Pope Benedict Surprises Many During First Year

John Allen, Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, talks to Renee Montagne about the first year of Pope Benedict's papacy. He was elected one year ago this week and has surprised many Vatican observers by failing to play the role of arch-conservative.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Pope Benedict XVI was elected to the papacy one year ago tomorrow. Before the familiar white smoke in St. Peter's Square, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had been an archconservative associated with most every controversy in the modern Catholic Church. He fiercely guarded the doctrines of the Church. And we turn now to a man who titled his 1999 biography of the then cardinal, The Vatican's Enforcer. John Allen, good morning.

Mr. JOHN ALLEN (Author and Vatican Correspondent, The National Catholic Reporter): Hi, Renee.

MONTAGNE: So one year later, Pope Benedict looks rather a lot more kindly than the man who was once dubbed God's Rottweiler.

Mr. ALLEN: Yeah, that's right. He was surrounded by all these stereotypes. Some called him Herr Panzer Cardinal, some called him the German Shepherd, and so on. All of this I think created a climate of somewhat fevered expectations that there would be this night of the long knives, where every liberal or free-thinker in the Catholic Church was systematically purged, and there would be this sharp lurch to the right in terms of doctrine and bishops appointments, and so on. And really, the scorecard in the first year is almost none of that has emerged.

MONTAGNE: And why this different approach to leading the church than when he was still a cardinal?

Mr. ALLEN: Well, I think for two reasons. First, that Benedict XVI does not understand himself as a president or prime minister who's been elected to pursue a secular agenda, so that you would have this dramatic first hundred days of legislation, and so on. He sees himself as the carrier of a 2,000-year-old tradition, and as the pastor of a very complex, global church. I mean, 1.1 billion members in every nook and cranny of the planet. So that a pope has to think not just how something will play in Peoria, but about Beijing, and Baghdad, and Buenos Aires, and so on.

Second, I think Benedict makes a very sharp distinction between what he would see as matters of faith and everything else. Those prudential judgments a pope has to make, like who should be the bishop in this diocese, what should our line be on Islam, how should we respond to global poverty? But on those kinds of things, Benedict is a remarkably consultative figure who wants to act on the basis of consensus.

MONTAGNE: And then, of course, Pope Benedict's first encyclical was on the subject of love, and also a bit poetic.

Mr. ALLEN: Yeah, and I think that was a bit of a surprise to the world as well. I think people had expected in Benedict's first encyclical that there would be a kind of excoriation of declining mass attendance rates, and, you know, runaway secularization in Europe.

And I think what was going on there, Renee, is this: that Benedict XVI understands why so many people feel that when the church talks about things like human sexuality, that they see that as a sort of a fear-based reaction that is about control more than it is about anything else. And I think in the encyclical, he was trying to reframe that discussion and say something like, whatever you think about our particular positions, at least give us credit for our motives. We are not talking about our concept of freedom, because we want to chain you down. We're talking about these things because we want to set you free. We want you to experience the purest and fullest kind of love.

And I think the jury is still out in terms of how the world is going to respond to that. But at least it seems to have some people shaking their heads.

MONTAGNE: And people have talked about continuity, from Pope John Paul II to Pope Benedict. Where has this Pope taken a different approach on issues, and what issues?

Mr. ALLEN: Well, the overwhelming story of the transition from John Paul to Benedict is continuity. I mean, that was his electoral mandate, to continue the legacy of John Paul II. But, there have been differences. I'll give you one of substance, one of style.

The difference of substance would be on the church's relationship with Islam. And to put it bluntly, John Paul's approach was to try to build bridges. I think Benedict feels that those bridges have been built, and now it's time to walk over them. And he is going to be much stronger and has been much stronger on two issues especially: the need for Islamic leaders to denounce terrorism, and the need for majority Islamic societies to practice religious freedom.

Now, the question of style would be that, I think at the end of the day, John Paul II will be remembered in history as a great evangelizing Pope. Benedict is not the same kind of charismatic figure. I think his strong point is as a teacher. And so, in a way, I think at the end of the day it will be the images of John Paul we remember. It will be the words that we remember from Benedict the XVI.

MONTAGNE: John, thanks very much for joining us.

Mr. ALLEN: You're very welcome.

MONTAGNE: John Allen is the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, speaking to us from Rome.

Tomorrow, Pope Benedict's relationship with the American church.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.