By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Even for someone as erudite as Joseph Ratzinger, there’s a certain learning curve involved in stepping into what is arguably the most singular job on earth – that of pope. His performance thus far in Austria suggests that after some hard experience, he’s working out the kinks.
Twice during his papacy to date, Benedict XVI’s failure to distinguish between the inner essence of Christianity and its historical track record has caused not a small amount of heartache. The first episode came at the University of Regensburg in Bavaria in September 2006, when the pope spoke on reason and faith, seeming to imply that Christianity necessarily rejected violence and coercion while Islam condoned it.
While many observers were sympathetic to Benedict’s implied critique of Islam radicalism, critics insisted that Christianity has not always spurned the sword either, pointing to well-known chapters of its history such as the Crusades and the Inquisition.
The second illustration of the point came in Brazil last May, when Benedict again generated anger by claiming that Christianity was not an imposition upon the indigenous persons of the New World. For those who knew the checkered history of close relations between evangelization and colonialism, it seemed an outrageous claim.
In both instances, those who knew the pope’s mind understood what he meant – that Christianity as a system of beliefs rejects violence and responds to the yearnings of all cultures, even if individual Christians haven’t always behaved in ways consistent with those convictions. Yet because most people in the world don’t know the pope’s mind, in both cases Benedict was constrained to do ex post facto damage control.
In both cases, most commentary after the fact suggested that a single phrase acknowledging the mixed historical record, even a dependent clause in the right place, could have avoided much of the polemics.
In Austria, the pope chose to defuse the bomb before it went off.
In his homily this morning for an open-air Mass at Mariazell, the most popular Marian sanctuary in Austria, the pope made one of his trademark arguments – that truth does not breed intolerance, but rather a healthy capacity to distinguish good from evil. Truth is ultimately meant to set human beings free, not to chain them down.
As such, that claim too could be misconstrued as a denial of painful chapters of church history, in which brutality or force has been justified in the name of truth. In this case, however, the pope delivered the necessary nuance himself, rather than allowing spokespersons and spin doctors to do so later.
“Yet admittedly, in the light of our history we are fearful that faith in the truth might entail intolerance,” he said. The pope explicitly acknowledged that this fear is “historically well grounded.”
Benedict then went on to argue that authentic Christian faith holds that truth cannot be imposed by force, but through the inner power of its appeal to the human conscience.
With those two simple phrases, the pope in effect acknowledged the occasional gap between what Christianity posits, and the concrete behavior of those who claim to be motivated by those beliefs. In effect, he disarmed critics who otherwise might have accused him of historical blindness.
Perhaps it was inevitable that Benedict would feel this extra degree of sensitivity in Austria, where abuses of authority and the corruption of high-sounding ideals is not an artifact of a distant past, but part of the church’s recent experience. In 1995 and again in 2004, two prelates who were most inclined to an aggressive defense of Christian truth were forced to resign – one after facing accusations of sexual abuse, the other after having allowed sexual misconduct to occur in his diocesan seminary.
Whatever the cause, Benedict’s more nuanced presentation in Austria suggests that he has learned a key lesson from negative public reaction to his earlier addresses – better to insert the caveats now, rather than waiting for the heartache that will otherwise surely follow.