When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected pope in April 2005, all the world rejoiced -- or recoiled -- with the certain knowledge that the cardinals had settled on the one man who would be more conservative than John Paul II.
Thus far, Benedict's papacy has been one of constant movement and change, the sort of dynamic that liberal Catholics -- or Protestants -- are usually criticized for pursuing. In Benedict's case, this liberalism serves a conservative agenda. But his activism should not be surprising: As a sharp critic of the reforms of Vatican II, Ratzinger has long pushed for what he calls a "reform of the reform" to correct what he considers the excesses or abuses of the time.
Of course a "reformed reform" doesn't equal a return to the past, even if that were the goal. Indeed, Benedict's reforms are rapidly creating something entirely new in Catholicism. For example, when the pope restored the old Latin Mass, he also restored the use of the old Good Friday prayer, which spoke of the "blindness" of the Jews and called for their conversion. That prayer was often a spur to anti-Jewish pogroms in the past, so its revival appalled Jewish leaders. After months of protests, the pope agreed to modify the language of the prayer; that change and other modifications made the "traditional" Mass more a hybrid than a restoration.
Now, I'm not a liturgical historian or scholar, but it strikes me as being more than a little over-the-top to say that reforming and restoring the liturgy is somehow evidence of a reform "creating something entirely new in Catholicism." The history of the Roman liturgy—as Denis Crouan's book, The History and the Future of the Roman Liturgy (Ignatius Press, 2005), documents—is one of change, reform, and modification. For example, Crouan writes of the Roman liturgies in the Middle Ages: "Will this Roman liturgy remain stable over the course of the medieval period? Absolutely not. Quite to the contrary, it will be modified in a relatively simple process: its basic structure remains, but elements are added to it that are derived essentially from prayers taken from private devotions" (p. 58). He later notes that the restoration of the Roman liturgy during the sixteenth century "took place in fits and starts, with fortunate and unfortunate results..." (p. 70). And so forth and so on. Even setting aside the issue of a specific prayer, the notion of a "reform of the reform" hardly seems strange or unique when glancing over the history of the liturgy in the West.
But here is where Gibson really goes way up and over the top:
More important, with the latest accommodation to Anglicans, Benedict has signaled that the standards for what it means to be Catholic -- such as the belief in the real presence of Christ in the Mass as celebrated by a validly ordained priest -- are changing or, some might argue, falling. The Vatican is in effect saying that disagreements over gay priests and female bishops are the main issues dividing Catholics and Anglicans, rather than, say, the sacraments and the papacy and infallible dogmas on the Virgin Mary, to name just a few past points of contention.
That is a remarkable, even outlandish, claim. It is all the more so considering Gibson provides no argument or evidence for it. In addition, he apparently ignores or misses this fact: "Today’s announcement of the Apostolic Constitution is a response by Pope Benedict XVI to a number of requests over the past few years to the Holy See from groups of Anglicans who wish to enter into full visible communion with the Roman Catholic Church, and are willing to declare that they share a common Catholic faith and accept the Petrine ministry as willed by Christ for his Church." That is from the the joint statement issued by Dr. Rowan Williams and Archbishop Vincent Nichols. It seems clear that this is an "all or nothing" offer from Rome; it's not a matter of saying, "I'm against homosexuality and the Immaculate Conception," and getting accepted because the former trumps the latter. Of course not. Gibson's remark, frankly, is ridiculous. The bottom line with any of these issues—whether it be the Eucharist, the priesthood, homosexuality, or the Immaculate Conception—is the magisterial authority of the Church, granted by Christ to Peter and the apostles, and to their successors.
Wha....? Well, if it does "encourage" such a view, it would have to be among people who don't know a donut from a bonfire.
That is revolutionary -- and unexpected from a pope like Benedict. It could encourage the view, which he and other conservatives say they reject, that all Christians are pretty much the same when it comes to beliefs, and the differences are just arguments over details.
I think the central problem with Gibson's analysis, as it often is with his writing (something even Fr. Andrew Greeley noted in his Commonweal review of Gibson's book on Pope Benedict XVI), is that it is rooted in a heavily politicized view of the Church and the actions of nearly everyone in the Church. It is all about the "conservatives/sectarians" versus the "liberals/big-church Catholics," with the former being angry ideologues and political hacks, while the latter are fighting for social justice, tolerance, and understanding. The limits of this approach should be apparent. Actually, they are apparent. At least to this sectarian, conservative, former-Protestant, and proud Papist.
• Straw men by the left, straw men from the left (May 17, 2009)