Monday, March 24, 2008

Confounded Media grapples with the "mystery" of Pope Benedict XVI

Benedict still a mystery after 3 years as pope, says Gary Stern (USA Today March 23, 2008)

As Pope Benedict XVI's first visit to the United States nears, the most common perception of him could be boiled down to this:

He was pretty conservative before he became pope, wasn't he? He was old when he got the job. Since then, he's been kind of quiet. Doesn't seem real outgoing. He made a speech that angered Muslims. He brought back the Latin Mass, or something. And doesn't he wear Prada shoes?

On this Easter, as Benedict nears the end of his third year as pope, it's safe to say that he remains something of a white-robed enigma to most Americans — including Catholics.

"I don't think most people have figured him out, that's for sure," said the Rev. Thomas Berg, executive director of the Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person, a Catholic think tank in Thornwood, N.Y. "People may be scared away, since he is kind of an intellectual. A lot of people may not know how to get their hands around him."

As expected, we get the typical comparison of the "shy, bookish, academic" pope to his media-savvy predecessor:
Benedict is destined to be compared to the actor/poet/philosopher who preceded him as bishop of Rome. Pope John Paul II seemed to be conducting an orchestra wherever he went, with people of all faiths and no faith following his every move.

Benedict is more bookish. He tends to write and speak for those who follow Catholic life closely. And he's kind of shy.

"He's not the charismatic rock star pope that John Paul II was," said David Gibson, author of The Rule of Benedict. "Part of it is age — he was 78 when elected. But he also wants to lower the profile of the person of the pope. He doesn't want the pope to be the object of people's faith or veneration. He wants that to be Jesus. John Paul tried to draw people to the faith through his own faith, his own personality. Benedict wants to get out of the way, to present the faith and step aside."

as well as the pitting of his old persona as "Vatican enforcer" against the "kinder, friendlier" Pope:
As overseer of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger was Catholicism's warden on doctrine — nicknamed the German Shepherd, God's Rottweiler, a potential panzer pope (for a German tank), and on and on.

But that image has largely dissipated, giving way to something far less stark and, for many, less clear.

"All of that was something of a caricature to start with," said the Rev. Joseph Komonchak, a senior theologian at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. "But he has been far more collegial and accommodating than condemnatory. Temperamentally, he is a quiet person, shy, an intellectual. His main emphasis has been to draw Catholics back to what is central, what we have to offer the world, what we believe about Jesus Christ."

In the end, Benedict is made to fit the preconceived framework of "liberal" vs. "conservative":
If you want to see him as conservative, there's his Regensburg speech, his loosening of restrictions on the Latin Mass, a Vatican document restating the Catholic position that Protestant churches are not full churches, his approval of a policy that men with gay "tendencies" should not be priests, and his statement in Brazil last year that missionaries did not impose their beliefs on native cultures.

If you want to see him as surprisingly moderate, you can look to his many statements about protecting the environment, his meeting with dissident theologian and longtime nemesis Hans Kung, his desire to meet with Muslim leaders, and his overall desire to be a teaching pastor to all Catholics who want to listen.

Ignatius Press' Carl Olson responds (Benedict XVI, International Man of Mystery! Insight Scoop March 23, 2008):
There seems to be the notion, on the part of some folks, that a somewhat shy academic cannot also be a vigorous defender of the Faith as well as a personable and eloquent pastor of souls. Why are these so incompatible? Likewise, why is loosening the restrictions on the Latin Mass considered to a "conservative" act when it is actually a liberating/liberal act (in the best sense of those oft-abused words)? And isn't the desire to be a proper steward of creation who properly conserves natural resources and acts responsibly re: the material world a conservative action? Not, of course, if you use the typical American Political Lexicon for such things. And therein, I think, lies much of the problem: trying to force what is Catholic and oriented toward the permanent things into the cramped, narrow confines of sectarian ideology.
The "transition of Benedict from Vatican enforcer to 'Kinder, Gentler' Pope" meme does have some credibility, but like Olson I fear this approach adopted by the media is often employed to conceal their basic inability to grasp the fundamental points of Benedict's pontificate.

That said, I think that Gary Stern is certainly to be commended for putting together Westchester Journal-News' excellent website on the papal visit -- which is by leaps and bounds better than any other newspaper thus far.

  • National Catholic Reporter's John Allen Jr., a long-time commentator on Pope Benedict and Vatican affairs, provides A "one-stop-shopping" guide to Pope Benedict's U.S. visit, which gives some background and context to the papal trip. He provides links to Benedict XVI's itinerary and to other resources. Mr. Allen will be accompanying Benedict XVI on the papal plane and throughout the trip, and will be filing regular news postings under his "Daily Updates" section of

  • Scholar, pastor, enigma: German pope defies easy caricature - According to John Thavis, Catholic News Service (February 18, 2008):
    For many non-Christians, Pope Benedict is an enigma, a man who has visited a mosque and prayed toward Mecca with his Muslim host, yet who repeatedly speaks about the need to proclaim Christ as the unique savior for all people.

    He is hailed as a liturgical hero by traditionalist Catholics for having widened possible use of the Tridentine Mass and introduced touches of antiquity in his own liturgies.

    At a more basic level, the millions of Americans who do not follow church news very closely may know Pope Benedict simply as a soft-spoken bookworm who like cats and plays classical piano.

    The "real Benedict" no doubt has some elements of all these partial portraits, but in a combination that defies easy caricature. This is a pope who brings depth of thought to every word or action, in ways that are not entirely predictable.

    To his credit, Thavis brings in U.S. scholar and papal biographer George Weigel (author of God's Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church ), and Jesuit Father Christian W. Troll, a German professor of Islamic studies and a long-time friend of the Holy Father to help clear the air of intrigue. He closes the article with a decent biography and overview of Benedict's pontificate and highlights his many accomplishments. Worth reading.


  • Man of Mystery! - Amy Welborn responds as well:
    The point is, claiming that “Benedict is still a mystery” doesn’t seem to me to be an assertion that belongs in a news article. It’s in the same category (or even worse) as claiming that “many believe” something without any evidence that, in fact, “many believe” that thing at all. (Just as the phrase “critics say” can function as a way of framing a story around a writer’s own opnion or agenda). I mean, how is “Benedict is still a mystery” a news story? Are there big questions being raised on Catholic blogs or in Catholic parishes or chanceries in which people are sitting around scratching their heads wondering, “Who is Benedict? I just don’t get him?” Are they publishing articles and holding meetings to address the mystery?

    To begin a news article with the assertion that “Benedict is still a mystery” is not, in fact, news reporting. It’s the creation of a thesis and then finding voices to support the thesis. It would be fantastic if, over the next month, journalists could get back to basics, stop trying to create stories and simply report: This is who Benedict is. This is what he writes about. This is what he talks about. These are the ideas that have formed his intellectual life and spirituality.

    Mystery solved.