In this story first published in 2011, Brian Bethune considered the ways Pope Benedict XVI was changing the Catholic Church:
It wasn’t supposed to be this way, not according to confounded Vatican watchers. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was already 78 years old when he became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. He was widely seen as the arch-conservative doctrinal enforcer, the sharp spear point wielded by his charismatic rock star predecessor—Joshua to Pope John Paul II’s Moses, in the words of one Jewish scholar. The consensus opinion was that Benedict would provide a quiet, business-as-usual continuance of John Paul’s 27-year reign and, given his age, a brief pontificate that would allow the 1.1 billion-strong Roman Catholic Church time to catch its breath and consider its future options.
No one, it seems, asked Benedict what he thought of the caretaker idea.
From inflaming the Islamic world by quoting medieval anti-Muhammad remarks to welcoming disaffected Anglicans into the Roman fold, becoming personally embroiled in the clerical sex-abuse scandal, endorsing the (sometimes) use of condoms, writing a passage in his newest book exonerating Jews from the charge of killing Christ, and a host of less headline-grabbing initiatives (including a casual acceptance of the theory of evolution), Benedict—as he celebrates his 84th birthday and sixth anniversary as Pope (April 16 and 19, respectively)—continues to be far more active, innovative, and outright newsworthy than expected.
The Pope clearly has goals, large and small, that he wants to see achieved during his pontificate, however short it might turn out to be. For many, inside and outside the Church, he will be judged on his response to the sexual abuse of children by clergy. If Benedict hasn’t gone as far as some would like—such as calling a council dedicated to the scandal—he has, for the most part, assuaged Catholic anger. After the initial shocks last year, when Benedict was accused of helping cover up the scandal, increasingly angry Catholic writers have rallied to his cause.
That includes Michael Coren, the often controversial Canadian broadcaster and author whose new book, Why Catholics Are Right (to be released on the Pope’s birthday), offers an uncompromising—to put it mildly—defence of both Catholic teaching and Catholic history. Coren, like other Catholic commentators including Michael Higgins, past president of St. Jerome’s and St. Thomas Catholic universities (in Waterloo, Ont., and Fredericton, respectively), and the American Vatican correspondent John Allen, argues that Benedict’s forthright response has made him a large part of the solution for the Church.
Far more than John Paul, the present Pope has been open about the scope of the abuse and the harm inflicted; he has met time and again with victims to express his personal sorrow; he has condemned bishops for their actions—and failures to act—as well as the criminal priests they ignored or sheltered; and he has made it clear that it is the welfare of children, not the reputation of the Church, that matters. And Catholic laity have responded to his efforts, realizing, too, that the cover-ups recently revealed were mostly old cases, indicating that steps taken by the Church from the 1980s on—including by Benedict when he was Cardinal Ratzinger and the Vatican’s chief disciplinarian—had borne fruit.
It was never Benedict’s plan to see his pontificate dedicated to coping with the disaster of the sex-abuse scandal. For the German-born Pope, observers like Higgins agree, the burning issue of the day will always be the spiritual state of his home continent. “I think he sees a destructive Robespierre moment in Europe,” says Higgins, referring to the French revolutionaries who signalled their complete break with the past and with tradition by declaring 1792 to be Year One. Europe’s advanced secularization—including the slow extirpation of religious symbols (the ongoing European Court of Human Rights case seeking to ban crucifixes from Italian schoolrooms deeply troubles the Vatican)—has cut it off from the roots of its own culture, the Pope believes. Drowning in spiritual anomie, unable to speak coherently about life, death and meaning, Europe can no longer define or even defend itself.
Reversing the expulsion of faith from the public square in Europe is Benedict’s overriding aim. And he has shown himself willing to take significant, if subtle, steps to do so. Benedict’s moves to shore up Catholic identity—overseeing the restoration of the old Latin mass as an alternative rite and otherwise reaching out to alienated traditionalists—have been overshadowed by those he has made to open his Catholic practice, however cautiously, to the modern world. He clearly believes that secular society, and especially Europe, needs an infusion of faith, but he also seems willing to inject some reason into his Church.