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Gentle Benedict concedes papal roadshow must go on

By Paul Collins - posted Tuesday, 24 July 2007

When I was in Rome in February this year there was a fair amount of scepticism as to whether Benedict XVI would come to Sydney for World Youth Day in mid-July 2008. "He doesn’t like travelling and it’s too far to Australia", one well-informed journalist told me. Well, last week Benedict publicly confirmed that he’s coming, but whether he’ll get a run on the track at Randwick remains to be seen given the attitude of the local trainers.

They want compensation for dislocation to the racing industry. That $20,000,000 the Howard government recently gave the Sydney Archdiocese might really come in handy to help calm the Australian Jockey Club.

Actually, there was a deeper reason as to why the Romans thought Benedict might not come: he’s made it clear that he thought tripping around the world wasn’t the Pope’s real ministry. He doesn’t see himself as “bishop of the world”. Instead, he has reasserted the traditional role of the Pope as bishop of Rome, the visible symbol of the church’s unity and the touchstone of its orthodoxy, but not the omnipresent figure who dominates Catholicism.


He would be deeply aware that it is precisely this kind of “ecclesiastical ruler of the world” syndrome that most annoys the Eastern Orthodox because they see it - correctly in my view - as heretical. For Benedict XVI the views of the Orthodox are very important.

What we are watching is the transformation of Joseph Ratzinger, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith inquisitor, into Pope Benedict, pastoral leader.

His apparent hesitancy to rush into things and make strong decisions may well be explained by his care to draw people together rather than alienate them. The predicted purge of dissenters and progressives has simply not occurred.

Even the CDF’s warning about the writings of liberation theologian, Jon Sobrino, was carefully and almost respectfully worded. No sanction was imposed. It was described by theologian William P. Loewe of the Catholic University in Washington as "more nuanced ... and certainly gentler" than the CDF treatment of Sobrino’s Jesuit colleague, Father Roger Haight, in the previous papacy.

The only individuals dealt with severely during this papacy have been abusive priests such as the Mexican founder of the Legionaries of Christ, Marcial Maciel Degollado.

Another significant sign came a fortnight ago when Benedict quietly reversed the changes of John Paul II to the conclave rules for the election of a pope. In 1996 Pope Wojtyla suddenly, and for no apparent reason, changed the rule first established in 1179 requiring a two-thirds majority of cardinals to elect a pope. Pius XII made this two-thirds plus one. This rule ensured that there was reasonable unanimity among the cardinals about the person elected.


John Paul decreed that an absolute majority could decide on the next pope if, after 33 ballots, no one was elected. What this allowed was a small majority hanging out for the required ballots, and then forcing their candidate through over a large minority. It was a recipe for disaster.

Benedict has gone back to the traditional method because it eventually ensures the possibility of real consensus. While it may seem insignificant, it clearly indicates that he thinks of himself as a traditional pope, unlike his predecessor who was actually quite “revolutionary”.

One area where Benedict XVI has intervened decisively is in the appointment of bishops, which he personally supervises. He looks for men of some intellectual and spiritual quality although he doesn’t always succeed in finding them.

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First published in Eureka Street on July 12, 2007.

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About the Author

Paul Collins is an historian and broadcaster. He is a former specialist editor - religion for the ABC. His most recent book is Burn: The Epic Story of Bushfire in Australia (2006) an update of which will be released in October 2009..

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