Saturday, April 15, 2006

John Allen on John Paul II and Benedict: an initial comparison

The National Catholic Reporter has a great overview by John Allen, writer of The Word From Rome. It is not an oversimplification to say that if you do not read Allen, you do not know the Vatican.

Some summary points of his:
  1. Benedict has not been an authoritarian pope, this far: he is largely in continuity with JP II. Benedict has been effective in dividing faith and morals (on which there is no compromise) from "judgment calls" where he allows a vigorous debate. (There is in fact an upcoming conference, Public Policy, Prudential Judgment, and Catholic Social Teaching, at the University of St. Thomas, noting that the religious orders often have no special competence in many political and prudential matters, and should stick, and stick hard, to their guns of moral principles.)
  2. The average non-Catholic knows little about him, and the average Catholic only fares a bit better. "At the end of Benedict's first year, the Catholic church thus faces a new communications problem. For 26 years, the church had the best story in the world in John Paul II. Now, the church can no longer assume the world will pay attention simply because the pope says or does something. That poses the question of how to "sell" the pope -- how to be sure that people are aware of what he's actually saying and doing, as opposed to random aspects of his activity that happen to catch the interest of the talk shows and editorial pages, which can produce a terribly distorted image of his real priorities."
  3. In his homily eligendo papa he announced one of the major focuses of his papacy: attacking the "dictatorship of relativism." He has certainly continued the assault, but in a surprising way: he has tried to ensure, at the start, that the Church is a credible witness to Love, so that its teachings carry their maximum force.
  4. "Again at the level of content, the dominant storyline in the transition from John Paul II to Benedict XVI is obviously continuity. He was elected with precisely that expectation. There is, however, one intriguing area of contrast: Islam. To put it bluntly, Benedict is more of a hawk, pursuing a kind of interaction with Muslims one might call 'tough love.'" Benedict has pushed for religious freedom in the Islamic world more aggressively than JP II, and has not hesitated to bring concerns about the treatment of religious and laity up with foreign leaders.
  5. JP II was not the world's greatest speaker. He relied in large part on natural charisma and his obvious, almost otherworldly love. Benedict, however, has effectively been in charge for the past decades of explaining why the Church's policies are the right ones. He is, in effect, a university professor. A common reaction in crowds is that the pope is understandable, whereas JP II often used the more technical philosophical jargon of personalism. "People came to see John Paul, they come to hear Benedict."
A fascinating article at an early stage of what could be a very good papacy.


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