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Cardinal Ratzinger

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The Imperial Papacy

2 February 2013

The Imperial Papacy

By Gwynne Dyer

It’s the ROMAN Catholic Church, not the Republican Catholic Church or the People’s Revolutionary Socialist Democratic Catholic Church. Its rigid hierarchy and its centralising instincts are almost entirely due to the fact that it became the state religion of the Roman Empire over sixteen hundred years ago. And the pope is still, in essence, the emperor.

How Roman are the traditions and instincts of the church that Pope Benedict XVI has led for the past seven years? Well, one of his titles is “pontifex maximus”, usually translated from the Latin as “Supreme Pontiff”.

That was the title of the high priest of the old Roman (pagan) state religion under the Republic. When Rome became an empire, the emperors took it over, starting with Augustus. And somewhere in the fifth or sixth century – the timing is not clear – the title was transferred to the Christian bishop of Rome, who had become the head of the new state religion, Christianity.

This is not to say that the popes are secretly pagans: they are monotheists to the core. (The answer to the rhetorical question “Is the Pope a Catholic?” is “Yes”.) But they are ROMAN Catholics, and the religion they lead is still run like an empire. Very occasionally some maverick pope tries to change the model, but the system always wins in the end.

Benedict XVI was the emperor of a shrinking domain, for the Catholic Church has been shedding adherents not only in the West, where it is everywhere in steep decline, but also in the Latin American, African and Asian countries where it once held unchallenged sway. While secularism is the enemy that steals the faithful in the West, evangelical forms of Christianity are seducing Catholic believers away in what we used to call the Third World.

There are many who blame this hemorrhage on the outgoing pope (the first time anybody has ever used that phrase about a pope, for they normally die in office, like the emperors did). Benedict was chosen by his colleagues because they believed that he would fight off fundamental change, and he performed his duty well. His resignation for health reasons is an innovation, but it is the first that he has been guilty of.

He held the line on abortion (a sin in almost all circumstances), homosexuality (likewise, unless the person remains entirely celibate), married or female priests (definitely not), re-marriage after divorce (ditto), and contraception (under no circumstances, though he later said that HIV-positive prostitutes might be justified in asking their clients to use condoms).

It may seem weird that all of these major controversies are about sexuality or gender, but that’s not actually the Catholic Church’s fault. It’s equally inflexible in defending the doctrines of the Virgin Birth, the Triune God, and Papal Infallibility. It’s just that far more Catholics care about doctrines that affect their daily lives than about theological dogmas that have little practical effect.

What the Catholic Church is really fighting is modernisation, which it sees as moral decline. Perhaps it is right (though I don’t think so personally), but it is losing the battle. Yet Benedict XVI and the Church hierarchy are condemned to fight this battle until the last ditch, because they believe, probably correctly, that full modernisation would make them irrelevant.

So there’s no point in going on about how Pope Benedict XVI (or will we go back to calling him Cardinal Ratzinger after the end of this month?) failed to modernise the Church. He wasn’t hired to do that. The only pope who did try was John XXIII, and he died fifty years ago. Every pope since then (including the charismatic but deeply conservative John Paul II) has seen his task as being to stem the tide of change and restore the old order.

The job was largely complete even before Benedict became pope seven years ago. His job has merely been to ensure that there is no backsliding into liberalism, relativism and other modernist errors, and he has achieved that by ensuring that almost the entire College of Cardinals (the men who choose the next pope) are reliably conservative and orthodox.

The College had already been stuffed with conservative cardinals by his predecessor, John Paul II, so even there he really didn’t have to do much except steer the same steady course. Not a single one of the cardinals who are seen as “papabili” (men who might be elected as pope) could be described as liberal or reformist. There will be a new pope, but nothing is going to change. The haemorrhage will continue.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 8. (“It may…effect”)



The Pope and Islam

17 September 2006

The Pope and Islam

By Gwynne Dyer

On a scale of one to ten, Pope Benedict XVI’s first attempt at an apology was barely a 3. He said nothing himself, but on Saturday Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone told the world that “The Holy Father is very sorry that some passages of his speech may have sounded offensive to the sensibilities of Muslim believers.”

That didn’t stop the protests that have been building in the Muslim world since the Pope gave the speech on 12 September to an academic audience in Germany, so on Sunday he tried again. Speaking from his summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, south of Rome, he said: “I am deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address at the University of Regensburg, which were considered offensive to the sensibility of Muslims.”

That won’t stop the protests either, because he really isn’t sorry for what he said. He’s sorry for “the reactions in some countries” to his remarks, but he implicitly stands by what he said in Regensburg. So is the new pope really anti-Muslim?

After the 9/11 attacks five years ago, the former Cardinal Ratzinger told Vatican Radio that “it is important not to attribute simplistically what happened to Islam” — but then he added that “the history of Islam also contains a tendency to violence.” True enough, but Christianity has its own history of violence: the Crusades, the Inquisition, the religious wars that devastated Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, and several other detours from the path of peace and tolerance.

Just before he became pope last year, Benedict declared that Turkey should not be allowed into the European Union because its Islamic culture is incompatible with the “Christian” culture of Europe. But the real case for the prosecution rests on his invitation to Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci to visit him at Castel Gandolfo last September.

It certainly wasn’t a religious visit, since Fallaci (who died last week) was an atheist, and her fame as a war correspondent and interviewer was decades behind her. But she carved out a second career as the most extreme anti-Muslim writer in Europe, producing two best-selling books since 2002 that vilified Muslims as dirty sub-humans who multiply “like rats,” and portraying Islam as an irrational religion that breeds hatred.

The title of her second-last book, the one that presumably inspired the Pope’s invitation, was “The Force of Reason,” whose core argument was that the West is rational and reasonable, whereas Muslims aren’t. And there was Benedict in Germany last week, saying exactly the same thing. What a coincidence.

In his speech, Benedict quoted from the 14th century Byzantine emperor Manuel II Palaeologus, who told a Persian visitor that “spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable …God is not pleased by blood.” So far, so good — but then Manuel asked his Muslim visitor: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” Benedict quoted that, too, without any further comment.

He ended his speech, four and a half pages later, by quoting the emperor again: ” ‘not to act reasonably, not to act with logos, is contrary to the nature of God,’ said Manuel II, according to his Christian understanding of God….It is to this great logos, to this breadth of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures.” in other words, you Muslims are unreasonable people, but if you do it our way, then we’ll finally get somewhere.

So now we know that the new pope is a parochial and intolerant man — but anybody who paid attention to Cardinal Ratzinger’s previous career knew that already. “God’s Rottweiler” was the late Pope John Paul II’s favourite hit-man, reducing Karol Wojtyla’s critics in the Catholic hierarchy to a sullen silence or driving them out of the Church altogether. Now he is in a position to do much more damage.

Pakistan’s parliament has unanimously passed a resolution condemning the Pope’s speech. Seven Christian churches in the occupied Palestinian territories have been bombed, set ablaze or shot at. A Catholic nun has been shot to death in Somalia. Most Muslims are well aware that violence is an inappropriate way to protest against accusations that Islam is a violent faith, but why do they even care what the Pope says?

Benedict need a few lessons in manners, but the real reason for the uproar is that so many Muslims feel under attack by the West. Two Muslim countries have been invaded by the United States and its allies since 9/11, and another, Lebanon, has been bombed to ruins by Israel with full support from the US and Britain.

At least twenty times as many Muslims have died in these brutal wars as the number of Americans who died in the 9/11 attacks, and almost none of them had anything to do with that terrorist atrocity. So the suspicion grows among Muslims that all this is not really about 9/11 at all, and almost any minor insult to Islam from the West — cartoons in a provincial Danish newspaper, a foolish quote by an arrogant pope — is enough to trigger outrage from Morocco to Indonesia.

We haven’t achieved a full-scale “clash of civilisations” yet, but we’re making progress.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 10. (“That’s…Europe”; and “So now…damage”)