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Pope Benedict XVI Puts His Church "on Edge"

In the last two years, Pope Benedict's clear positions on controversial issues appear to have given the Roman Catholic Church an "edgy" new decisiveness.

by Paul Kieffer

When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger succeeded the popular John Paul II as Pope Benedict XVI in the spring of 2005, people wondered what the hallmark of his papacy would be. A little more than two years after Benedict's election, there seems to be a pattern emerging. Pope Benedict appears to have put the Roman Catholic Church "on edge."

"On edge" here doesn't mean nervous. Instead, it takes its meaning from the way the phrase is sometimes used in the German language, where it conveys having a clear position on a particular issue being discussed. Germans like their leaders to be "edgy" in that sense, and that's the approach the German pope seems to be taking in his papacy.

Family Day puts pressure on Italian lawmakers

This May's Family Day demonstration in Rome is an example of the Vatican's new approach. The demonstration took place on May 12 and was organized by the Italian Catholic Bishops Conference and the Vatican. Members of Catholic organizations from all over Italy traveled to Rome on buses and special trains to take part.

Radio Vatican estimated the crowd to number approximately 1 million people, who came to Rome to protest against proposed legislation that would give same-sex couples and unmarried heterosexual couples rights similar to those that are provided for traditional married couples.

The purpose of the demonstration was to put pressure on the centrist, left-leaning government of Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi. It's no surprise that former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was one of the protesters. Italian Christian Democratic politician Rocco Buttiglione was also among those who participated in the demonstration. Buttiglione is a spokesman for those who oppose what he describes as the new anti-Christian "religion" currently gaining ground in Italy.

"There is of course a new religion, an anti-Christian religion, an atheistic and agnostic religion which claims that there is only one truth, and that truth is that there isn't any truth," is the way Buttiglione put it prior to Family Day.

Even some of Romano Prodi's own cabinet members participated in the demonstration and were criticized by Italian media for doing so only to please the pope who had called for widespread support of the demonstration. Prior to the show of force in Rome, public opinion in Italy seemed to be divided over Family Day, with many Italians believing that the Catholic Church was stepping over the line with its involvement in the demonstration.

However, Family Day really reflected a new decisiveness of the Roman Catholic Church under Pope Benedict. Italian Vatican observer Sandro Magister commented, "The pope's call for support was the impetus for putting on a big show. This demonstration fits the new image that the Church now has under Pope Benedict. It is the image of a Church that decisively sticks to its position on a select number of key issues."

The Italian constitution provides for the neutrality of the state in religious matters, and smaller Christian churches in Italy are concerned about the direction the Vatican is headed. They want the Vatican to respect that neutrality even if it is by far the largest denomination in Italy.

According to Paulo Ricca, professor at the Waldensian University in Rome, "The differences of opinion among Christian churches in Italy concerning social issues are becoming more pronounced." Ricca's evangelical church supports giving nonmarried couples certain rights, as is currently the case in other European countries.

He added, "As Christians we cannot ignore certain questions in our society. But that is what the Catholic Church is doing, even though we should be trying to find solutions. That's why the gap between Catholics and Protestants has been growing recently."

Benedict not afraid to challenge social change

The new edge of the Catholic Church hasn't been evident only in Italy. Pope Benedict wasn't in Rome during the Family Day demonstration. Instead, he was on a trip to South America to attend the Latin American Catholic Bishops conference in Brazil.

One of the potential hot topics on the pope's trip to Brazil was a threat made by church leaders in Mexico to excommunicate local officials in Mexico City who had voted in favor of liberalizing abortion. The church's stand in Mexico sparked interest in Brazil, where there are an estimated 1 million illegal abortions each year, inciting a call to liberalize Brazil's abortion law.

In a talk with journalists on his plane to Brazil, however, Benedict said that "killing innocent children is inconsistent with [taking] communion."

The pope's comments irked Brazilian Minister of Health José Temporão, who accused the pope of interfering in Brazil's internal affairs. "You can't force one religion's dogmas and commandments on an entire society. That's not appropriate. If men would get pregnant, they would have a different opinion on the subject," was Temporão's response shortly before Benedict met with Brazilian President Luiz Inácio.

One of the main topics on the agenda during May's Latin American Catholic Bishops conference was the growth of Protestant groups in Latin America, which is the unstated reason Benedict called on Latin American Catholics "to renew their drive and missionary zeal."

Nearly half of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics live in Latin America, and Brazil has the most Catholics of any country on earth. However, when surveyed in opinion polls, less than two thirds of Brazil's 190 million people still call themselves Catholic.

Benedict apparently believes that liberalizing Catholic viewpoints is not the solution for the drain on church membership. As long as Benedict is pope, expect the Catholic Church to remain "on edge" in an attempt to provide a clear distinction between itself and non-Catholic Christian groups.

Benedict, Nicolas Sarkozy and Turkey

Benedict's predecessor is credited with a major contribution to the demise of the Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe. Pope John Paul II's influence, initially in Poland and then elsewhere in the Communist countries east of the iron curtain, was largely behind the scenes. Could it be that Pope Benedict may have a similar influence, but this time on all of Europe?

An intellectual who is not afraid to state his views in clear terms, Benedict may already be influencing more than just how his own church will position itself on key societal issues that also involve church doctrine. In a speech in Regensburg during a visit to his homeland of Bavaria last September, Benedict quoted a 14th-century Byzantine emperor who was critical of Islam. His remarks caused a furor in the Islamic world, and he said later that it was not his intention to offend Muslims.

On the other hand, Benedict surely understood the impact his words might have, especially since his earlier view was well known on the question of whether a Muslim country should become part of the European Union.

Prior to his election as pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger called the start of negotiations with Turkey on EU membership a mistake. He has not made any official statement since becoming pope, although Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan claimed that Benedict had voiced support in a private meeting last November.

On the day that Pope Benedict is supposed to have made his comments, Radio Vatican had this to say:

"Erdogan, who is about to have the EU put his chair outside the door, seized the favorable moment to use the pope of all people as a crown witness for Turkish EU membership. Has Pope Benedict really changed his mind on this question, or did a politician put one over on the pope? It does seem a bit strange that it would be the pope who would now promote Turkey's bid for membership when the EU itself appears ready to put negotiations with Turkey on hold" (Nov. 28, 2006).

By using a quote critical of Islam at a time when Muslim Turkey's entry into the European Union is a subject of concern to many Europeans, Benedict appears to have sent a signal to European leaders. Perhaps that is why newly elected French President Nicolas Sarkozy wasted no time letting his country and the rest of Europe know what he thinks of Turkey's bid to join the EU. "Turkey has no place in Europe," he declared in an interview with the French daily newspaper Le Figaro (June 6, 2007).

"After the EU Council meeting in June I will propose a strategy that will open a way for us to drop the strategy of pursuing membership without dividing Europe," Sarkozy added. He intends to have his proposal on the agenda for discussion at the EU summit meeting scheduled for December 2007.

Just one week after assuming office, Sarkozy expressed his views on Turkey during his inaugural visit as French president to the European Commission in Brussels. Sarkozy envisions some kind of "Mediterranean union" with Turkey involving a "privileged partnership," but short of full membership.

European Commission President José Manuel Barroso restated the official EU position that any decision on whether to admit Turkey will only be made when negotiations have been completed, which are expected to last at least 10 years. Under the existing EU framework, which permits any nation to veto treaties or proposals, observers have speculated that France could block negotiations with Turkey at any time by simply exercising its veto right.

Like John Paul II did during the Soviet era, Pope Benedict will also influence developments in Europe, but likely in a more direct way than his predecessor. WNP

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