Benedict XVI shaping up as a 'pope of surprises'


I’m fond of saying that the Vatican and the papacy are related, but often quite distinct, institutions. At the popular level, it’s easy to assume that every Vatican decision flows from the personal will of the pope; it’s part of the “myth of centralization” about Roman Catholicism, which conjures up images of the pope sitting in front of a computer in the basement of the Apostolic Palace, pushing buttons to decide how much a given parish will spend this month on paper clips.

Anyone who knows the place, however, realizes that the Vatican has a culture and a way of doing business that’s independent of the personality of any given occupant of the Throne of Peter, and that the two are not always in sync.

Here’s a small example that makes the point. I ran into a retired prelate this week in Rome, who is always in demand for international travel and speaking. He had hoped to attend the upcoming meeting of the bishops of Latin American and the Caribbean in Brazil, where Benedict XVI will also be present. This prelate discussed his plans with the relevant Vatican office, which told him to stay home. The Latin Americans need to stand on their own two feet, he was told, and anyway, since he’s retired he should stay out of the spotlight. Later that week, the prelate greeted the pope after his General Audience. The pope said to him, “Thank you for your travels, which do great good for the church. I hope to see you in Brazil!” Caught off guard, the prelate merely mumbled, “I’ll be with you in my prayers.” Quite obviously, it was not Benedict’s idea that he shouldn’t be on the guest list.

What this means is that in sorting through the flotsam and jetsam of Vatican acts, one has to pay careful attention for those moves which reflect the personal initiative of the pope, and therefore reveal something about his mind rather than just the institutional culture of the Holy See. At present, we have two intriguing examples of personal papal touches.

The first came April 20, with the publication of a document on limbo from the International Theological Commission (ITC). The document finds that the idea of keeping unbaptized babies out of Heaven reflects “an unduly restrictive concept of salvation.” In effect, it means that limbo no longer forms part of Catholic teaching.

Work on the limbo document began while then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was still the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The ITC is made up of thirty theologians from around the world, and while its conclusions are merely advisory, this document was released with the approval of Benedict XVI. That’s unusual, because normally ITC texts carry a note that they were published simply with the permission of the congregation’s prefect. The papal imprimatur suggests that these conclusions carry greater official weight.

Generally speaking, theologians appointed to the ITC are not legendary for being on the theological avant garde. So where did the nerve come from to overturn a concept which, even if it was never formally defined, nevertheless formed part of meat-and-potatoes Catholic teaching for centuries?

At least in part, it came from Benedict XVI.

As early as 1984, Ratzinger told Vittorio Messori in an interview that became The Ratzinger Report:

“Limbo was never a defined truth of the faith. Personally – and here I am speaking more as a theologian and not as Prefect of the Congregation – I would abandon it, since it was only a theological hypothesis. It formed part of a secondary thesis in support of a truth which is absolutely of first significance for the faith, namely, the importance of baptism. …. One should not hesitate to give up the idea of ‘limbo’ if need be (and it is worth noting that the very theologians who proposed ‘limbo’ also said that parents could spare the child limbo by desiring its baptism and through prayer); but the concern behind it must not be surrendered. Baptism has never been a side issue for the faith; it is not now, nor will it ever be.”

Ratzinger repeated that idea on various occasions. It’s unlikely that the ITC’s conclusions would have been so bold if members were not aware of Benedict’s encouragement to move in this direction.

Broadly speaking, the document on limbo has been welcomed by more liberal Catholics, who see it both as an expression of compassion and as a welcome example of doctrinal development. It has unnerved some conservatives, who wonder what other markers of traditional Catholic identity might be on the chopping block.

The second move that is a personal touch of Benedict XVI is the forthcoming motu proprio on the Tridentine Mass. Though its precise contents are not yet known, it is expected to broaden permission for priests to celebrate the older Mass.

Certainly, there are elements in the Vatican that have long been working towards the document, above all Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, President of the Ecclesia Dei Commission which deals with issues pertaining to the old Mass. Yet the desire to see the older liturgy preserved is also a very personal concern of Benedict XVI, and again one for which there is a clear record in his writings prior to his election as pope.

In his memoirs up to the year 1978, published in English as Milestones, Ratzinger describes in touching language how as a young man growing up in Bavaria he became caught up in the drama of the Catholic Mass.

“It was a riveting adventure to move by degrees into the mysterious world of the liturgy, which was being enacted before us and for us on the altar,” he writes. “It was becoming more and more clear to me that here I was encountering a reality that no one had simply thought up, a reality that no official authority or great individual had created. This mysterious fabric of texts and actions had grown from the faith of the church over the centuries. It bore the whole weight of history within itself, and yet, at the same time, it was much more than the product of human history.”

Understandably, Ratzinger has been anxious to protect the rite that had such a powerful impact on him. He has been critical of liturgical changes after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), especially Paul VI’s decision to suppress the Tridentine Mass.

“The prohibition ...introduced a breach into the history of the liturgy whose consequences could only be tragic,” Ratzinger wrote in Milestones. “I am convinced that the crisis in the church that we are experiencing today is to a large extent due to the disintegration of the liturgy.”

As a cardinal, Ratzinger celebrated Tridentine Masses on several public occasions. In April 1998, for example, he celebrated a Mass in Weimar, Germany, for 350 members of the Lay Association for the Classical Roman Rite. Prior to that, Ratzinger was the featured speaker at a conference sponsored by Una Voce, an activist group promoting the older Mass.

Ratzinger’s preference for older liturgical practices was also expressed in 1993, when he contributed a 27-line preface to a book by German priest Klaus Gamber, Turned Towards the Lord, in which Gamber argued that one of the central liturgical innovations of Vatican II – turning the altars towards the congregation – should be reversed. Ratzinger said he found Gamber's arguments persuasive, but he would not act on them immediately for the sake of “liturgical peace.” Eventually, however, he said the church needs a “reform of the reform.”

Though it’s an open question how much impact the motu proprio will have at the level of actual liturgical practice, in the court of public opinion it will certainly be spun as a victory for the church’s traditional wing.

So, what do these two very personal touches of Benedict XVI have to teach us about his papacy?

At first blush, they seem mutually contradictory. One has been taken as a sign of moderation and openness to change, the other as an effort to roll back the clock. Do they simply cancel each other out? Perhaps they illustrate the pastoral wisdom once articulated by John XXIII, that he had to be pope “both for those with their foot on the brake, and those with their foot on the gas.”

Maybe there’s also a deeper lesson.

Perhaps what these two seemingly incongruent moves actually suggest is that Benedict XVI is his own man, beholden to no party or faction, and hence capable of making decisions that alternately delight and confound all the existing tribes that currently dot the Catholic landscape. They suggest that the pope is not an ideologue, and hence difficult to pin down according to partisan logic. He makes decisions based upon his judgment of the merits of a case, rather than how that decision is going to play in any given quarter.

If that’s the right reading – and it seems difficult to explain these moves in any other way, especially with one coming so hard on the heels of the other, and especially since both are the culmination of decades of theological reflection – then Benedict too may shape up, like his predecessor, though in much less splashy fashion, as a “pope of surprises.”

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here