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Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

a defining moment -- but for whom?

By Diogenes ( articles ) | Apr 08, 2008

USA Today's Cathy Grossman has an article on Benedict's upcoming visit, amusingly headlined, "U.S. Visit Will Give Pope a Defining Moment." Will it now?

Predictably, Grossman frames the visit using the standard categories of the liberal Left. Less creditably, she borrows much of its rhetoric as well:

[Benedict] has made clear he wants to continue the strict doctrines of John Paul, who muzzled theologians he thought blurred the lines between Catholicism and politics, opposed the use of condoms to fight AIDS, refused to reconsider the tradition of priestly celibacy and dismissed out of hand the notion that women be allowed to become priests.

Grossman does go so far as to acknowledge that the Pope has sympathizers among U.S. Catholics. Notice whom she quotes as an example thereof:

Benedict's admirers hope people will come to see him as they do: kind, warm, intellectually open and engaging.

"The pope I have seen for the past three years is the Joseph Ratzinger I have known for 20 -- a holy and brilliant priest who knows who he is, a master teacher with remarkable skill in explaining complex Christian doctrines and a quite winsome public personality," says George Weigel, a theologian and author on Catholic issues.

Weigel has been the focus of recent controversy in virtue of his suggestion that the Society of Jesus has some catching up to do in order to close the gap between the fidelity expected by the Holy See and the fidelity actually delivered. Several Jesuits strongly protested Weigel's claim. The papal visit provides an excellent opportunity for the Society of Jesus to show all of us just how wrong Weigel was. How? By going to bat for Benedict where it counts -- especially in the mass media, and especially in those areas of controversy where the media are likely to be hostile or confused.

We've seen that Weigel already got on the scoreboard. So in what way are the Jesuits helping prep the visit? Unlike Weigel, alas, they're not rostered under "Benedict's admirers":

But Benedict, however "charming," is still stifling theologians who challenge ideas about Catholicism, says Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and former editor of the Jesuit-owned magazine America. Reese lost that job just after Ratzinger was elected pope; conservative Catholics had long complained that America gave too much voice to dissenting views on sensitive issues from sexuality to salvation.

Reese, now a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, says Catholic theologians are concerned that "the Vatican insists we continue to explain the gospel in the language of the 13th century."

Because Jesuits enjoy the reputation of intellectually serious Catholics, they're in a position to correct, plausibly and effectively, a lot of the popular misunderstandings about Benedict and his relations to Catholic doctrine on one hand and academic theology on the other. In theory, the Society might find a Jesuit who thought that -- even on the hot-button issues -- the Pope was right. Concretely, the Society could get such a man in front of a microphone. If it wanted to, the Society could make the Pope's job easier on this visit.

So what do we read (and what will the Pope be reading on his flight over)? "Benedict is still stifling theologians. Theologians worry because the Vatican insists we continue to explain the gospel in the language of the 13th century." Forget for a moment that the former comment is tendentious and the latter both stupid and false. Ask yourself the question, who appears to desire that the task the Pope asked of the Jesuits be successfully undertaken, Weigel or Reese?

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