While the arrest of the pope's butler has triggered feverish speculation about the "who" of the Vatican leaks scandal, there's been less attention so far to the "what" of the revelations contained in the sensational new book His Holiness: The Secret Papers of Benedict XVI, published by journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi.
All Things Catholic
John L. Allen Jr., NCR senior correspondent, writes weekly on the goings-on in Vatican and in the church around the world.
Politics is the mother of irony, and there's a juicy one bubbling right now in Canada, in the province of Ontario, where a school system originally designed to protect one aggrieved minority -- namely Catholics -- is under mounting pressure in the name of defending another -- in this case, gays and lesbians.
One should not make too much of a recent contretemps at the Pontifical Academy for Life, because it's not really as if the fate of the Vatican hangs in the balance. Yet the dust-up is nevertheless worth pondering, primarily because it captures three recurrent tensions in Catholic life, with consequences far broader than the immediate future of one pontifical body. After a brief review of the controversy, I'll unpack each.
Right now, the “next pope” conversation isn’t creating much buzz. There’s no sign of a health crisis around Benedict XVI, and Catholic attention around the world is focused on more local matters: the LCWR crackdown in the States, the disciplining of liberal priests and calls for Cardinal Sean Brady to resign over the sex abuse crisis in Ireland, a political scandal involving Communion and Liberation in Italy, and so on.
Yet with an 85-year-old pope beginning to show his age, speculation about who might come next is always in the background, even if it’s on a low boil.
Once again, Christians found themselves on the firing line last Sunday, with 19 people killed in Nigeria and one in Kenya in attacks on three churches. Those atrocities, alas, have rated no more than a blip on the global radar screen, largely because such things have become chillingly familiar.
The consensus estimate is that about 150,000 Christians are today killed around the world every year, either out of hatred for the faith or for works of charity inspired by the faith. That translates into one victim every three and a half minutes. In effect, we are witnessing the rise of an entire new generation of Christian martyrs.
Every time something like this happens, the Vatican, to its credit, is usually quick to speak out. Again this time, Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesperson, denounced the "horrible and despicable acts" in Kenya and Nigeria and urged the populations to resist a "vicious circle of homicidal hatred."
Yet more and more, an unavoidable question looms: Isn't there something the Vatican could do beyond issuing statements?
By far, the biggest Vatican story at the moment in the American media market is an announced overhaul of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the main umbrella group for superiors of the roughly 400 women's orders in the States. The move has been presented by the Vatican as a "reform" but styled as a "crackdown" in most press coverage.
For Benedict XVI, this has been a week of milestones. The pontiff turned 85 on Monday, making him the oldest pope in the last 110 years and one of just six to reign past 85 in the last half-millennium. On Thursday, Benedict also marked the seventh anniversary of his election to the papacy in April 2005.
It's been a week for remembrance of things past in another sense, too.
As Pope Paul VI once famously told the United Nations, the Catholic church likes to think of itself as an “expert in humanity.” Development of Catholic social teaching over the last 120 years is a good example, as the church has tried to bring its moral tradition to bear on questions of economic justice.
Three decades ago, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger rose to fame as the architect of the Vatican's crackdown on liberation theology in Latin America, which he saw as a dangerous baptism of Marxist class struggle. That stance made Ratzinger a hero to anti-communist stalwarts everywhere, the perfect intellectual complement to John Paul II's muscular challenge to the Soviet empire.
Catholic hawks at the time believed that Pope Paul VI's Ostpolitik, meaning constructive engagement with Marxism, was finally dead and buried.
Today, those folks probably feel trapped in a B-grade slasher film in which the guy with the hockey mask and chainsaw keeps springing back to life. That's because since his election as pope, Benedict XVI has seemed less notable for his anti-communist audacity than his appetite for détente.
Benedict's March 26-28 visit to Cuba, in which he met both the Castro brothers but none of the pro-democracy dissidents, offered the latest case in point.
Pope Benedict XVI's diplomatic high-wire act in Havana, pressing the case for religious freedom but avoiding direct clash with the Castro regime, was the main news flash out of his March 23-28 trip to Mexico and Cuba. Yet there was another leitmotif to the outing, more subtle but arguably more decisive for the church across Latin America.