POLITICS APRIL 17, 2006
When the College of Cardinals elected Joseph Ratzinger Pope a year ago, right-wing clerics and commentators hailed the incoming pontiff as one of their own. Neocon writer George Weigel rushed an obsequious, fawning biography into print, modestly titled God's Choice. Father Joseph Fessio SJ, the top editor at Ignatius Press, promoted his friendship with--and ideological proximity to--Ratzinger on any cable show that would have him. Father Richard John Neuhaus's online diary read, "How sweet it is." But the joke has been on them. On the issue these American Catholic conservatives seem to care about most--the fight against societal acceptance of homosexuality--Pope Benedict XVI has been far less strident than Ratzinger the cardinal, and that has sent the right-wingers into unexpected fits of apoplexy.
Benedict has hardly retreated from the culture wars. To the contrary, he teaches that the "Truth" (with a capital T) is accessible to the Christian and found within the bosom of Catholicism. There is no love of ambiguity in Ratzinger's heart, nor will there be in his teachings as Pope. In the 1990s, he was shocked by some of the theological ruminations he heard from bishops, especially those from Asia, which he thought obscured the distinctiveness of Catholicism's claims. And Benedict believes the secularization of European thought and culture has severed that civilization from its own roots. Benedict's worldview remains steeped in his academic Augustinianism; his view is dark and, consequently, often paternalistic, defensive, and stark.
And yet, unlike many conservative Catholics in the United States, Benedict does not see combating the acceptance of homosexuality in society as the most important piece of his agenda. The reason has much to do with his new role. As doctrinal warden, Ratzinger enforced orthodoxy. But now, as a pastor, that is only one piece of his job. And Ratzinger has made it clear that, however much he insists on Christian Truth, the teachings of the Church should be applied with gentleness and an understanding of a person's lived experience.
Benedict's approach can be seen in last autumn's Vatican document banning most gays from seminary and ordination. The text came from one of the Vatican's dicastries, or departments, and it was rendered as a "prudential judgment," not as a doctrinal claim. Indeed, there was almost no theology in the document. Nonetheless, it echoed many of the right wing's fears about the effects of homosexuality on culture and suggested there was a link between homosexuality and the recent clerical pedophilia crisis, a line that Weigel and Neuhaus have pushed for years. But Benedict did not issue the document in his own name, nor even approve it "in forma specifica." He merely ordered its publication. Thus, the text carries more weight than, say, the guidebook to the Vatican museums, but many bishops have felt free to interpret the text in a way that guts it of its clear intent. And Benedict has said not a word about these more liberal interpretations.
Benedict's unwillingness to crack down on homosexuality has caused consternation across the right. "Among those who greatly admired Cardinal Ratzinger and were elated by his election as pope," Neuhaus recently wrote in First Things, "there is a palpable uneasiness." In his distress, Neuhaus harkens back to 1968--a year that neocons always seem to harken back to--when Pope Paul VI issued his famous birth control-banning encyclical, Humanae Vitae. Then, too, the Pope decided that there would be no punitive action taken against theologians who dissented. In the neocon worldview, this tolerance of dissent led to a sea of moral chaos in the ensuing years, as if, with just a little more preaching, Catholic couples everywhere would have foresworn recourse to the pill.
The sense of betrayal many American conservatives feel toward Benedict can be seen again in their reaction to his appointment of then-Archbishop William Levada to take Ratzinger's old job as head of the Vatican's doctrinal office. Neuhaus says the appointment "occasioned widespread puzzlement.... Levada, for all his considerable gifts, did not distinguish himself in his teaching, and his seeing to it that others taught, the Church's moral doctrine during his ten years as archbishop of San Francisco, a city commonly called the gay capital of the world." Does Neuhaus really think anyone in San Francisco or elsewhere fails to know the Church's views on homosexuality? How would endless repetition have advanced the Gospel? More important, when Levada arrived in San Francisco in 1995, the city was in the middle of the aids epidemic. Was the most pressing pastoral need of that city's gay community to be hit over the head repeatedly with condemnations? The suggestion is obscene.
When San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown enacted a law in late 1996 requiring all organizations that contract with the city, including the Catholic Church, to provide health benefits to the same-sex partners of their employees, Levada balked. The Church was not going to be forced into blessing same-sex relationships by the conferral of such benefits. The conservatives saw a battle coming. But Levada avoided such a conflagration by negotiating a change in the law so that an employee could designate any person legally domiciled in his household--an aunt, a same-sex partner, whomever--to receive the health care benefit. As Levada pointed out, the Church is in favor of universal health care, and this extended health benefits to thousands of citizens. It was casuistry in the best sense of the word, stretching the law to accommodate a real-life conundrum.
If promoting Levada to Ratzinger's old job caused puzzlement, the right wing went ballistic when Benedict chose Utah bishop George Niederauer to replace Levada in San Francisco. Niederauer was, according to Neuhaus, "gay-friendly," and he had opposed a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Like many other bishops, he took the mildest possible interpretation of the document about gays in seminaries, and he specifically contradicted the neocon line that homosexuality bears responsibility for the clergy's sex-abuse crisis, calling that position "seriously mistaken." When Niederauer gave his first major interview after arriving in the City by the Bay, I confess I worried for Neuhaus's health. Niederauer told the San Francisco Chronicle he had seen Brokeback Mountain and found it "very powerful." Smelling salts for Father Neuhaus.
It is a new day at the Vatican. A curial official told me that Weigel's access to the papal apartments is no more, and, insult to injury, he is also no longer welcome to stay at the American seminary while visiting Rome. Fessio recently had to admit in The Washington Times to misrepresenting Benedict's remarks. And Neuhaus is ranting in the pages of First Things.
What has changed for Ratzinger is not his theology but its context. After 25 years behind a desk, he is now a pastor. Until he became Pope, who had ever seen a picture of Ratzinger with a child? The highlight of Benedict's first year was an October Q-and-A with a group of children making their First Communion. One child asked what she should say to her parents when they want to sleep in or visit the grandparents on Sunday, instead of going to Mass. Benedict told the young girl that he was sure her parents had a lot to do and that she could perhaps suggest they look for a church near Grandma's house. Conservative Catholics may consider such pastoral solicitude unnecessary--after all, Catholics are supposed to go to Mass every Sunday, no excuses. The rest of us found it heartwarming.
Michael Sean Winters's book, Left at the Altar: How the Democrats Lost the Catholics and How the Catholics Can Save the Democrats, will be published next year.
By Micheal Sean Winters