Pope Benedict's Summer of Listening

VATICAN CITY — The first rule in the Rule of St. Benedict is to listen.

It is something Pope Benedict XVI has been doing much of since his election nearly six months ago and, as a consequence, has been providing an astonishing and powerful witness.

Over the summer, the Holy Father received a number of prominent figures in private audience at the apostolic palace in Castel Gandolfo. But what is most surprising — or not depending on your previous perception of the Pope as Cardinal Ratzinger — is the variety of people he has been willing to see.

In the latest of these meetings, Benedict spent four hours and dined with dissident Swiss theologian Father Hans Küng, a meeting which some commentators have described as “amazing” and “a sensation.” The professor described the audience, which took place on Sept. 24, as “extraordinary” but stopped short of referring to it as a moment of reconciliation. The Vatican said the meeting took place in a “friendly atmosphere.”

Father Küng was forbidden to teach in 1979 by the then-Archbishop of Munich and Freising, Joseph Ratzinger, together with other German bishops and the Vatican, after he questioned the dogma of papal infallibility. Ever since, he has been trying to secure a meeting, first with Pope John Paul II, and now with Pope Benedict.

Common Ground

The likelihood of a meeting with the new Pope was greater as both Benedict and Father Küng have known each other since 1957. Father Küng was also instrumental in the appointment of Father Ratzinger in 1966 as professor of dogmatic theology at the University of Tübingen, and in his 1997 memoir Milestones, then-Cardinal Ratzinger wrote he had “good personal relations” with Father Küng despite their dogmatic differences.

At the Sept. 24 meeting, requested by the dissident theologian, both agreed to discuss only those issues which they have in common rather than dwell on those issues where they diverge. According to a statement written by Pope Benedict following the meeting, the two theologians focused on the foundation of a “world ethic” and the dialogue of reason and the natural sciences with the reason of the Christian faith.

“I am sure that this will be seen in the Catholic world, and even more than that, as a hopeful sign because it shows that he [Benedict] has more positive intentions than maybe what was seen at the beginning,” Father Küng told the Associated Press. “That he dedicated to me so many hours,” he added, “was extraordinary.”

Society of St. Pius X

Yet this was not the only exceptional meeting of the summer. Just a month before, on Aug. 29, Pope Benedict met with excommunicated Bishop Bernard Fellay, the superior general of the schismatic Society of St. Pius X. Following the meeting, granted at Bishop Fellay's request, there were hopeful signs that reconciliation was a greater possibility than ever, though still with much work to be done.

“It was very positive that he [Pope Benedict] did accept the meeting,” said Bishop Fellay in an interview with the Register Sept. 2. His deputy, Father Franz Schmidberger, also present at the meeting, said the encounter provided the society with an opportunity to show something they had wanted to demonstrate for some time: “Our love and our attachment to the Church and the See of Peter.”

Two days prior to that meeting, Pope Benedict held another private audience that also raised eyebrows.

Italian-born Oriana Fallaci, a controversial best-selling author of books highly critical of Islam, was granted an audience at her own request. Many commentators saw this again as evidence of the Pope's wish to listen and to try to find common ground, in spite of there being radical differences of opinion, and regardless of how such a meeting might appear to the public.

Yet none of these private audiences comes as a surprise to those who have studied the life of the Pope. As Archbishop of Munich and Freising, Joseph Ratzinger gave homilies extolling such openness and willingness to dialogue.

“It's very much in his character to be open and willing to listen, to look for points that can be shared,” said Legionary Father Edward McNamara, professor of dogmatic theology at the Regina Apostolorum University. “It's probably that this aspect of his character couldn't come out in his role as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.”

Father McNamara added: “Some may feel that such meetings are scandalous, but he's showing us that you can speak to these people, that one shouldn't demonize everybody because of their positions and ideas — people can have different ideas.”

The crucial point, Father McNamara continued, is that the Holy Father is trying to “find points of contact and agreement,” but that when it comes to doctrine, “he won't move an inch.”

Quoting G. K. Chesterton, Father McNamara pointed out that Catholics agree actually about everything; it is only everything else they disagree about. That is to say, committed Catholics agree on a few cosmic truths summarized in the creeds, prayers, sacraments and common life of the Church. However, when it comes to the rest of human existence they will gladly disagree with one another.

But these meetings also indirectly show another quality of the Holy Father: a great confidence in his own authority and intellect. It is said that only a believer confident enough in their own convictions is in a position to engage in authentic dialogue. Pope Benedict, with his highly respected intellectual background, so far appears to be enacting this principle to maximum effect.

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.