The pope

Published on OpenDemocracy, by Michael Walsh, April 25, 2008.

The real target:

Here, however, is where the small details of the pope`s six-day trip do start to matter. For rather oddly, Benedict had come to praise the secular. In a largely unremarked passage which must have had the 19th-century pontiffs turning in their sarcophagi, he lauded the secular political order, and its separation of church and state. This may be a reality taken for granted in the US and in much – though regrettably not in all – of Europe as well as elsewhere. It has also been Catholic doctrine since the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s (though as late as the eve of the council there were cardinals in the Roman curia fighting a rearguard action). But even today, some Catholics in the US regard their constitution as an Enlightenment project, and not something to which the devout should sign up. Benedict`s praise of the US constitution was, therefore, a significant moment: yet another problem for those apologists for Catholicism who insist that their church\`s teaching never changes …

… The diplomacy of faith:

Faith, and the spreading of the faith, is what Christians are supposed to be about: Benedict called his transatlantic trip a missionary journey. In the modern world, however, Christian mission is highly complex. Benedict has reached out to Muslim scholars, to Jews, and to non-Roman Catholic Christians; at the same time he has ostentatiously baptised a convert from Islam, reintroduced into the Catholic liturgy a prayer for the conversion of the Jews, and declared – or at least, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith over which he used to preside declared in July 2007 – that only the Roman Catholic faith can properly be called a true church (the Orthodox was a church but suffered from the `wound` of not recognising the primacy of the pope, where the other churches lacked apostolic succession and “cannot be called ‘churches’ in the proper sense”). It is hard to see consistency here.

As Cardinal Ratzinger (and possibly as a good German) he expressed opposition to the entry of Turkey into Europe. That is unlikely to happen on his watch in any case, but as pope he has in any case been more circumspect. He wants debate with Islam, but he also wants reciprocity. If there are mosques in Christian lands, why should there not be churches in Muslim territory? This policy appears to be bearing fruit. A church was established in Qatar in March 2008, albeit unobtrusive and with no outward sign of Christianity, leaving only Saudi Arabia without a Christian place of worship – and there are even hopes of there.

Here again, there are mixed signals. One of Benedict`s first acts as pope was to remove Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, an Arabist, from his position in the Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and send him in February 2006 as nuncio (ambassador) to Egypt, and emissary to the Arab League. This move took many in the Vatican by surprise, and was widely seen as presaging a tougher attitude to Islam than that fostered by John Paul … (full text).

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