Analysis: Pope Benedict sets his agenda

ROLAND FLAMINI, UPI Chief International Correspondent

WASHINGTON, April 22 (UPI) -- First the excitement of an instant papal election, and then the slow realization of the problems awaiting Pope Benedict XVI's attention. Part of the legacy of the late Pope John Paul II to his successor -- along with the generous reserve of goodwill, the sense of anticipation among many of the world's 1.1 billion Roman Catholics, and the enormous stature of the papacy -- is a long catalog of pressing issues ranging from doctrinal questions to the choice of church music, and from relations with China to reforming the central government of the church, the Vatican Curia.

On Thursday, Pope Benedict XVI restored to the posts they had automatically lost with the death of the late pope all of his senior collaborators in the Vatican, starting with the Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano. Popes have not always done this and it was seen as an indication of the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's desire to place the emphasis on continuity with his predecessor and friend. Vatican experts said it sends the message that there would be no radical shifts in the core policies of the previous pontificate.


On the moral front, Vatican specialists expect little shift in the church's position on women priests, the great "sanctity of life" campaign sustained by Pope John Paul II, gay marriages, and (though this is less certain) clerical celibacy. But according to some news reports from Rome Friday, there were indications that the ban on divorced Catholics who remarry receiving the Sacraments was to be relaxed. The rules forbidding artificial contraception were also being quietly revisited, according to Vatican sources, particularly in relation to the defense against AIDS.

Pope Benedict XVI helped both to shape and to put into practice many of his predecessor's teachings, and it is easy to think of the new pope as an extension of the old one. But there were areas of disagreement. The two men sometimes viewed issues from a different optic, but where it mattered they were of one mind. Igor Man, a respected Italian specialist on the contemporary papacy, drew this distinction between the two popes: "Pope Wojtyla (John Paul) was a postmodern prophet, Ratzinger is a perceptive reader of contemporary society, tough in his condemnation of sin, but capable of compassion."

For the experts, of course, the challenge is to identify in what way and to what extent differences between the two popes will change things in the future. The German-born cardinal's own agenda is "as hard as a diamond," wrote Vatican expert Sandro Magister on Thursday. For example, the new pope was openly critical of John Paul's willingness to beg forgiveness for the Catholic Church's past wrongs, and there are likely to be less of these so-called "papal mea culpas" coming from the Vatican in the future.


Pope Benedict fully endorsed John Paul's act of contrition for the church's treatment of the Jewish people. On the other hand he felt that the proliferation of apologies -- for the Inquisition, for the Christian Crusades in the Holy Land, etc. -- diluted the impact of the more important ones.

As a cardinal, Benedict XVI also criticized the endless succession of saints and blesseds that Pope John Paul created. The late pope approved more canonizations than all of his predecessors combined in the past four centuries -- that is, since the causes of saints have followed the canonical form in use now. Ironically, the new pontiff's first decision in this area will be how to handle the public pressure to fast-track the canonization of his predecessor. After that, he can be expected to be more selective in creating new saints, limiting the choice to individuals who would have the broadest impact on the Catholic community as a whole.

More complex is likely to be the new pope's approach to interreligious dialogue. The Assisi gathering launched by Pope John Paul, the annual meeting of representatives of the world's religions to pray side by side in the city of St. Francis, had great symbolic strength. On the other hand, Ratzinger's document "Dominus Jesus," written in 2000 reaffirms faith in Jesus Christ as the only savior of all men of yesterday, today, and tomorrow. The consensus is that while Pope Benedict will retain the Assisi meetings and the interreligious dialogue that goes with them there is likely to be more stress on the pre-eminence of Christianity and Jesus's commandment to preach the Gospel to the whole world.


As Sandro Magister observed, "Benedict XVI does not dream of the mass conversation of whole peoples for the Church of tomorrow. For many regions, he foresees a minority Christianity, but he wants this to be 'creative.' He prefers the missionary impulse to timid dialogue with nonbelievers and men of other faiths."

Pope Benedict is more of a traditionalist than his predecessor in the embellishments that he considers permissible when it comes to the liturgy, and in what he regards as suitable in the case of church music. Analysts expect tighter guidelines on both after a synod of bishops in October convened to discuss these issues. An accomplished pianist whose favorite composer is Mozart, Pope Benedict prefers classical sacred music to any other. The two popes differed in their approach to making the liturgy relevant to the modern world. Pope John Paul loved the great ethnic mass celebrations of his foreign trips with their drums and native musicians (or their rock bands), their swaying, hand-clapping congregations and priests in colorful, native-inspired vestments, even though many church officials feel that some of the innovations introduced by local churches particularly in the Third World following Vatican Council II distorted the sacred rites.


Pope John Paul II paid little attention to the Vatican Curia, the papal executive branch, but the new pope who comes from the heart of the institution and literally knows its workings inside-out almost certainly already has ideas how it should be streamlined to cope with the demands of the 21st century.

Most analysts agree the three big problems facing Pope Benedict's pontificate are bioethics and the rapid development of the life sciences, the church's relations with Islam, and how to counter the decline of Catholicism at its cultural roots -- Europe. The 26 years of Pope John Paul II's papacy coincided with the development of technologies that posed bioethical challenges, from test-tube babies to death-postponing medical care. The late pope spoke out against embryonic stem cell research. But the life sciences continue to make giant strides and loom as the new pope's biggest single challenge -- and the challenge of the century for the Catholic Church.

In the past, the church's traditional policy toward Islam focused on protecting Christian minorities in Muslim countries. For decades the Vatican has maintained its dialogue with Islamic regimes through diplomatic relations with several Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt. But that focus has shifted closer to home as mass migration has brought Muslims in ever-increasing numbers to the main European cities of France, Spain, and -- of course -- Germany. Local hierarchies are left to their own devices in dealing with the transplanted Muslim communities in their midst and attitudes vary: some regard it as a problem that contributes to undermining the once solid Christian character of Europe while others use it to engage the Muslims through their clergy and community leaders.


These critics feel the Vatican has only just begun to address the broad implications of this situation; but it has clearly been on Pope Benedict's mind. He has, for example, spoken out against Turkey's proposed admission to the European Union. Such a move, he believes would be as a further negative influence in Europe. The new pope's concerns about Christianity losing out to a cult of consumerism and religious indifference were clearly shared by the cardinals in the conclave -- at least by enough of them to elect him. In many of the nations of Central Europe, in Spain, Germany, Poland, statistics of church membership are falling, very sharply in some places. One symptom of the church's diminishing influence was the EU's s rejection last year of the pope's request to include a reference to Europe's Judeo-Christian roots in the preamble of its new constitution. Instead, the introduction contains a reference to the inspiration of the Age of Reason.

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