COMMENTARY/ANALYSIS: The Education of Pope Benedict

c. 2006 Religion News Service (UNDATED) Years ago when I was working at the Vatican, in the vigorous middle period of Pope John Paul II’s reign, a priest I knew in the church’s diplomatic service returned from a human rights conference frustrated that his delegation had not been able to better advance the pontiff’s agenda. […]

c. 2006 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) Years ago when I was working at the Vatican, in the vigorous middle period of Pope John Paul II’s reign, a priest I knew in the church’s diplomatic service returned from a human rights conference frustrated that his delegation had not been able to better advance the pontiff’s agenda.

When he reported the situation to the pope, John Paul told him not to worry; he himself would make a push.

“The pope is freer than you are,” John Paul reassured his emissary _ a statement I took as a laudable willingness to speak truth to power.

Yet in the wake of last week’s closely watched trip to Turkey by John Paul’s successor, Benedict XVI, I was reminded that a pope, for all his unfettered religious authority, is also a world leader frequently bound by harsh political realities and often forced to choose diplomatic niceties over moral broadsides.

In fact, what we saw last week (Nov. 28-Dec. 1) was the transformation of Joseph Ratzinger, cardinal and theologian, into Benedict, pope and statesman.

Benedict’s four-day visit to Turkey was his first to a Muslim country. Although the chief reason for the trip was to pay an ecumenical call on Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, it was Benedict’s relations with Islam that wound up under the media microscope.

That scrutiny was due to the harsh reactions to the pope’s lecture in September during a homecoming visit to Bavaria. There he quoted a 14th-century Christian emperor of Byzantium to illustrate a point about the dangers of religious fanaticism.

“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 the emperor as saying.

It was an unfortunate example, and Benedict tossed it out with little qualification. Though he later issued an ambiguous clarifying statement about his intent, the damage was done.

Benedict’s citation was a spark in the tinderbox that is the Islamic world. “As a theological discussion it was beautifully done. But he didn’t seem to be aware of the potential pitfalls,” the Australian bishop in charge of interfaith relations, Michael Putney, said after the lecture. “That’s because he’s new to the role, which is unique. A pope can never speak just as a theologian.”

The timing of the controversy, just weeks before this long-planned trip to Turkey, guaranteed that throughout his visit, Benedict would be walking on eggshells. In the end, however, the pope managed remarkably well.

On his arrival in Ankara, for example, Benedict eased his earlier opposition and signaled that the Vatican would not oppose Turkey’s bid to join the European Union. It was a shrewd diplomatic move; Turkey’s bid was already in trouble, and the Vatican explained that the pope actually had no power to affect the decision one way or another and thus Benedict would not be obliged to do anything. So the action cost Benedict nothing, yet it signaled that he wanted good relations with Turkey _ and by extension with Islam _ and that he would subsume his personal views to do so.

At other points, such as his visit to the Blue Mosque in Istanbul _ the kind of interreligious theater that Pope John Paul perfected but Cardinal Ratzinger disdained _ Benedict took care to highlight shared values of the two faiths.

“The best way forward,” as he told Muslim leaders during an earlier meeting, “is via authentic dialogue between Christians and Muslims, based on truth and inspired by a sincere wish to know one another better, respecting differences and recognizing what we have in common.”

The shift in Benedict’s tone was welcome, since much political work needs to be done to protect the rights of Christian minorities who are often suppressed or persecuted in majority Muslim countries.

But that shift was not inevitable. Indeed, from the start of his reign, Benedict seemed to favor an approach that stressed principles over politics. That should not be surprising from a former academic theologian who spent his entire career debating moral truths from pulpits and lecterns.

Early on, that thrust continued as diplomacy itself took a back seat to doctrine. Benedict’s newly appointed secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, had no diplomatic experience. Bertone even said that he thought of himself as a “secretary of church” rather than a secretary of state.

“Less diplomacy and more Gospel,” as the Vatican-watcher Sandro Magister called the Benedictine approach.

To many, Benedict’s relatively “apolitical” approach may have seemed just fine. The world understandably tends to view the pope as a purely spiritual figure and Catholicism’s top preacher. But the fact is that for most of the papacy’s existence, pontiffs have had to spend much of their time in tough negotiations with temporal forces to ensure the institution’s pilgrim journey through history.

John Paul II was also a savvy politician. In the evolving hagiography surrounding the late pontiff, the Polish pope is often depicted as a heroic figure, leaping the Berlin Wall in a single bound to bring down the Evil Empire of Soviet communism.

As courageous as he surely was, though, John Paul also spent more than three decades working as a priest and bishop under communist totalitarianism. That hard experience taught him the necessity of political negotiation and compromise, arts that he practiced quite effectively as pontiff.

After his Bavarian lecture, Benedict also seemed to learn that hard lesson, and it paid off in Turkey.

Of course, diplomacy is hardly a popular trade these days, especially when confronted with reprehensible attacks by religious extremists. But balancing religious conviction with temporal realities has been a challenge since the first days of Christianity, when Jesus told St. Peter and the other apostles: “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

It was a difficult task then, just as it is today, as Benedict knows.

(David Gibson, a former reporter for Vatican Radio, is the author of “The Rule of Benedict: Pope Benedict XVI and His Battle With the Modern World.” He wrote this column for The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J.)


Editors: To obtain a photo of Gibson, go to the RNS Web site at On the lower right, click on “photos,” then search by subject or slug.

Donate to Support Independent Journalism!

Donate Now!