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Is the Pope naïve or arrogant?

2009 March 27
by Paul Vallely

Is the Pope naïve or arrogant? That is the question that many senior Roman Catholics are now asking themselves privately, though they would hesitate to couch it publicly in terms quite so direct and impolite. The response of many people, critics and supporters of Benedict XVI alike, has been to talk of the pontiff’s lack of media savvy. The Vatican’s press officers need, in the words of the Archbishop of Cardiff, need “to get their act together”.

We have been here before. So much so that some have now being tempted to opine, with Lady Bracknell, that though one PR disaster might be accounted a misfortune, two begins to look like carelessness. So what of three?

First there was the Pope’s Regensburg lecture in which Benedict quoted the 14th-century Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus as telling a visitor to “show me just what Mohamed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and human”. Next came his decision to lift the excommunications of four Lefebvrist bishops, one of whom, Richard Williamson, turned out to be a Holocaust-denier – an action made doubly maladroit by the Vatican announcing it during Holocaust memorial week. And now we have his pronouncement that condoms, far from being an answer to the Aids epidemic, actually make it worse.

This latest is a disaster even in the Pope’s own terms. He had set out for Africa with a full agenda. It ranged from warnings on the regrowth of witchcraft among some fundamentalist sects to a brave and powerful attack on corruption among African government officials. He wanted to denounce the armed conflict which still bedevils parts of the continent and criticise global economic policies that keep poor nations poor. He was to call for “an ever-more equitable sharing of the earth’s resources among all people”. All this he managed to overshadow with a bit of casual sex talk and a failure to understand that for the Western media sex trumps everything else.

Yet could he really fail to know that after all his years? Or might it be that he just could not resist the chance to put someone right when the opportunity presented itself, however fleetingly. For there is a case that, far from being a blunder naïf, Benedict XVI knows exactly what he is about and is happy to disregard anyone who disagree.s

Certainly he discounted warnings before his Regensburg lecture from the top Vatican bureaucrat Cardinal Angelo Sodano to a bunch of senior journalists who were shown an advance copy. Though the Pope was undoubtedly taken aback that nuns and priests in the Arab world were killed by angry mobs he was unrepentant, according to his private secretary, about his basic assertions on the superiority of Western Christianity to Eastern Islam. He had already sacked Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald as head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue because he did not share this hard line.

Then look at the letter the Pope wrote to his bishops around the world after the Williamson affair. Though it was unprecedented terms saying “I have learned the lesson” he continued to defend his actions to readmit the Lefebvrists on the grounds that Rome should not exclude “a community which has 491 priests, 215 seminarians, 117 Religious brothers, 164 Religious sisters and thousands of lay faithful?”. That he had set back relations with 13 million Jews worldwide in the process did not appear to enter into the balance.

Nor did he seem to understand the depth of the criticisms he had received from his own bishops, most particularly in France, Germany and Austria, for the dissonance of his actions with his words about creating “a profound collaboration between the bishops and the Pope”. He had lifted the excommunications without consulting the heads of the relevant Vatican dicasteries and in the teeth of the views expressed by the College of Cardinals in 2006 that the Lefebvrist dissidents could only be brought back into communion if they expressed a “faithful adherence to Vatican II”. Indeed he revoked the excommunications on the 50th anniversary to the day of Pope John XXIII’s decision to call the council.

It is that background that makes some commentators wonder whether his condoms-cause-Aids remarks were indeed a blunder – or another attempt to insist upon his vision of absolute truth regardless of the consequences to his own African mission. Naïve or arrogant? He may be a little of both.

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