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A radical pope after all?

ANDRE BAGOO Sunday, February 17 2013

HOURS after it was announced that Pope Benedict XVI would resign, in the process becoming the first pope to do so in almost 600 years, a bolt of lightning hit the top of St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.

Photographs and videos of the event spread all over the internet. Then, a few days later, a meteor exploded over Russia. Was God sending signs of displeasure? The Pope, the eternal Lord’s representative on earth, normally serves until death. Of 265 popes in history, only a handful have voluntarily stepped down. Before he was elected Pope, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was known as “God’s rottweiler” due to his stern stance on theological issues. Thus for some he was the least likely candidate to resign.

The Pope, 85, said he was resigning in the context of the demands placed by “today’s world” on the church and its leadership, in a situation where he judged himself increasingly frail.

“In today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the barque of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary,” the Pope said.

Yet, though he seems frail, the resignation is a bold, steely and decidedly radical move, especially coming from a conservative Pope who was more inclined toward steering the Roman Catholic Church in a direction which maintained the theological status quo, amid increasing calls for reform. He ignored calls for changes in the church’s stances on birth control, abortion, the rights of gays, and the place of women. As such, nobody seemed to expect him to pull this one out of his hat. He appears to have saved whatever hint of radicalism he had for last.

Ironically, the Pope’s decision could pave the way for even more radical changes. On Monday, bookmakers all over the world immediately began to place bets on who would be the next pope, with Cardinal Peter Turskson, of Ghana, and Cardinal Francis Arinze, of Nigeria, being named among the favourites. The fact that these two are among the small circle of favourites, suggests the era of a black pope might have arrived.

But is the Pope’s decision all that radical and unexpected?

Former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was known to have been close to the previous Pope John Paul II (both participated in the Second Vatican Council). Toward the end of Pope John Paul II’s time, it was long said that Ratzinger was behind many theological and administrative stances taken. In a sense, he was Pope long before he was Pope (he has been Pope for eight years). Further, he would have known how a frail pope could create challenges in circumstances where the church remains beset by scandal and controversy over issues such as sexual abuse by priests and questions of financial dealings.

Thus, Pope Benedict’s decision makes complete sense from this perspective. He has clearly judged that in order to maintain the church’s relevance and its place among modern society, it is important that there be as little fallout from the transition from one pope to another.

Still, many wonder if the Pope stepped down for other reasons. Anyone familiar with the history of the popes might be forgiven for being cynical given all the — literally — Machiavellian intrigues that have surrounded the Bishop of Rome over the centuries. One episode of The Borgias, a TV show on Showtime about Rodrigo Borgia (later Pope Alexander V) reminds you of this.

“I think he has been a good pope,” Roman Catholic Archbishop Joseph Harris said of Pope Benedict XVI last Monday. “His writings about the church are very good. His first encyclical letter, Deus Caritas Est, remains one of his best.

“He wrote it in very simple language which everyone could understand. It was extremely profound and brought us back to the truth that God is love and that it is in love that we find him.”

Deus Caritas Est — or God is Love — is required reading for those discussing Benedict XVI. I won’t go into it too much here. (Though the Archibishop finds it to be in “simple language”, very often the most complex riddles are written in simple language!) However, I will say that from my reading of it over the last week, Pope Benedict may have been radical but not in the way you would think.

In this encyclical, he takes the Old Testament edict from Leviticus, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (later echoed by Jesus in the New Testament as, “Love one another as I have loved you”) and builds an argument around it. Few could disagree with his idea of love in the world being supreme. Yet, Benedict was so bold as to limit the definition of love to: “love between man and woman, where body and soul are inseparably joined”. This was, in my view, radically backward-looking; making conditional the more open formulation in the New Testament and implicitly linking the idea of the Divine solely to the reproductive function.

This in turn reinforces, yet again, the Church’s odd stance on reproductive rights, the rights of gays and arguably has implications for the theology concerning the place of women. Perhaps, then, Pope Benedict XVI has been radical after all: radical in how blinkered he was except until the very end.

Email:abagoo@newsday.co.tt

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