit for Pope Benedict is hope. The title of the visit is ‘Christ is Our Hope’”.

The visit served to “offer hope and optimism to American Catholics and to remind them of the hope and joy that can be found in an authentic Catholic identity.” Benedict’s presence in the US, said Bunson, offered a “great opportunity for spiritual and emotional closure to what could be termed a major crisis in American Catholicism.”

Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat and human rights observer. He is an editor at Spero News.

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  1. Johnny Domer says:

    Father, you were working in the Vatican while Ratzinger was head of CDF, and I’m sure other readers also would be informed of this, so allow me to ask…did anybody ACTUALLY call him Panzerkardinal, or God’s Rottweiler, or Nazi, or John Paul III, or any of these zillions of nicknames that the mainstream media constantly says that he had in those days? [Absolutely yes… it was constant (other than John Paul III – I don’t remember ever hearing that one).] If it’s true, then he seemingly had more nicknames than anyone I’ve ever met in my life…truly extraordinary. Could it be that the mainstream media probably picked up those nicknames from a couple of more liberal, not-so-reliable sacerdotal sources during the Papal election coverage, and then they ran with it, and they have been repeating these things ever since? [Whatever. It doesn’t take much imagination to come up with nasty nicknames.] And to be frank, nobody has called him “enforcer” or a “panzer Pope” since his election. [Then I guess you didn’t watch any of the coverage of his USA visit. The word “enforcer” was nearly a mantra, in describing His Holiness’s reputation before his election.] I’ve read more articles about the Pope since his election than 99% of the world, and I cannot remember anyone ever referring to him as such, or reading that people refer to him as such (maybe it’s because I don’t read the Tablet or the National Catholic Reporter).

    Interesting article otherwise, but that bit about his “nicknames” always annoys me. [It goes with the territory.]

  2. Benedict is the third pontiff to tread American soil…

    Technically, Benedict is the fourth pope to be on American territory. The first was Pope Pius IX. In 1849 he was welcomed aboard the U.S.S. Constitution anchored in Naples harbor; and so was the first pontiff on American territory.

    Our chaplain yesterday related this story. The captain of the Constitution in 1979 knew of this, and wanted to commemorate it during Pope John Paul II’s visit to Boston with a 21-gun salute, but some neanderthal in the Pentagon nixed it as a violation of the separation of church and state. By the time higher ups had learned of it, it was too late to do anything about it. However, the commemorative cufflinks designed and made by Shreve, Crump and Lowes were still given to the Holy Father, the Cardinal in Boston, and the present pastor of St. Theresa’s in West Roxbury, MA (at that time the Cardinal’s secretary), and a few other dignitaries.

  3. mbd says:

    Was this visit during the time of the Roman Republic?

  4. EDG says:

    Steve – I love that story. I’m a docent at the Cathedral here and one of the visitors (retired Navy, of course) told me the story. He was an officer stationed in Italy and had the opportunity to buy a print of the Pope visiting the Constitution, but he and his wife didn’t want to spend the money on it and he said he’d been kicking himself ever since. There’s apparently a well-known engraving of this visit, of which that print was a copy.

  5. Johnny Domer says:

    Well, I stand corrected. I only watched the EWTN coverage, so that’s probably why I didn’t hear them refer to him as an “enforcer Pope” or anything like that. Thanks for clearing it up!

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