Friday, May 13, 2005

Holy See, Batman! The new inquisitor is an American!

(A brief diversion from the emphasis on American politics and culture that has characterized The Reaction of late. But this is truly important stuff, and I hope you give it a read.)

Needless to say, I haven't written much on the papacy since my analysis of Cardinal Ratzinger's win (and emergence as Pope Benedict XVI) -- although I intend to write something substantial on the so-called "dictatorship of relativism" in the not-too-distant future. But there's been some important news out of the Vatican today, and it deserves mention:

Benedict XVI (B16) has announced his first two major decisions as pope:

First, he will speed up the process to beatify his predecessor, John Paul II, by waiving the mandatory five-year waiting period before that process can begin. Given the outpouring of love for John Paul in the days leading up to his death, not to mention the subsequent mourning, this would seem to be a no-brainer. As a Canadian, the first equivalent that came to mind was the decision to fast-track Wayne Gretzky into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Gretzky was the best player of all time (or at least one of the top three or four, if you include Mario Lemieux, Bobby Orr, and Gordie Howe), and John Paul was at least the most important and influential pope of recent times -- and we have only just begin to feel the long-term impact of his papacy. It's not for me to say whether or not John Paul should be recognized as a saint. Like the recent papal election, the process of beatification, a step towards sainthood, will be somewhat political -- very much reflective of how the Church views itself and of how it wants itself to be viewed. And, obviously, it wants to tap into John Paul's immense popularity among the faithful (especially among the young) and to celebrate his many accomplishments, not to mention his alleged miracles (a requirement for sainthood).

See my earlier posts on John Paul (here, here, and here). In the end, this move is hardly a surprise, though for my part I think that what is needed most is a more detached and balanced evaluation of his papacy, not fast-tracked sainthood. Although I celebrated John Paul's extraordinary faith and good works in those earlier posts, I remain somewhat ambiguous regarding his papacy as a whole. Much of what he did, such as his stand against Communism and his promotion of social justice in developing parts of the world, was inspiring, but so much else, including his absolutist "culture of life," was counter-productive, if not outright destructive.

Second, and much more relevant to our present concerns, he named Archbishop William Levada of San Francisco his successor as prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly the Holy Office, i.e., the Inquisition), the office that enforces theological orthodoxy throughout the Church. It was notoriously authoritarian and conservative under Ratzinger, and is likely to remain so under Levada. According to the Times, "[h]e is... a theologian who has staunchly defended church teaching on many of the social issues confronting the church, including abortion, homosexuality, euthanasia and the role of women," and he has remained staunchly conservative even while heading the Church in two of America's most liberal cities, Portland and San Francisco.

For an excellent (and quite positive) overview of Levada's background, including his experience working for the Congregation under Ratzinger, see John Allen's piece in the National Catholic Reporter. Writes Allen: "What Levada does seem to bring is intellectual preparation and life experience well suited for the challenge of heading the doctrinal office, plus a pre-existing relationship with the pope."

(Allen is a must-read for anyone who wants to follow happenings at the Vatican, and this wide-ranging piece is a useful look at the early days of B16's papacy in general.)

It's obviously too early to determine what Levada's appointment means. It's hardly surprising that B16 would appoint a theological conservative with whom he is familiar, if not friendly. Just as Ratzinger was ready to step into JP2's shoes, so is Levada ready to step into Ratzinger's. What is interesting is that, as Allen argues, his "appointment to the CDF is tantamount to a vote of confidence, in a certain sense, for American Catholicism," as he will be the highest-ranking American in the Vatican's history. Given the state of Catholicism in America -- the sex-abuse scandals, debate over contentious social issues like abortion and contraception, etc. -- Levada'a appointment very much reflects B16's intention to turn much of the Church's attention back to the West (and therefore, to an extent, away from JP2's global evangelism), where secularism and the "dictatorship of relativism" have, in his view, taken firm hold. The cardinal-electors voted overwhelmingly for a European pope with outspoken views on the West, and Levada, B16's former colleague, should be able to speak to American Catholics in a way that has eluded the Vatican thus far. This could be an interesting addition to America's raging culture wars. Although the Church will continue, officially, to be on the conservative side of those wars, Levada at least seems to understand America's social, political, and moral landscape.

Finally, at a meeting with foreign delegates to the Holy See, B16 mentioned certain countries (left unnamed) with which the Vatican does not maintain diplomatic relations. He was likely referring to China and Vietnam, but perhaps also to Saudi Arabia. Given the worries that B16 would be a narrow-minded pope focused on fortifying orthodoxy and turning the Church into a "creative minority," this is clearly a good sign. Maybe B16 will end up defying expectations by reaching out to the broader diversity that makes up the Church.

(Back to politics and culture later tonight or tomorrow.)

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