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The emerging patterns of Benedict's papacy

Pope Benedict XVIThe directions of Benedict XVI’s papacy continue to exercise commentators. But they are consistent with his gift for symbolism and his emphasis on the ethical dimensions of culture.

When Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope, astute commentators, both those who admired and those who disliked him, remarked on his intelligence. They did not believe his predecessor unintelligent, but Ratzinger’s intelligence seemed quicker and more able to engage with complexity. All wondered how he would deploy this gift.

A year later, we are better able to judge. Although he continues to puzzle those who place him in simple categories, patterns, surprising to some, are becoming visible within his papacy.

Pope Benedict XVIMany expected that after the activism of John Paul II, he would be apolitical. Yet recently he addressed the Australian Ambassador on the need to ask forgiveness in indigenous reconciliation. Some saw his words as admonishing Mr Howard that he should say sorry. The judgment was crude.

The Pope did not look at the plight of indigenous people in terms of administration or of politics. He saw it through the lens of culture. Indigenous deprivation represents a wound in the relationship between Aborigines and other Australians. Because it so affects human relations, it is also a moral issue. To the reality of divisions between human beings, corresponds the moral ideal of reconciliation, which is realised only when people ask and receive forgiveness.

Pope Benedict XVIFor the Pope, the business of politics is to enable and give structure to this cultural and ethical demand. So, the Pope’s words about reconciliation had political implications for Australian public life. But they did not amount to a political strategy.

In being ready to reflect on aspects of national culture, and in analysing confidently the moral dimensions of culture, Pope Benedict resembles his predecessor. Both men are convinced that the Catholic Church can and should address public moral issues, and that as Bishops of Rome they have a unique responsibility.

They differ in the era of church life that is their natural home. John Paul II’s world was the post-Reformation Church, seen from a Polish perspective. He interpreted Vatican II in continuity with this church. His understanding of the role of the Pope in the world also belonged to that period.

Pope Benedict XVIPope Benedict is rooted in the Catholic Church before the Reformation. In his academic dissertations, he examined the church that Augustine and Bonaventure portrayed. By studying their texts, he sought to illuminate contemporary issues.

Bonaventure and Augustine were both masters in the exploration of symbols. They recognised the resonance of scriptural symbols, and developed them to engage with their own culture. This attention to symbols, which marks many of the Pope’s sermons, makes room for complexity and pluralism in the understanding of central realities like the church.

This occasionally puzzles commentators, who judge Pope Benedict by simple oppositions, like liberal and conservative, authoritarian and democratic. In the sermon he gave at his installation, for example, many believed that in referring to the many sheep and the one flock in his introductory homily, he called on other churches to return to Rome. But this interpretation imposed a 19th-century style of reading on a richly symbolic homily. The argument was more subtle and more personal, based on a multi-faceted exploration of the image of sheep and shepherding.

Pope Benedict XVISimilarly, when the Pope surrendered the traditional Papal title, Patriarch of the West, commentators puzzled at the significance of the gesture. Some thought the gesture represented a more limited understanding of the Papacy. Others thought he wanted to highlight it by downplaying the importance of Patriarchs, a key symbolic factor in the understanding of the Eastern churches. Set within the context of the early church, the Pope’s gesture simply placed the Papacy in the ministry of Peter and Paul in Rome, which saw his role as Bishop of Rome to confirm all his brethren in faith. It was of a piece with his preference on his coat of arms for the Bishop’s mitre over the papal tiara.

Pope Benedict has not forgotten his own theological formation or convictions. Nor has he imposed them. His understanding of contemporary culture continues to reflect the negative Catholic account of the Enlightenment that he inherited. But this is counterbalanced by his familiarity with Christian symbolism and adeptness in using it. It lends itself to relate Christian faith to culture in a strong but relaxed way. It also provides more space than was left by the more assertive style of John Paul II.



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