Why "Benedict"? -- Can the new Pope transcend his own past?

Rabbi Arthur Waskow 4/20/2005

Names matter.

The name of the first Pope, Peter, Petros, meant Rock. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus said, Upon this Rock - this Petros, I will build my church.

But if Peter was a rock, he was a rock of future solidity and solidarity - not a fossil from the past. Living through the earthquake that the Roman Empire brought to his country, he sought to dance in the earthquake to renew and transform the Judaism and the Hellenism he grew up in.

Walking now in the earthquake of Modernity, the Catholic Church has just chosen not to dance in the earthquake by renewing itself. Instead, it chose to search for a fossilized rock of the past — a rock of certainty that it hopes will not be shaken by the earthquake.

Yet does the name of the new Pope matter — the name he chose for himself?

John Paul II balanced seeking the future through Renewal and hanging on to the past through Restoration. He sought to Renew the Church by abandoning its old hostility to Judaism and Islam. Yet when it came to the role of women and issues involving sexuality, not only in his Church but beyond it, he made every effort to Restore the past.

Pope John Paul II's appointments to the College of Cardinals made a miracle of renewal almost impossible. Indeed, Cardinal Ratzinger was even more anchored in the past than was the Pope who gave him such latitude.

Cardinal Ratzinger was the Pope's bulldog on many of these issues. He ordered a theologian excommunicated, forced the independent-minded Hans Kung and Rev. Charles E. Curran out of their teaching posts, shattered the efforts of some Latin Americans to develop a liberation theology, and kept a chilly silence about the murder of Archbishop Romero in El Salvador by right-wing death squads. Yet he never excommunicated right-wing Catholic priests who denounced the reforms of Vatican II and even ordained their own priests, despite the prohibitions of canon law.

And where John Paul went further than Vatican II along the path shaped by Pope John XXIII to open doors to Jews and other faiths, Ratzinger in 2000 proclaimed the absolute primacy of the Roman Catholic Church and condemned other religious communities as "deficient."

His paper on other religions, "Dominus Jesus," denounced "the theology of religious pluralism." He insisted on the Church's traditional claim to be the unique and universal means to salvation.

"Followers of other religions can receive divine grace, ... [but] objectively speaking they are in a gravely deficient situation in comparison with those who, in the Church, have the fullness of the means of salvation."

He described interreligious dialogue as part of the "evangelizing mission" of the Church, "just one of the actions of the Church in her mission to the nations." For Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and others this may drop a poisoned pill into the shared cup of interfaith dialogue.

So is there any hope at all, any sign that the new Benedict XVI might give hope to some aspects of religious renewal and prophetic witness?

One hint: his name.

Benedict XV was the Pope of World War I.

He tried hard — though utterly unsuccessfully — to urge a general Christmas truce in 1914 and on August 1, 1917, he issued a peace proposal rooted in reconciliation rather than victory for either side.

But he did not try to mobilize the grass roots of the church to make it real - by refusing to bear arms, for instance.

Perhaps by choosing his name, the new Pope is trying to stir himself and his Church to address the growing dangers of world-wide religious war.

Is he ready to commit himself to seek an end to the US occupation of Iraq as his predecessor sought to prevent it, and to prevent a global war between the US and Islam?

To do this would require facing up to issues of globalized corporate capitalism, oiloholic addiction and its threat to scorch the planet, and the tendency of the present US government and of some elements of the Muslim world to ignite a shattering war.

It would mean weakening the same forces in American society that agree with the Pope about issues of sexuality and gender.

To mobilize such efforts might also require unleashing a grass-roots movement of Catholics that would weaken the present top-down power structure of the Church, while vastly increasing Church vitality.

Cardinal Ratzinger showed no such inclination. As Benedict XVI, he is unlikely to. Let us hope - let us pray — that he will try, and put more energy into the effort than his namesake during the First World War.

And if not, then our prayers should bless the future-oriented energies within the Catholic Church, that they will stir a vigorous grass-roots alternative that takes delight in dancing through an earthquake of change.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow is director of The Shalom Center (www.theshalomcenter.org), and the author of a number of books on public policy, religious renewal, and the Jewish renaissance, including GODWRESTLING - ROUND 2 (Jewish Lights).

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