Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Mutton dressed as lamb

I’m giving away my liberal persuasion when I say this new pope, Benedict XVI, isn’t the one for me. As a lapsed Catholic, I find it hard to square my views with his. I only had to listen to an interview he did several years ago, before he became Pope. He castigated liberation theology for involving the Church in political activity, when it’s evident to him the two spheres are separate. Yet hasn’t that been part of the Church’s mission over the past two thousand years? As far as I understand it, it was never just about future salvation, but also about improving the lot of the poor and needy now. And who can really be against using the religious experience to encourage changes in quality of life and the empowerment of the poor?

In the interview Benedict also makes it clear that he doesn’t condone religious relativism: the idea that other faiths may contain different dimensions of the truth. That is unfortunate, not only because it may undermine John Paul II’s past attempts to reach a compromise with the Orthodox Church, it may also pose a threat to the Islamic world, especially if those sentiments are whipped up and taken to heart by less thoughtful types. It’s bad enough having idealist extremists on one side; we don’t need them on the other as well.

Then there are the Church’s social teachings which I find so hard to understand: Catholicism’s implicit inequality between the sexes, prohibition on contraception, abortion and condemnation of homosexuality. Where’s the tolerance of difference, the acceptance of the modern world and contemporary social relations? I know the counter-argument: Catholicism is an article of faith, not a form of consensus. Yet it is this unwillingness to yield to social and political changes may well be wants ultimately weakens it. From territorial division of the Roman Empire to the Reformation, the Church has consistently failed to respond to the disenfranchised accordingly. And once again, it looks like it has missed the boat, with congregations falling in North America and Europe while in Africa it fails to face up to the challenge of AIDS.

I’ve also heard it alleged that the new pope doesn’t care if this turns people away; that he would approve of a smaller, purer Church. But that would weaken the Vatican’s claim to speak on behalf of a wide section of humanity. Then again, all this may well be the uttering of a cardinal who never imagined himself destined for the pontificate. It may well be that the reality of power tempers his excesses and forces him to steer a more mainstream path. But I don’t have form when I suggest such things – last time I argued this I was talking about George Bush in the first months of his presidency…

Could there not have been a more moderate alternative – even liberal by the standards of the Catholic Church? Probably not, given the conservative nature of the majority of cardinals, most of who were appointed during John Paul’s reign. And even the only apparent light – that this won’t be as long a papacy as John Paul’s – ignores a small cloud on the horizon: that come the next conclave it will most likely be the very same cardinals who appointed Benedict who will once again have to choose.

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