How Pope Benedict has disappointed the right.

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
April 11 2008 5:15 PM

"God's Rottweiler" Becomes the Church's "Beloved German Shepherd"

How Pope Benedict has disappointed the right.

For more on the pope's visit, read " On Faith," a blog on religion produced by the Washington Post and Newsweek.  Religion professor Donna Freitas makes three wishes for the Catholic church.  On Faith's Sally Quinn interviews clergy-abuse victim Barbara Blaine. Anthony Stevens-Arroyo discusses the pope as a defender of faith. And "Campus Catholic" Elizabeth Tenety writes on faith, hope, and love.

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Pope Benedict shares virtually none of the core political beliefs of American neocons. In his book Jesus of Nazareth,he warned against "capitalism that degrades man to the level of merchandise." He has consistently spoken out against the Iraq war. And the whole reason Benedict is coming to America is to address the United Nations, which is not the neocons' favorite organization. Even when Benedict has endorsed a part of the conservative agenda, he has done so with none of the rigidity that characterizes the writings of American Catholic conservatives. Throughout his career, first as theologian, then as bishop and cardinal, and now as pope, Benedict has emphasized the centrality of the person of Christ in the salvation of the world. Yet he has been adept at making profound interreligious gestures, meeting with Muslim diplomats at the Vatican to soothe relations after an unfortunate remark in a speech, reaching out to Eastern Orthodox Christians at every opportunity, and even framing the central section of his book Jesus of Nazareth as a response to a book by his friend Rabbi Jacob Neusner. When Benedict brought back the traditional Tridentine Mass, he changed certain prayers from the Good Friday liturgy that were offensive to Jews.

Still, Pope Benedict is no liberal. One of the problems with most press coverage of the Catholic Church is that the left-right template doesn't fit very well. The right tends to ignore or water down the church's teachings about social justice, while the left frequently minimizes the church's teachings on sexual ethics. A pope can't side with either group but must love them both and try to communicate the church's teachings in their entirety and integrity.

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The difference between Ratzinger the cardinal—the man conservatives saw as an answer to their prayers—and Benedict the pope—who has disappointed those same Catholics—has less to do with any changes within the man himself. He has, by almost all accounts, always been brilliant, concerned about overly hasty theological change, personally kind, prayerful. What has changed is his job. For 23 years, Cardinal Ratzinger's job was to protect the deposit of faith from distortions or manipulations which, even if well-intended, might alter the content of what Catholics believe was given them by God when He founded the church. This was a difficult and often controversial task, and it was a desk job. When he was elected pope, he became a pastor. Albacete says, "He is committed to exploring how faith and reason work together to lead man to the truth about himself. Benedict would never diminish himself, or his office, fighting tired ideological battles." The change in roles can be found in another way: Until he was elected pope, had anyone ever seen a picture of Joseph Ratzinger embracing children?

All popes have three central tasks: to lead the church in prayer, to teach the truths of the faith, and to govern the universal church. To watch Benedict preside at Mass is to see someone whose interiority, whose depth, is almost tangible. Liturgies are never rushed. The sermons are always exquisite. As a teacher, Benedict has used his weekly general audiences to revisit the teachings of the fathers of the church, those early writers and thinkers who shaped Christian theology before the divisions between East and West. His writings are accessible and profound, and his best-selling book may reach people whom traditional methods of evangelization miss. Some quibble about his governance of the church—that appointments take too long, that he is not accessible enough to this group or that. But Benedict has gone from being known derisively as "God's Rottweiler" to becoming the church's "beloved German shepherd."

Cheering the pope in Washington and New York will be those Catholics who look to their church for comfort and challenge, for solace and strength, people who are more concerned about loving their pope than they are about any ideological battles within or without the church. Joining in the cheers will be many of those who greeted his election with trepidation. And if there is any gnashing of teeth, it will be coming from the bleachers on the far right.