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Wednesday, April 20, 2005

A New Benedict

Is the media extraordinary? First we have the making of a man's death into mawkish pseudo-reverential theatre, breathlessly accompanied by commentators many of whom couldn't give a fig for Christianity at other times; then the feeding at the buzz and the excitement of watching for the white smoke (far more entertaining than Council Tax) ... but now we have the "It's Ratzinger!" factor as these same hacks don the more traditional garb of pitting liberal against conservative and tut-tutting about condoms.

Don't get me wrong; AIDS in the developing world and the Vatican's deadly intransigence on birth control is no slight matter, but am I really supposed to take seriously the motives and accuracy of a press that will both praise and condemn in the one breath and not blink? Do the chattering classes really care about such things? Mostly not I suspect, but:- "Hey! No one puts on a show like Rome" ... and I would have to agree; but that's hardly the issue is it? The issue is how the papacy will fare and how the Roman Catholic Church will respond to its current crisis in the west.

Pope Benedict XVI seems to be saying that you hold the line and if the Church in any area shrinks; it shrinks. No one expects him to be a clone of his predecessor and such comparisons are odious but there is an admissible issue here. Pope John Paul II held the line but he had the common touch. He could reach out to people and constrain them to come in .. even if what he represented didn't appeal to all Roman Catholics and even if it didn't work in Europe. Pope Benedict XVI is not in this mould at all. There is a danger here that unless he adopts a more pastoral approach to the one he has presented so far he really will preside over the Church's final demise in this continent.

Is this God's will? How can it be? The Church perished in North Africa under the assault of Islam, not, I contend, because this was God's judgement for its sinfulness or lack or faith, but simply because human affairs prevailed against it. This is the state of the Roman Catholic Church in Europe today. Europe has left it behind with the Church clinging to a version of European Catholicism that many Catholics now find either deeply embarassing or irrelevant. Secularism has its roots in a wounded western Christianity, not in a faithless ideology as such. Still we find in Europe the deep but inchoate feeling that somehow Rome cannot be trusted. Even Eastern Europe is not immune. Reversing secularism will require more than "holding the line." It will require regaining Europe's trust and that will not easily be achieved.

Is Pope Benedict XVI up to the task? Well, with the caveat that even a Pope has limitations when leading a body of one billion people, we can only hope and pray that he is. Only time will tell. It is far too soon to tell and he certainly shouldn't be assessed on his existing track record alone. A man who defends a friend may behave differently to the one who now stands in his shoes. Let's hope so I say.

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