Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Pope Benedict XVI

I was in a hotel in East Brussels when the new Pope was elected. The bells were rung in some local church - noteworthy, as in all the times I've stayed here, I don't think I have heard church bells ringing - and certainly not heard prolonged ringing. So when I noticed it, I guessed what had happened.

The news was being covered on a range of the European channels; BBC News 24 was the one I found first that was speaking in English. It didn't make much difference, really. All the stations had pictures of St Peter's Square and the streets surrounding it filling up, and nervous journalists wondering whether they would be able to understand the Latin announcements when they were made (in actual fact, when it came to it, I think BBC News 24 didn't even attempt to translate the Latin live, only the Italian bits - perhaps the risk of making a mistake was too great) - and also nervously wondering how much of a gap between the proclamation of the decision (by smoke and bells in St. Peter's) and the announcement there would be. The end of the wait was signalled, to the relief of the presenters, by the arrival of some mafia-types from behind the red curtain to prepare the ground for the announcements.

Since the last conclave, the world has changed immensely. Think back to the late 70's - before the end of the Iron Curtain - before Reagan and Gorbachev - before the Falklands War. Live TV transmissions from abroad would have been unusual - more normal would have been a voice over a (noisy) phone line accompanied by a library photo, if I remember right. Now, inevitably, the whole thing was a great media occasion. The commentators remarked that the rapid filling of St Peter's Square with tens of thousands of people from the surrounding area (in the rush hour, let's face it) was indicative of the impact that John Paul II had had - I think it is more likely to be the case that, in large measure, people have more of a sense now of what a media event can be like, and wanted to be a part of it. Whatever, the square and its surrounds were pretty full by the time the scarlet-robed herald announced news of great joy - words that are associated in the Bible with the arrival of God's chosen King.

And it was the widely tipped contender - the Cardinal formerly known as Joseph Ratzinger from Germany, now to be known as Benedict XVI (come on, BBC 24 - even I could hack that amount of Latin!!). His homilies at the time of John Paul II's funeral and prior to the conclave were considered greatly significant by the media commentators, and evidently the cardinals were happy to move in the direction that he was indicating, and rapidly (on the fourth vote, on the second day) elected him.

So, what's good about all this? Well, the Catholic church, as suggested by the pre-conclave homily, still believes in absolute truth. That doesn't mean promoting division and discord - I intend to review Jonathan Sacks' book The Dignity of Difference shortly - a very interesting book lent by a friend - people proclaiming belief in absolute truth can still call for tolerance and peace, it seems. However, it does mean belief in something real in a world in which relativism is the prevailing mood. The lot of Christians of all persuasions would be harder if the Catholic church forsook this understanding of the nature of truth.

Also, the people in St Peter's Square were addressed as "brothers and sisters", not "children". Christian leaders are part of the flock, as well as leading it. Let's hope that this attitude prevails in the work of Benedict XVI as well as his first words.

What's not right? Well, it isn't possible to have church tradition being co-authoritative with Scripture - one of the issues that led Ratzinger's compatriot Martin Luther to break with the Catholic church. If they are supposedly co-authoritative, then one will override the other - and what happens is that the authority of the church overrides the authority of Scripture. So the church says that Mary remained a virgin; Scripture says that Jesus had brothers and sisters. The church says that the bread and wine physically become the body and blood of Christ; this is a distortion of what Scripture says. The church said that the earth was at the centre of the universe; Scripture didn't claim to make scientific statements. But in all cases the church wins - and yet, if the Bible is God's word, should the church be able to trump it?

Also, the ultimate shepherd of the church isn't the Pope - it's Christ. Peter was not given Christ's authority over the church - as is perfectly apparent in the New Testament epistles. So the idea of apostolic succession from Peter and thence from Christ is not Biblical - again, the authority of the church overcalling that of the Bible.

There are other issues as well. As in Luther's day, the Catholic church shouldn't be written off. But it still needs reformation - there are many distortions and errors in its teaching.

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