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.
All Things Catholic
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.
Pope Benedict XVI arrives today in León, Mexico, to kick off the 23rd foreign trip of his papacy but his first to Spanish-speaking Latin America. (He visited Brazil in 2007.) Benedict will spend the weekend in Mexico, then move Monday to Cuba before returning to Rome late Wednesday.
At one level, this is a tale of two different trips.
The pope's swing in Mexico will likely amount to a celebration of popular Catholicism, with about 3 million exuberant faithful expected to turn out. It also comes just ahead of national elections in July, raising fears of manipulation of the trip for political ends, especially given perceptions that the Mexican church is aligned in favor of the conservative National Action Party. However, Mexican Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragán, a retired Vatican official who will accompany the pope, recently insisted that trying to see the trip through the prism of electoral politics "would be like forcing the ocean into an oyster."
One month from today, Benedict XVI will turn 85. He's now the oldest pope in the last 109 years, since Leo XIII died in 1903 at 93, and will shortly become one of only six popes in the last 500 years to reign past the age of 85. That list includes three pontiffs (Pius IX, Innocent XII and Clement X) who died within a year of turning 85, so if Benedict's basic stability holds up, he'll surpass them in 2013.
As the saying goes, German machinery is built to last!
I was in Chicago earlier this week to present the 17th annual Cardinal Joseph Bernardin lecture on Jewish/Catholic relations. Co-sponsored by the Chicago archdiocese and a variety of Jewish groups, the series commemorates a landmark speech delivered by the late Bernardin at Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1995.
Opening ferverinos Tuesday night were offered both by Cardinal Francis George and by Rabbi Michael Balinsky for the Chicago Board of Rabbis, reflecting the deep ties between the two faiths in the Windy City. (Earlier in the day, I spoke at a lunch with a standing group that's roughly 30 years old of Jewish and Catholic scholars in the Chicago area.)
I realize this comes a little late, but if anybody's still on the market for something to give up for Lent, I'd suggest that the following misconceptions about the Catholic church and about Christianity in general would be dandy bits of intellectual junk to cut loose in the spirit of the season.
As a thought exercise, ask yourself what period of time the following paragraph about the Vatican seems to reflect.
"For those who've seen the place in better days, the Vatican looks deeply troubled. In the absence of strong leadership, internal tensions seem to be bursting into view. Even at the height of his powers, the pope took scant interest in governance. As he ages and becomes more limited, a sense of drift is mounting -- a conviction that hard choices must await a new day, and probably a new pontiff."