Missteps of a Pope

Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to lift the excommunication of British Bishop Richard Williams, along with three other bishops appointed by an ultra-conservative archbishop more than 20 years ago, has created controversy around the world. Williams has said he believes no Jews were killed by gas chambers during World War II. Frank K. Flinn, Ph.D., adjunct professor of religious studies in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis and expert on Catholicism, says this is the latest in series of blunders that are coming to define Benedict’s papacy.

Flinn’s comments follow.

Not a few people are becoming concerned about the integrity of the Catholic Church. When Benedict XVI became pope he stated that his twin purpose was to seek the unity of Christians and to win Europe back to the church. He took the name Benedict as a symbolic gesture in honor of the chief patron saint of Europe. He claims to be the true interpreter of Vatican Council II. However, he seems to have lost his direction. He has committed a series of unending missteps if not blunders most uncharacteristic of the astute former Cardinal Ratzinger. The missteps are coming to define his papacy.

Frank Flinn

The first misstep was his 2006 Regensburg address on the relation of Christianity and Islam to the issue of reason and faith. Many claim he was misinterpreted, but the address left the impression that Benedict XVI thought that Islam, unlike Christianity, irrationally approves of the use of the sword in the spread of its faith. Whatever else may be said about the address, it demonstrated an astounding historical obliviousness to the Crusades. The address stirred massive protests in the Islamic world. As a result, many charge he set interreligious dialogue back decades with Islam, the world’s second largest religion. The Vatican has yet to resume theological dialogue with Islam.

The motives behind the next misstep are murkier. In 2007 Benedict XVI approved for wider use the pre-Vatican II Tridentine Mass in which the priest faces away from the people and uses Latin for the liturgical parts of the service. To many liberal and centrist Catholics, now used to the Eucharist in their native tongue, this move amounted to an abandonment of the liturgical letter and spirit of Vatican II. The breakaway traditionalists, spawned by Archbishop Marcel LeFebvre, naturally rejoiced at this Vatican capitulation to their viewpoint.

Shortly after the Tridentine Mass misstep, the pope proceeded to alienate the Protestants by declaring that they cannot have true churches because the term church only fits the Catholic Church. This blunder not only turned 180 degrees away from Vatican II’s declaration on ecumenical dialogue, Nostra Aetate (“In Our Time”), it angered both Protestants and Catholics who for decades had fostered that dialogue.

Finally, the pope alienated the Jews when the Vatican unilaterally lifted of the excommunication of the schismatic Lefebvrist bishops who for years have cast aspersions the papacy itself. Among the bishops exonerated is the British-born Richard Williamson. He denies the Holocaust, stating that only 200,000 Jews died during World War II. The pope’s failure to require him to renounce such views before his reconciliation has led the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and Germany’s Central Council of Jews to cut off relations with the Vatican. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany has entered into the list of denouncers. As in the Islamic affair, the Vatican is both backtracking and aggressively insisting that the pope is still a friend of the Jews. The pope now acknowledges that he was unaware of Williamson’s views. This raises the disturbing question whether lesser minions are determining policy in the Vatican.

These four missteps have deeply unsettled the more liberal wing of the European Catholic church. It remains perplexed and discouraged that the Vatican reaches out a forgiving hand to Vatican-vilifying Lefebvrists on the right while excommunicating or silencing faithful liberation theologians on the left. A final misstep, however, has even ruffled the feathers of the conservative wing. Over the heads and behind the backs of local Austrian church leaders, the pope has appointed Gerhard Maria Wagner as auxiliary bishop of Linz, Austria. In a fashion true to the American evangelist Pat Robertson, Wagner attributes the destruction of New Orleans by the hurricane Katrina in 2006 to God’s direct wrath against the “sexual pollution” of that city. The appointment has outraged a significant portion of Austria’s remaining devout Catholics. Owing to several egregious sexual scandals, church attendance in Austria is on a steep decline and Wagner’s appointment is sure to add to exodus.

Clearly something is awry in the Vatican. Why? Could it be that the pope and the Vatican do not want true theological dialogue with Protestants, Muslims and Jews? Perhaps the turn to the right is an attempt to gain more true believers as evangelical fundamentalists tried to do in America. Is it possible that the Vatican is trying to claim Europe for Roman Catholicism against the supposed threats of Protestantism and Islam?

Is the unity Benedict XVI seeks a mask for a pre-Reformation papal hegemony over Europe, including Eastern Europe? In 2006 Benedict XVI and the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople signed a Common Declaration to seek union, but Russian and other Eastern Orthodox bishops deeply distrust the Vatican attempts to regain lost bishoprics in the Ukraine and other East European venues. In the Protestant case, Vatican unity means capitulation to papal definitions, not reaching out in a mutual embrace. Could the underreported strokes suffered by the Pope in 1991 and 2003 be affecting his judgment?

What is abundantly clear is that Benedict XVI’s original lofty ideals of regaining Christian unity and returning Europe to the church are even more distant than when he began his papacy. Not only is the papacy loosening itself from the ecumenical embrace, it is also unclasping the hands of faithful Catholics. This is a papacy sadly gone astray one misstep at a time.