NEW YORK — During his U.S. visit, Pope Benedict XVI will make a shocking mistake that takes everyone by surprise, calls forth explanations — and changes conventional wisdom about something important.
Will there be an American version of Auschwitz, where the Holy Father angered some Jewish groups with his statement that the Nazis were out to destroy Christianity, as well as its taproot, Judaism?
Or an American version of Regensburg, when Muslim mobs rioted all over the world in response to Benedict’s quoting of comments by a medieval Byzantine emperor who criticized Islam?
Or an American version of Aparecida, when indigenous groups criticized Benedict after he said in Brazil that Christianity was not a foreign imposition on the pre-Columbian native peoples?
In each case, the Pope’s trip produced an unexpected media eruption, and Vatican spokesmen sallied forth to issue clarifications about what the Pope really meant and did not mean.
A consensus view is that Benedict, who was a university professor, makes mistakes by expressing himself in language that requires both nuance and context, and that complexity sometimes leads to misinterpretations which sabotage his message. That’s possible.
But I contend for an alternative view, in that Benedict intends exactly the uproar that follows some of what he says. It draws attention to the larger point he is making.
One exceptionally perceptive Vatican journalist, John Allen, has written about Benedict’s “communication paradox”: “For those who know Benedict’s mind, it can be painful to watch his carefully reasoned reflections become capsized in the court of public opinion by a stray phrase that’s obviously open to misinterpretation, and which, most of the time, could have been put differently with no loss of meaning.”
But the Holy Father has been provoking international firestorms for his choice of language for so long that it is difficult to believe that it is not intentional.
He thinks that occasionally lighting a fire is useful for shedding light, even if it includes the risk of getting burned.
In his 1985 interview book The Ratzinger Report, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger deliberately used the word “restoration” to speak about what was necessary 20 years after Vatican II. It sparked a fevered debate in the Church and earned criticism even from other bishops, but it was his remarks that framed the debate for the synod of bishops that year — the synod that called forth Cardinal Ratzinger’s single most important work, the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Fifteen years later, during the Great Jubilee of 2000, Cardinal Ratzinger, in his capacity as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, published Dominus Iesus (The Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church), which used the words “gravely deficient” and “defects” to describe the situation of those outside of full communion with the Catholic Church.
That firestorm required Pope John Paul II himself to publicly defend the document, so great was the criticism, even from within the Roman Curia.
Yet again, Cardinal Ratzinger’s intervention reshaped the debate, making it absolutely clear that ecumenism cannot mean relativism or indifferentism.
In 2005, just weeks before John Paul’s death, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote the meditations for the papal Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) at the Colosseum. Writing of the Church, he wrote of the “filth” in the priesthood, and that the ship of faith was “taking on water from all sides.”
It too made international headlines, and remains today the most memorable and dramatic condemnation of the sexual abuse crisis.
At the funeral Mass of John Paul, it was Cardinal Ratzinger who moved the world to tears with the evocative image of the Holy Father standing at the window of the house of the Father.
And then a few days later, on the threshold of the conclave, Cardinal Ratzinger used the phrase “dictatorship of relativism,” which instantly made the front pages of newspapers around the world, and framed the challenge facing the Church in electing a new pope.
For more than 20 years, Ratzinger/Benedict has known how to generate global attention. He also is more than perfectly capable of speaking, if he wishes, in a manner that attracts almost no attention at all.
Consider his inaugural homily as Pope, which was a profound reflection on the Petrine office; it disappeared almost without comment and is rarely mentioned, containing as it did nothing especially arresting.
What Benedict has demonstrated is that he is also skilled at using the media, but in a different way from his predecessor. While John Paul was the master of the iconic image, Benedict’s forte is the magisterial discourse.
But discourses by themselves do not attract attention unless they contain a spark of controversy. Benedict is, when he judges it prudent, ready to light that spark.
The recent controversy at La Sapienza University in Rome was another example of Benedict-style media management.
By canceling the visit in the face of threatened protests, the Holy Father knew that he would be highlighting the university’s opposition to him on a global scale.
In throwing fuel on that fire, he was able to illuminate important questions of liberty and tolerance in the public square, as well as draw attention to the role of faith and reason in the university.
His lecture, which would otherwise have passed unnoticed, was published in full in several Italian newspapers, and covered around the world.
It is correct to say that Benedict is, at heart, a teacher, and his teaching is exceptionally clear and compelling.
Yet he knows that teaching, whether as a professor or as a pastor, requires first getting the attention of the student, or of the faithful. A pastor also has to get the attention of those outside of his flock, which requires bold, and occasionally provocative, methods.
So will there be an American “mistake”?
It is quite possible, though by now it should be recognized that there is a method in those deliberate mistakes.
Father Raymond J. de Souza
served as the Register’s
Rome correspondent 1999-2003.