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Paul Collins on Benedict XVI

Cardinal Ratzinger, he told reporters at the time of the conclave, was a "reactionary", a bishop who was a 'historical amnesiac'. Last week, Maxine McKew interviewed Dr Paul Collins about the Church, democracy, and Benedict. Has Collins softened his view?

by Patty Fawkner SGS

"The church is not a democracy, but it's not an absolute monarchy and it's not a dictatorship and it's not a multi-national corporation." So says church historian, Dr Paul Collins.

Speaking at an event called the Meeting Place, a forum for conversation sponsored by the Uniya Jesuit Social Justice Centre, Dr Collins said that the church is a unique community bound together by agape - love.

Maxine McKew, the Logie and Walkley award winning ABC journalist was interviewing Dr Collins on the opportunities and challenges facing the church at the dawn of a new papacy.

Admitting that he came from a more 'progressive camp' than Benedict XVI, Dr Collins nevertheless said that he was quietly confident about the leadership he expected from the new pope. He based this optimism on Benedict's intelligence and a belief that he would be a much more modest pope than his predecessor, John Paul II.

Benedict's intelligence is universally acknowledged. "He's a deeply intelligent man," said Dr Collins. "I'm positive about him because he has a comprehension of the situation of the church in the world." And, he added, "He's a man who is not afraid of talent, not afraid of appointing men with ability. I think that is something we desperately need in our leadership within the church".

When asked by Maxine McKew if the new pope would be likely to appoint dissenting men of talent, Dr Collins was certain that dissent would not be tolerated because of Benedict's strong but narrow view of orthodoxy. Although narrow, it is, Dr Collins said, a legitimate and well thought out view.

Dr Collins acknowledged an implicit criticism of John Paul II in his desire for a more modest pope. Later in the interview, he was less subtle. "I like Benedict because he's not John Paul. John Paul so dominated the church that we all became altar servers. This man exhausted the church; he took it over and became the church. That's the danger for young people. They think the pope is the church."

Dr Collins believes that there will be two key priorities in a new papal agenda - reunion with the Orthodox and his justifiable concern in regard to the secularisation of Europe. He described Benedict as a "benighted Europhile" with little comprehension of the Anglo-American world. "The debate in the church at the moment is how the church can begin to re-permeate [European] secular culture. How can you get back in?"

John Paul II's solution was to bring in the new religious movements such as Opus Dei, the Neo-Catechumenate and the Italian group, Communion and Liberation. Dr Collins claims the former Cardinal Ratzinger saw this as a superficial solution. "Ratzinger is not close to the NRMs [the new religious movements]. He's not close to Opus Dei at all." Benedict would believe that any movement to re-engage and influence Europe would have to be cultural.

But such a serious focus on Europe could be at the expense of other pressing concerns such as the church in Latin America and Africa, especially sub-Saharan Africa where Christian Africans and Muslim Africans meet each other. This could pose a quandary for the pope but, said Dr Collins, "my big feeling of optimism is that this man is smart enough to know all of that - he's not a drongo."

Maxine McKew took Dr Collins back to the recent conclave and asked if there were any "deals" done in the election of Benedict XVI. There were no deals, Dr Collins declared and then added with the familiar twinkle in the eye, "The Vatican is just like Canberra - no deals."

The reason so many commentators, Dr Collins included, were so wrong about predicting that Cardinal Ratzinger would not be elected Pope, was that "we all sat down and analysed it and asked what's the model of a pope we need. We worked out it should be this and this and this." Perhaps this was too logical and analytical.

"Did you draw up a profile?" Dr Collins asked while interviewing Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, Archbishop of Westminster. "No," he replied. "We just look around and said 'Who's a good guy?'"

Dr Collins said that Cardinal Ratzinger's performance was "masterly" in the interregnum. "He celebrated the funeral liturgy [of John Paul II] beautifully." More impressive still was his performance in the sessions prior to the conclave, especially the Cardinal's well-reported sermon in which he critiqued the relativism of the post-modern era. "In the end, I can almost agree with that," said Dr Collins. "Who hasn't had a bellyful that everybody's opinion is as important as everyone else's?"

Another potent force in the papal election was the formation of three different constellations of conservative support for Cardinal Ratzinger, the then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, even as John Paul II was moving towards death. "Something that is a constant in church history," Dr Collins claimed, "is that conservative people are much more shrewd and sensible about politics than progressive and liberal people."

During the conclave he believes that there was initial support for Jesuit Cardinal Carlo Martini, the retired Archbishop of Milan who for years was hailed as Europe's most prominent liberal prelate. When support for Martini, who has Parkinson's Disease, faded "the progressives were just left standing, gasping in the dust. The progressives had no game plan." Dr Collins reminded his audience of the classic theological principle that grace builds on nature and "nature is about politics".

Returning to his theme of the church being a communion, in which members are drawn together by the unique relationship that exists with each other, Dr Collins said that the greatest challenge for the church was to rediscover an earlier vision in which ministry was defined by loving service and where there was room for all to exercise their different God-given gifts.

"The church is not a democracy in the contemporary sense, but it is a community. It's not just a hierarchy. There is a corrosive disjunction where the church is a community in which people expect to hear their voice heard, and this hierarchical thing."

Despite his critique of the Catholic Church and its new pontiff, throughout this interview Dr Paul Collins' appreciation of Benedict XVI was palpable. "I take Joseph Ratzinger seriously. Joseph Ratzinger has a different view of faith to me, but it's the Catholic Church we belong to - and it's big enough for both of us."

http://www.harpercollinsreligious.com.au/authors/profiles/paul_collins.html http://www.uniya.org/

Patty Fawkner is a Good Samaritan Sister and the Director of Uniya Jesuit Social Justice Centre. For more information about Uniya's Meeting Place visit www.uniya.org

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