February 11, 2013

Pope's mission to revive faith clouded by scandal

Nicole Winfield / The Associated Press

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Pope Benedict XVI, right, and Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Dean of the College of Cardinals, hug each other on Monday after the pontiff announced during the meeting of Vatican cardinals that he would resign on Feb. 28.

AP / L'Osservatore Romano

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His conservative vision is a direction his successor will likely continue given that the bulk of the College of Cardinals — the princes of the church who will elect the next pope — was hand-picked by Benedict to guarantee his legacy and ensure an orthodox future for the church.

Benedict relaxed restrictions on celebrating the old, pre-Vatican II Latin Mass. He reached out to a group of traditionalist, schismatic Catholics in a bid to bring them back into Rome's fold. And he issued an unprecedented invitation to traditionalist Anglicans upset over women priests and gay bishops to join the Roman Catholic Church.

In doing so, he alienated many progressive Catholics who feared he was rolling back the clock on Vatican II. He also angered some Jews who equated the pre-Vatican II church with the time when Jews were still considered ripe for conversion and were held responsible collectively for the death of Christ.

Yet like John Paul, Benedict had made reaching out to Jews a hallmark of his papacy. His first official act as pope was a letter to Rome's Jewish community and he became the second pope in history, after John Paul, to enter a synagogue.

And in his 2011 book "Jesus of Nazareth" Benedict made a sweeping exoneration of the Jewish people for the death of Christ, explaining biblically and theologically why there was no basis in Scripture for the argument that the Jewish people as a whole were responsible for Jesus' death.

"It's very clear Benedict is a true friend of the Jewish people," said Rabbi David Rosen, who heads the interreligious relations office for the American Jewish Committee.

During his trip to Poland, Benedict prayed at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp — a visit heavy with significance for a German pope on Polish soil.

"In a place like this, words fail; in the end, there can be only a dread silence, a silence which itself is a heartfelt cry to God: Why, Lord, did you remain silent?" he asked.

His 2009 visit to Israel, however, drew a lukewarm response from officials at Jerusalem's national Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial who found Benedict's speech lacking. His call for a Palestinian state also put a damper on the visit.

Jews were also incensed at Benedict's constant promotion toward sainthood of Pope Pius XII, the World War II-era pope accused by some of having failed to sufficiently denounce the Holocaust. And they harshly criticized Benedict when he removed the excommunication of a traditionalist British bishop who had denied the Holocaust.

Benedict's relations with the Muslim world were also a mixed bag.

He riled the Muslim world with a speech in Regensburg, Germany in September 2006, five years after the terror attacks in the United States, in which he quoted a Byzantine emperor who characterized some of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad as "evil and inhuman," particularly "his command to spread by the sword the faith."

Much of the outrage that ensued from Benedict's interfaith missteps was due to the Holy See's communications problems: The Vatican under Benedict suffered notorious PR hiccups, constantly finding itself slow to react to news and then reacting with muddled messages that required two or three clarifications before getting it straight.

Sometimes Benedict himself was to blame.

In 2009, he enraged the United Nations and several European governments, when en route to Africa, he told reporters that the AIDS problem couldn't be resolved by distributing condoms. "On the contrary, it increases the problem," he said then.

A year later, he issued a revision that seemed to placate liberals while maintaining church teaching opposing contraception: In a book-length interview, he said that if a male prostitute were to use a condom to avoid passing on HIV to his partner, he might be taking a first step toward a more responsible sexuality.

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