The ‘Timidity’ of Pope Benedict
By Russell Shaw
(From the issue of 7/26/07)
Pope Benedict XVI's critics say he's timid, overly cautious, slow to make decisions. Against that background, and without suggesting the criticism has no basis in fact, it's enlightening to observe that, in recent days, Benedict has taken the following steps: reversed important policy decisions of two of his predecessors, taken a big gamble aimed at healing a dangerous schism, reminded the world's bishops that he's boss, risked offending ecumenical dialogue partners — and then headed off cheerfully on vacation.
If this is timidity, one might reasonably ask, what must boldness look like?
The matters involved in these recent papal moves are well known. First, on June 26 the Vatican released a document from Benedict that makes a potentially crucial change in the procedure for electing a pope.
Back in 1996, in a departure from long tradition, Pope John Paul II decreed that after a conclave had spent 13 days trying unsuccessfully to elect someone by a two-thirds majority vote, the cardinals could switch to election by a simple majority if they wished. Many people felt this was a bad idea, since potentially it allowed a determined group composed of just half the electors plus one to stand pat on its candidate and resist compromise until the time arrived when it could get what it wanted. That's no way to choose a pope, it was privately said.
Evidently, one of those who shared that view was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — now, Pope Benedict XVI. His new rule for the conclave insists that, come what may, a pope must have the votes of two-thirds of the cardinals. That also involves potential difficulties, but at least it guarantees that whoever gets elected will be a true consensus choice.
Benedict followed up on July 7 with a second document in effect restoring the old form of the Mass to a position of virtual parity with the new form. In doing so, he was for practical purposes reversing Pope Paul VI's decision back in 1970 which virtually banned celebration of Mass in the old form.
Not only that — Paul VI had allowed for continued celebration of Mass the old way by elderly priests, but only if they got special permission. John Paul II expanded authorization of the old form in 1984 and 1988, while also insisting on the local bishop's permission. Not any more. Under Benedict XVI's regulations, starting Sept. 14 any priest who wants to celebrate Mass in the old form can do so, with no further permission required.
Pope Benedict's intention is clear. "Internal reconciliation" in the Church, he calls it — in other words, reconciliation with traditionalists who yearn for Mass in the old form and, especially, with the 600,000 members of the Society of St. Pius X, the schismatic group of followers of the late, breakaway Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.
Will it work? Hard to say. Unhappiness with the new form of Mass isn't the Lefebvrists' only complaint. They also have problems with things like ecumenism and religious liberty.
Significantly, the Vatican on July 10 issued a statement from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith reaffirming the salvific uniqueness of the Catholic Church — a principle traditionalists believe has been obscured by ecumenical excesses.
The point isn't that Pope Benedict has suddenly found the key to resolving all these difficulties. But — patient, methodical, fond of consultation as he is — he has the moxie to try. The critics need to let this man be pope his own way. He's going to do that anyway, after all, whether they like it or not.
Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington, D.C., and author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press).