Pope Benedict XVI Pledges Unity Among Christians and Other Faiths
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RAY SUAREZ: What challenges does Pope Benedict XVI face around the world, in the Roman Catholic Church, and with other religions? We begin with a look at his record on those issues.
For that I spoke earlier today with John Allen, Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter and author of “Cardinal Ratzinger: The Vatican’s Enforcer of the Faith.”
John Allen, welcome. What does Pope Benedict’s past as a senior Vatican official tell us about how easy quipped to handle what are said to be his two biggest assignments, reaching out to Roman Catholics in other parts of the world and reaching out to the majority of the world that isn’t Catholic, isn’t Christian?
JOHN ALLEN: To some extent I suppose it’s a mixed bag. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, is obviously European and his intellectual preparation reflects that European experience. He is a man who has reflected long and hard on what he would consider to be a secularized, relativistic culture in the developed West. You heard him in that homily before the conclave refer to what he called a dictatorship of relativism in the West. One would imagine that at least in the early stages of his pontificate, that would be sort of job number one.
On the other hand, having served as pinnacle of power here in the Vatican for 24 years as John Paul II’s doctrinal czar, Cardinal Ratzinger on a routine basis met with bishops from all over the world, including the global south where two-thirds of the Catholics in the world today live. And I think in that sense, though, he has not traveled especially widely in the developing world, by virtue of those conversations and simply the information flow that washes through the Vatican on a regular basis, he’s keenly aware of the issues — both social and theological issues — that are facing Roman Catholicism in other parts of the world, and also the world outside the confines of the Roman Catholic Church.
And more to the point, he is no longer the doctrinal policeman of the Catholic Church. He is now the pope. And I think he is keenly aware as well that that imposes a kind of universal obligation to be concerned not simply with the European context of the whole world, and not simply the Catholic context, but to function as a voice of conscience in global affairs for people of other faiths and people of no faith.
RAY SUAREZ: Is there likely to be a tension between the belief in much of the global South and Latin America, in South Asia and Africa that there needs to be a local response to local conditions for Catholics, a tension between that point of view and the new pope’s own belief in the centrality of Rome and Roman authority?
JOHN ALLEN: Yes, although I think it’s striking that in the message he delivered at the end of his first Mass as the pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church this morning in the Sistine Chapel, Benedict XVI identified a number of things that he would like to see as hallmarks of his pontificate. And one of them was collaboration, communication, shared responsibility with the bishops of the world. Of course in Catholic debate, the code word for all of that is collegiality, which means the participation of lower levels of authority in decision making.
Now obviously time will tell if that indeed becomes one of the pole stars of his papacy, but it was an interesting note for him to strike. However, I think it also has to be said that it’s quite clear that this pope, while he may be willing to be flexible on matters of practice and discipline, is certainly likely to be rock solid and unmovable on issues of doctrine.
RAY SUAREZ: The Church is in some parts of the world strongest in those places where the masses are poorest. What about those places where politics inevitably overlaps with religion? What’s Pope Benedict’s past when it comes to liberation theology?
JOHN ALLEN: Well, on the specific issue of liberation theology, the new pope, when he was Cardinal Ratzinger in the Vatican, has a very clear track record of not being terribly impressed by it. In the 1980s, as you will remember, Ray, liberation theology was the great dividing line in Latin American Catholicism. Some Catholics wanted to align the Church with progressive movements for social change resisting the military dictatorship. Others saw that as an unacceptable politicization of the faith and Cardinal Ratzinger came down strongly on the second side of the argument on the grounds that it was in a sense Marxism under another guise.
And I would expect that that would continue to be the case under his pontificate as Benedict XVI. On the other hand, the cardinals during these 13 general congregation meetings when they met leading up to the conclave, especially the cardinals from the global South, were very strong on the idea that whoever the future pope would be, he would have to be a passionate advocate of justice for the world’s poor. And I would expect that Benedict XVI, as John Paul II before him, would try his very best to articulate those arguments.
There is a balancing act that is going to have to go on in this pontificate between insisting on the proper distinction as the pope would see it between politics and religion, and on the other hand giving voice to the legitimate aspirations of the world’s poor and the victims of war and disease, and so forth, which of course have to be the concern of Christianity.
RAY SUAREZ: What about relations with other Christian churches? Wasn’t the former Cardinal Ratzinger the author of a document that called other churches deficient?
JOHN ALLEN: Well, actually that document, Dominus Jesus, from September 2001, referred to non-Christians as being in a gravely deficient situation with respect to Christians. So the way he pitched the boundaries in that case would bring in other Christian denominations, would leave on the outside non-Christian faiths, but I think it can be said both on the ecumenical front, that is the relationships among the branches of Christianity, and also on the inter-faith front, once again the new pope brings to some extent a degree of baggage to the conversation.
He is on the one hand personally gracious, humble, and very much a man of dialogue, very gifted listener. On the other hand, again rooted in his sense that the traditional teachings of the Church must be defended. He also has not been shy about asserting what he would consider to be the superiority of Roman Catholicism over other branches of Christianity and of Christianity over other religions. In the past he has, for example, referred to Buddhism as an auto-erotic spirituality. And he has most recently opposed the entry of Turkey into the European Union on the grounds that that would dilute the Christian identity of the continent that was after all the cradle of Christian civilization.
So there’s a fine line he is going to have to walk between on the one hand reaching out, and on the other hand asserting and defending what he would consider to be poor markers of Christian identity.
RAY SUAREZ: John Allen, thanks for being with us.
JOHN ALLEN: You’re welcome, Ray.