Maybe it's really difficult to write about Pope Benedict XVI. We noted that bad Newsweek International piece last week. And here's another one that's not the best example from the genre. Jeff Israely filed something from Rome for Time that was given the headline "A Step Backward for Pope Benedict?" Intriguing. Let's learn more:
Two years into his papacy, Benedict XVI may be about to reclaim his reputation as a no-holds-barred traditionalist. Thanks to Benedict's thoughtful manner, Church progressives had believed that the man who was once the hard-line Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger would cut some slack on areas of doctrinal contention -- using his intellectual heft and traditional credentials as necessary cover. But as Benedict turns 80 on April 16 and marks two years as Pope on April 19, the once hopeful progressives have all but given up their fantasy of Benedict the Reformer.
It's funny. I remember how when Ratzinger was chosen, the response was more or less sheer horror from progressives. Now, in just two years, we are to believe that they changed their tune and believed he'd throw away doctrinal positions -- only to be horribly disappointed once again? I mean, I understand changes of heart but this doesn't seem to be an accurate portrayal of progressives' hopes or fears. It seems more like a flashily-written lede that is not born out by the rest of the story. I'm not sure it serves readers wanting to learn about Ratzinger or those skeptical about him.
Israely cites one problem that is supposed to be heartbreaking -- giving priests the option to perform mass in Latin. I'm with Luther on the benefits of chanting a mass in the vernacular, but I'm not sure that this change -- which is only permitting priests to do a Latin Mass facing the altar if they want, is that big of a deal. An unnamed priest says it's a big deal but doesn't quite explain why.
Israely quotes another two unnamed but disappointed folks, a "progressive cleric" and a "senior Church official." I understand how difficult it might be to get folks to talk on the record but if the flashy lede is to be believed, you need to back it up with more than anonymous sources, I think.
Israely tries to sum up a bit of the Pope's approach and has this interesting note:
In addition, Benedict professes a very specific kind of Christianity, one based not only on the teachings of Jesus, but on abiding by the letter of ancient Catholic Church traditions as the only effective bulwark against rampant relativism.
That's a fascinating claim and one I'd love to learn more about. It's crying out for examples, I think. The last line is also worth excerpting:
The professor Pope may be happy to have a conversation on doctrine, but he knows he always has the last word.
That's one way of putting it.
Eric Gorski -- now with the Associated Press -- had a fantastic and relevant article on Benedict and his imprint on the United States. He notes that the Pope hasn't focused too much on the States but that is changing, with some looming bishop appointments. The balanced and informative article quotes a variety of observers -- on the record! -- and notes areas where Benedict might have taken action in the United States but chose not to. Rather than repeating the notion that the Pope has undergone some magical transformation, Gorski presents an alternate view from conservative editor of First Things Richard John Neuhaus:
Neuhaus dismisses suggestions that conservative Catholics such as himself are disappointed that Benedict has not been tougher, and derides media portrayals of the pope transforming himself from "God's rottweiler" to kindly uncle.
"There is no evidence whatsoever he has changed his judgment on anything of consequence the last two years," Neuhaus said. "He is a gentle, thoughtful, paternal, firm and loving person. That's the man you see. For those of us who knew Ratzinger over the last 25 years, there were no surprises at all."
With a religion as large as Roman Catholicism, there are bound to be different views. Sometimes rather than picking one narrow view and running with it, it's better to go ahead and lay out the nuance and complexities.