24 April 2005

Pope Benedict XVI: Liberal or Conservative?

Considering the way American conservatives have been carrying on since the announcement of Pope Benedict XVI, one would think that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was their candidate who was just selected by the United States Supreme Court to serve as pope. In perhaps the most obscene example of trying to claim the pope as one of their own, Daniel Henninger, Deputy Editor of the ultra-conservative Wall Street Journal Editorial Page attempts to compare Pope Benedict XVI to both Ronald Reagan and Antonin Scalia, ridiculously claiming that our new pope may be the "soul-brother" of the radically conservative justice. One cannot honestly believe that the new spiritual leader of the Catholic Church would support the Nicaraguan death squads or the state execution of children, positions held by Reagan and Scalia, respectively. But then again, this is the Wall Street Journal Editorial Page. Of course, these weak attempts follow the typical pattern of American conservatives who attempt to claim some connection to anything that is positive, while arguing that everything bad is somehow part of an elaborate liberal conspiracy against humanity.

Much has been written about the man now known to the world as Pope Benedict XVI. He was considered extremely liberal during the Second Vatican Council, then became more conservative during the papacy of John Paul II. He was however considered by most to be positioned well to the left politically of his predecessor. Nevertheless, everyone knew that the new pope would be a traditionalist. (I am yet to find anyone who expected the new pope to appearing on the balcony holding a "Keep Abortion Legal" placard.) Still, conservatives desperately try to claim Cardinal Ratzinger as one of their own. They may, however, be wrong. Honestly, we cannot say whether Pope Benedict XVI will be a liberal or conservative pontiff. Only time will tell. His chosen name, however, may indicate the direction that he wants to lead the church.

The Two Pope Benedicts and War

Giacomo della Chiesa was elected pope in 1914. His time as head of the Catholic Church was important because it took place during and immediately following the First World War. Pope Benedict XV advocated a strict policy of neutrality by the church. He offered numerous proposals for peace and became known to the world as a true opponent of war. During his papacy, he led various charitable efforts for war victims and founded the Vatican bureau which assisted prisoners of war in contacting their families. Pope Benedict XV was most known for his unsuccessful Papal Peace proposal of 1917, but he also developed policies within the Vatican to deal with the new global environment that emerged following the world war.

Today with a war against terrorism raging around the globe, the choice of the name "Benedict" is quite telling. At the offset of America's war on terror, President George W. Bush declared that his country was engaged in a crusade. Of course, this unfortunate rhetoric was not well received by Muslim nations, and it created unnecessary obstacles to America's efforts. Pope Benedict XVI may have chosen his name to declare to the world that the Catholic Church will stand for justice for all of God's children, not simply Christianity over the interests of other faiths. It is important to recognize that the radical Islam which embodies the global terrorist movement is not reflective of the Muslim faith as a whole. Our new pope may be trying to send a message to all people of the world that the Catholic Church will stand with good against evil and will embrace a position of neutrality regarding religion in this struggle.

The new pope may have also selected his name in response to the War in Iraq. Many American conservatives seem to forget that the Catholic Church was a leading opponent to our nation's conflict in Iraq. Pope John Paul II spoke out against President Bush's foreign policy and became a voice for the victims of war which are rarely mentioned by the American media, including the approximate 100,000 innocent Iraqis who were killed by our country's initial attacks on the country. The Catholic Church spoke out for those victims, while most Americans saw their deaths as an unfortunate result of "collateral damage." Pope Benedict XVI, like his predecessor, has seen the evils of war firsthand, and he may have chosen to follow in the footsteps of Benedict XV in order to advocate peace during a time of war in the world.

The Two Pope Benedicts and Philosophy

Pope Benedict XV also sought to calm the excesses of the fundamental traditionalists within the Catholic Church. During the tenure of Benedict XV's predecessor Pope Pius X, ultra-conservatives sought to control the agenda of the church. Benedict XV, then Giacomo della Chiesa, was a pupil of Cardinal Mariano Rampolla, a leading opponent of the racially conservative wing of the Catholic Church, and della Chiesa served as the secretary to Cardinal Rampolla. In 1903, Rampolla was the unsuccessful liberal candidate during the conclave that elected Pius X. Rampolla voiced the modernists views which began to emerge in the church, and his positions contributed to the conflict that existed among Catholic scholars. Upon his election in 1914, Pope Benedict XV sought to settle this conflict, and while respecting tradition, he actually moved the Catholic Church to the left of the political spectrum.

During the papacy of John Paul II, Cardinal Ratzinger was commonly seen as the dogmatic bulldog of the church. The media, especially in the United States, tends to report almost entirely on the positions of the Catholic Church which deal with sex and sexuality. If one were to gain all of their knowledge of the Catholic Church from American media, they would think the Vatican was only concerned with abortion and gay marriage. Those of us who know the church recognize that this opinion is absurd and that it is just the result of a media that is completely driven by their pursuit of ratings, not finer journalism. One can reasonably believe that Cardinal Ratzinger chose his name in order to follow the direction of Benedict XV who was also forced to deal with the tension between conservatives and liberals of the church. Benedict XV recognized that the conservatives of the church had gone too far, and the selection of this name may be a way for the new pope to say that the church has drifted too far to the right on some issues. Of course the issues of abortion, gay marriage, women in the clergy, and others may not be the issues he had in mind, our new pope may have been making a statement to the world that applying a uniform, conservative litmus test on all issues is not the way of the church and is not his vision of Catholic Church.

The Two Pope Benedicts and Wealth

In his November 1, 1914 encyclical appealing for peace, Pope Benedict XV made a clear statement that directly contradicts the views held by most modern conservatives. The pope declared that "a deeper root of the evils we have hitherto been deploring, and unless the efforts of good men concentrate on its extirpation, that tranquil stability and peacefulness of human relations we so much desire, can never be attained. The apostle himself tells us what it is: 'The desire of money is the root of all evils' (I. Tim vi. 10). If any one considers the evils under which human society is at present laboring, they will all be seen to spring from this root." The pope's words are not necessarily a ringing endorsement of unbridled capitalism and clearly place his ideology to the left of where many revisionist historians of today claim.

Pope Benedict XVI has expressed similar positions on economic issues important to the church. As stated on this morning's Meet The Press by Joseph Bottum, contributing editor to the conservative Weekly Standard, Cardinal Ratzinger made many statements on economic issues which placed him in the liberal camp of political thinking. As a German citizen, Ratzinger recognized that both socialism and unregulated capitalism presented potential threats to man, and as cardinal, he strongly supported his predecessor's plight for those living in poverty. For those who recklessly label Pope Benedict XVI a conservative, they selectively view his service to the church and fail to consider his embrace of the church's teachings as a whole.


Only time will tell who is right on the direction Pope Benedict XVI. Conservatives will likely continue to attempt to view his acts as pontiff as support to their ideology, while liberals, especially those in the United States, will probably embrace extreme secularism and attempt to distance themselves from the Holy Father. As a result of both extreme approaches, we face the threat of revisionists rewriting history and attempting to shape the future by claiming the Catholic Church is a conservative institution. All people of the world, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, should see the church for what it is and simply set their political agendas aside. The church will likely prove to not serve as a conservative institution or a liberal institution. It will continue to stand as an institution of Christ, which stands as a hybrid of all political ideologies in an attempt to best serve all of God's children.

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