Nothing stirs the blood like talking about religion. That’s why it’s taboo to talk about it in casual social conversations. Better to ask the boss’s wife whether she ever considered a face-lift.
But Pope Benedict XVI is a man of firm conviction and blunt talk. Not for this pontiff the Vatican II tradition of warm and fuzzy, as the message of Vatican II, which put a friendly expression on the stern countenance of the church of Rome, has been widely interpreted in the circles of those addicted to warm and fuzzy. This week he authorized a statement of “clarification” of Vatican II, and to the consternation of some Roman Catholics here, the secular press interpreted the message to Protestants as no more Mr. Nice Guy.
When Rome speaks, even infidels listen, and theological insights often become political perceptions. The pope’s sermons are often more than messages to his faithful, advice to secular policy-makers. His observations last year on certain violent admonitions of the Koran, for example, reverberated quickly through the Islamic world loud enough that the pontiff had to retreat a step or two in the interests of making nice with imams. Retreat or not, the message was heard.
This week he took on the Eastern Orthodox prelates and the Protestants of the West, for a purpose not yet altogether clear. Christians feel embattled in much of the world, and Christian unity, prized any time, has rarely been more important than now. The remarks, not directly attributed to the pope himself, were couched in language that falls on untutored ears as close to argle-bargle, laced with dogma and contention, expressed in Latin and the arcane of lesser languages. The Associated Press, Reuters and other wire services translated this into language as blunt as certain of Pope Benedict’s remarks on other occasions. The pope, the Associated Press said, “reasserted the universal primacy of the Roman Catholic Church, approving a document that says Orthodox churches were defective and that other Christian denominations were not true churches … and Catholicism provides the only true path to salvation.” Reuters reported that “the Vatican said Christian denominations outside Roman Catholicism were not full churches of Christ.”
The targets of the pope’s condescension reacted with outrage. “[The pope’s statement] makes us question whether we are indeed praying together for Christian unity,” a spokesman for the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, a fellowship of 75 million Protestants in more than a hundred nations, said in quick response. “It makes us question the seriousness with which the Roman Catholic Church takes its dialogues with the reformed family and other families of the church.”
There’s really nothing new here, as certain American Catholics said, seeking to reassure their Protestant friends. The Vatican said the statement, organized as answers to five questions about Vatican II, was issued to correct certain misunderstanding of Catholic doctrine.
Protestants and others were upset five years ago, as they are now, but it’s hardly news that religious denominations, including the Catholics, regard themselves as “the one true church.” Only yesterday pulpit rhetoric was considerably harsher than anything Benedict is saying. Protestant preachers regularly denounced the pope’s church as “the great whore of Rome,” the pope as the anti-Christ and his works as the works of the devil. The Roman church is only the largest of the denominations claiming to be the church established by Christ.
We’ve come a long way from the days when disputation and disdain were the order of the day. The Vatican emphasized that ecumenical conversation would continue with those from “defective” congregations, even if they are not to be considered “churches,” but an Anglican official said pointedly that “there’s an official position, and there’s the friendship and fellowship and worshipping together that goes on at all levels.” Indeed, the great Protestant hymn “Amazing Grace” is sung regularly now in Catholic churches.
The lack of real rancor over the pope’s disdain for those outside his jurisdiction can be an inspiration and support for moderate Shia and Sunni in other places. The pope is not out to behead anyone, nor are Protestant churchmen, hurt feelings though there may be, out to answer disdain with car bombs.
Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.
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