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April 28, 2005 • Volume 13 Number 16

Center for Christian-Jewish Learning Executive Director Philip A. Cunningham says Pope Benedict XVI faces challenging theological questions related to Judaism and Christianity.

New Pope, New Era? Faculty Offer Views on Benedict XVI

On April 19, the Boston College community watched with millions around the world as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected as Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, choosing the name of Benedict XVI.

In the days that followed, and as the details of Benedict's life and career became more widely known - his childhood in Nazi Germany; his role in the Second Vatican Council; his revulsion at student unrest in Germany and subsequent shift to the right - Boston College Chronicle spoke with faculty members about the new pope and what the Catholic Church, and the rest of the world, might expect from Benedict XVI.

Some faculty cautioned against making assumptions about the pope based on his much-discussed conservative views, or in comparison with his popular predecessor, John Paul II.

"The new Pope Benedict should not be written off," said part-time faculty member Raymond Helmick, SJ (Theology). "There's so much intelligence in him, and I was especially impressed by what he said in his first Mass. He has a reputation for being negative on matters such as religious pluralism, so I can see him wanting to correct that impression.

"It's been noted pretty widely, but Cardinal Ratzinger was in fact a very progressive theological voice at the time of the Second Vatican Council. He was instrumental in marshalling support against the Vatican Curia members who wanted to hold back the council reforms; he was the one who called the Holy Office 'a source of scandal to the outside world,' and of course later on he became the head of the office's successor, the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith."

A Jesuit doctoral fellow in philosophy from Kenya, Rev. Charles Oduke, SJ, said he welcomed the former Cardinal Ratzinger's emphasis on "engaging pluralism without being relativistic" or watering down the living message of the Gospel.

In Africa, he said, a growing Pentecostal movement is winning many away from Catholicism, with the evangelicals' greatest appeal their uncompromising faith. A Catholic Church regarded as firm in its beliefs would retain African followers, not drive them away, said the Kenyan priest.

"The gift of faith is something of great value that has been handed down to us from the Apostles and their successors," Fr. Oduke said. "We have the obligation to preserve it, share it and hand it on to others. For us to be credible, the witness and authenticity of our lives as believers is crucial. The Office of the Holy Father is a guardian of that.

"We must admit that his previous job as head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith is probably the most difficult job in the Roman Curia. It is a responsibility, which no one wants - it has more critics than applicants. I can't remember any past holder of that office bagging any rave reviews. For known historical reasons dating back to the days of the Inquisition, we Jesuits have always had tense relations with that office.

"The only 'fault' that the former Cardinal Ratzinger has, if any, is that he carried out the functions of that office efficiently, effectively and perhaps too enthusiastically.

"His former office has prepared him well for carrying out the reforms needed in the Roman curia. Also, as one who was a peritus to Vatican II, he now has the task of ensuring the completion of the reform agenda and vision of that great ecumenical council.

"I believe that we 'ain't seen nothing yet.' The new pope will surprise and confound many of his critics."

Benedict XVI, he said, "is a pope of our time. Let's give him a chance."

Prof. Donald Dietrich (Theology) reached farther back in Benedict's life for insight into his views and methods. "You could say that the pope has tried to be counter-cultural for much of his life: As a teenager, he resisted as much as possible the Hitler Youth movement, although he was forced to join it. How interesting that, in his first Mass as pope, he pledged to unify Christians and reach out to other religions, which deviates from his earlier statements before his election."

Assoc. Prof. Michael Connolly (Slavic and Eastern Languages) thinks the choice of the name "Benedict" may be a reference to the patron saint of Europe.

Faculty members remarked on the myriad challenges Pope Benedict faces in heading a Catholic Church comprising diverse cultures and societies, often differing markedly in interpretation of, or adherence to, church doctrines. Dietrich says Benedict's experiences as a priest in 1950s Germany may have prepared him for such a task.

"West Germany threw out many of its old ideologies and attached itself to the West in the fight against communism," he said. "Doing so, ironically, brought in many cultural influences - consumerism, materialism, more liberal social attitudes - that became forces for the German Catholic Church to reckon with.

"When Cardinal Ratzinger became a priest in the early 1950s, he and the Church had to cope with a decline in interest, especially among young people, who were leaving the Catholic youth organizations as they became more attached to the customs and influences of the West."

Assoc. Prof. Michael Connolly (Slavic and Eastern Languages), an archdeacon in the Armenian Catholic rite as well as a linguist, speculated on the message in the new pope's choice of name.

"Commentators tried to seek immediate connections with Benedict XV, the 'First World War' pope," he said. "Rather, I think that His Holiness has had in mind St. Benedict as the patron saint of Europe, to whom John Paul II added Cyril and Methodius as co-patrons, obviously from the Slavic side.

"Does this represent a commitment to the re-evangelization or re-Christianization of Europe?"

The improvement of Christian-Jewish relations was a hallmark of Pope John Paul II, said Center for Christian-Jewish Learning Executive Director Philip A. Cunningham, who says Benedict's views on the matter may still be emerging.

"Cardinal Ratzinger did not have much occasion as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to write specifically on Catholic-Jewish relations," said Cunningham. "He did publish a short collection of pertinent interviews and wrote an article for the Vatican newspaper in 2000, both of which suggest that his own theology is developing on this topic. I do not foresee any retrenchment or reversal of previous papal or Vatican documents, which is always a concern of the Jewish community about the reforms in Catholic teaching of the past four decades.

"There remain challenging theological questions facing the new pope, such as how Christ plays a saving role in Judaism's covenant with God and to what degree he will honor post-Biblical Jewish thought in his own emerging theology."

Assoc. Prof. Rev. Robert Imbelli (Theology) said three features of the Rule written by the pope's namesake, St. Benedict, to guide monastic life may offer clues to the direction of Benedict XVI's papacy.

"First and foremost is the Rule's exhortation to 'cherish Christ above all,'" said Fr. Imbelli. "The preaching and theology of Joseph Ratzinger is profoundly Christocentric. Deep personal relationship with the living Christ is the alpha and omega of the new pope's vision.

"However, rather than leading to a private 'Jesus and me' spirituality, faith in the risen Christ impels the believer to recognize the face of Christ in the stranger. Hence, and this is its second feature, the Rule enjoins the hearer to welcome the guest as one would receive Christ himself. All those who have met Joseph Ratzinger testify to his courteous welcome and his ability to listen attentively to the other.

"Finally, though the Abbot bears final authority in the community, the Rule encourages him to consult widely before making a decision that will affect all in the monastery. We do not find here a political exercise in parliamentary democracy, but a spiritual exercise of prayerful discernment. Joseph Ratzinger invites the Church to a discriminating reading of the signs of the times: a careful discernment of our culture's positive and negative influence.

"Growth in Christ, openness and hospitality, serious discernment: this is the promise and challenge offered by the name 'Benedict,'" said Fr. Imbelli "The Catholic community may expect no less of the new pope. Benedict XVI may require no less of us."

-Stephen Gawlik, Sean Smith and Mark Sullivan

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