A Pope for Our Times

A Pope for Our Times

By Farish A Noor

Can the same Cardinal Ratzinger, now elevated to the status of pope and therefore the leader of one of the biggest faith communities on the planet, do a volt face and embrace pluralism? Or will the Catholic Church instead close in on itself, retreating into a cocoon of insularity. Living as we do at a time when reactionary forces seem to be making a comeback the world over, it hardly comes as a surprise that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has been elected as head of the Catholic Church. One can only wonder if the advances made since the days of Vatican II are all but over.

It cannot be denied that the Vatican has made great strides over the past few decades. Following the end of the World War II, the Catholic Church aware of its complicity in the rise of fascism and nazism in Europe, and more significantly its historical role in supporting the expansion of Western colonialism and imperialism worldwide made a conscious effort to reform itself internally. The global spread of Catholicism meant that the Catholic community was one that was both united (in its common belief) and diverse (in its multicultural plurality). Its presence in the developing world, particularly in Latin America, Africa and Asia, forced the Catholic Church to address the pressing socio-economic and political realities of the day. When the necessity for change became evident, the Catholic Church did rise up to the challenge. Some of the most creative and revolutionary Catholic thinkers of the 20th century, such as Hans Kung and Leonardo Boff, were men of their age. Their concerns were directed towards the translation of the ideals of Christianity into concrete political-economic realities. In Latin America in particular, Liberation Theology paved the way for a multitude of social and economic reform projects, aiming towards translating the Christian message of justice into palatable realities that could be shared and experienced by millions. In the course of this activist struggle, countless Catholic priests, intellectuals and activists paid the price for their convictions with their lives. In theological terms, the Catholic Church has also made great strides in the post-war era; most notably with the advent of Vatican II, when the elders of the Church performed the great epistemic-theological leap of finally acknowledging the claim that Christianity was not the sole and exclusive path to redemption. This belated recognition of the validity of beliefs of others meant that the Vatican’s claims to monopoly over religious dogma was challenged from within. It opened up the Catholic faith to the worldview of others, and conceded that Catholicism was just one of many global religions, co-existing with the rest. It was a way of atoning for the religious crusades of the past. Despite these advances, however, it should be remembered that that Catholic Church or at least its political side has another face to it. It should not be forgotten that during the height of Cold War it was the Catholic Church that paved the way for the ‘democratisation’ of Eastern Europe and the Soviet States. Pope John Paul II himself was at the forefront of support for anti-Communist forces in countries like Poland and later all over Eastern Europe.

During this period, Christianity’s ‘dialogue’ with other religions, notably Islam, was really a concert of mutual interests designed and intended to further undermine a common foe: the so-called ‘Communist threat’. It would be an exaggeration to claim that the dialogue between Christianity and Islam went any further than this fundamentally political and pragmatic alliance.

It was also then that the advances made by the more forward-looking intellectuals and activists of the Catholic faith were being steadily curtailed, if not undermined altogether. The Vatican accepted the premise that the Church had to demonstrate its social relevance and political commitment through an activist-proactive form of normative religion that offered more than pious wishes and the promise of heaven.

But while doing so both Pope John Paul II and the Vatican establishment in general steadfastly refused to budge on issues such as birth control and the use of condoms to limit the spread of AIDS. The election of Cardinal Ratzinger as the new pope raises these concerns afresh. Not only has he retained many of the former Vatican officials who served under his predecessor, he also has to account for his own less-than-enviable past. His critics have noted that Ratzinger served as a member of the Hitler Youth as well as the Nazi army. While he openly admits the mistakes of his past, it is also clear that throughout his career within the Church he has sided with the more conservative and reactionary elements of the Catholic establishment. It was under his tutelage that the church worked to promote Pope Pius XII known for his complicity with the Nazis to the status of saint. For Ratzinger’s detractors, this suggests yet another attempt by the more conservative elements of the Vatican to whitewash its past, and to somehow absolve leaders like Pius XII.

Observers and scholars of the Catholic faith are now asking the question of where the Vatican is heading politically and theologically. The Vatican II council marked a crucial turning point in the doctrinal evolution of the church itself, opening it up to a multicultural world with a host of co-existing religions and belief-systems. Does the election of Cardinal Ratzinger signify the continuity of this spirit of accommodation and pluralism, or will he re-assert Catholicism’s monopoly of truth? Ratzinger’s critics do not doubt where the new pope’s loyalties and priorities lie. They point out that he stated (in 1997) that Buddhism was merely a form of ‘autoerotic spirituality’ bereft of ‘concrete religious obligations’ and described Hinduism as ‘morally cruel’ and offering only ‘false hope’.


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