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Benedict's Honeymoon


In office for two months
So howzit going?
Ominously.

by Fr Eric Hodgens

The earliest decisions of any Chief Executive Officer are critical for establishing the style and effectiveness of his/her leadership in the office. This applies as much to the papacy as to any other position. It is not too early to do an assessment of the papacy of Benedict XVI.

The Australian clergy and involved laity have been watching carefully the few weeks since his 19th April election. Initial apprehension at the election of the longtime head of an interventionist Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) was tempered by a "give him a go" attitude. His choice of "Benedict" as his throne name was reminiscent of Benedict XV who reunited a church which was very divided by the heresy hunting of Pius X. Maybe Benedict XVI would move to embrace a more centrist position held by most of his clergy and involved laity. Three decisions of the first month in office have set the alarm bells ringing again.

Archbishop William Levada of San Francisco was named the pope's successor as Prefect of CDF 13th May. He was appointed to San Francisco in 1995 replacing Archbishop John Quinn - a respected, popular and intelligent leader whose early retirement had left many questions. Archbishop Levada exercised a rigid though relatively low key leadership in San Francisco. He struggled to win support from his clergy or laity.

Between 1976 and 1982 he worked in Rome at the CDF under the leadership of Cardinal Ratzinger. His appointment as bishop shortly after returning from his Roman posting indicated that he had Cardinal Ratzinger's support. With his appointment to head CDF we can anticipate that there will be a continuation of the policy of his predecessor. Turning 69 next month, he can look forward to at least six years in the job. This will please the smaller right wing of the clergy and laity but disappoint and increase the anxiety of the large centrist group.

The cause of Pope John Paul II for canonization as a saint was also introduced 13th May. This is a very significant act because it is so very early - early in Benedict's reign, but also an exception to the rule of waiting at least five years after the death of a candidate. The popularity of John Paul II is beyond question. He was a populariser par excellence. But the majority of the clergy have grave reservations about a lot of the things he stood for.

For 26 years he weakened the episcopate (and the college of cardinals) by appointing mainly men who were hard line and Rome-compliant - and worse - many of whom nobody much liked, nobody much respected. He was inflexible on communion for divorcees, contraception and many now open sexual issues. He would not allow the discussion of clerical celibacy or women's ordination. He killed a new vitality which was emerging in priest-deprived Latin America with the formation of Basic Ecclesial Communities. The centrist clergy see him as having damaged and divided the church, caused immense suffering in the developing world and alienated large numbers of people struggling to live better lives in complex circumstances. The early introduction of his cause is a de facto reassertion of all these policies.

The third decision is the dismissal of Fr Thomas Reese as editor of the America magazine. America is a highly respected, centrist Catholic magazine run by the Jesuits in the USA. It has been balanced in its content under the editorship of Fr Reese. However, it has run articles on controversial issues. For example it discussed the pros and cons of the CDF document Dominus Jesus, the attitude of CDF to homosexuals and the policy of some bishops of refusing Holy Communion to politicians who did not support the criminalization of abortion in their legislatures. All these are live issues and open to criticism by the clergy and involved laity. Fr Reese was simply allowing the same discussion in the pages of America magazine.

His dismissal is particularly significant because of his high public profile. He was the very balanced commentator on CNN and other TV media during the dying of John Paul II and the election of Benedict XVI. This dismissal fits the pattern under the previous pontificate of dismissing a high profile figure thus frightening others into silence.

The mood of the majority of the clergy is now very gloomy. This is a real problem because, due to their age, this large group will all be gone over the next twenty years. The priests coming on after them in the younger age brackets are also divided on these matters though more are inclined to support this more divisive stance. However there are so few of them that their attitude will be of much less consequence.

New executives tend to enjoy an initial honeymoon period with their subordinates. Benedict XVI's has been particularly short. The early mantra - Inquisitor then; Shepherd now - seems to have been just spin.


Eric Hodgens is a priest of the Melbourne Archdiocese.







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