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How Pope Benedict’s wisdom was often lost in translation

13 February 2013

10:31 PM

13 February 2013

10:31 PM

The pope made his first public appearance since his resignation today, before putting ashes on the foreheads of pilgrims for Ash Wednesday. It’s one of those jos which isn’t itself particularly demanding but which amounts, together with the running of a global church and a mini state, to a role that would tax a younger man.

He got a standing ovation reaction from the crowd at his audience. Rather different, then, from the pundits’ judgement here on his pontificate. If you take the BBC/Guardian/Independent as standard, the judgement is that this was a pontificate that failed and, as an editorial in the Independent put it yesterday, was bound to fail, given that ‘a Church that refuses to countenance a married priesthood, or women priests, or same-sex partnerships, or whose ban on “artificial” birth control is widely flouted, is a Church doomed to continue to decline’.

The pope’s supporters as well as detractors acknowledged the catastrophic consequences of the clerical abuse scandals, even after 2001 when he took on the issue.  But the bleak reductionism that measures  the pope against a short checklist of contemporary preoccupations, almost all to do with sex, honestly doesn’t do justice to the man.

Benedict is an academic, belonging to the grand tradition of German scholarship. He’s used to proper debate of serious ideas, to the careful consideration of arguments before they’re advanced and answered. And bluntly, our age isn’t used to dealing with extended argument. Twitter may be suited to the lapidary succinctness of Latin, the language of his first tweet, but the pope didn’t really think in terms of 140 characters.

His encylicals were barely mentioned in the summaries that dismissed his pontificate, but they were substantial and significant. The one that Coffeehousers might like best is Caritas in Veritate, which is to do, among other things, with social justice and human economics. It’s profoundly Aristotelian, if you’re that way inclined, in the insistence on the social nature of man and his obligations – and conservatives may balk at the sympathy for trades unions. But his notion that ‘the primary capital to be safeguarded and valued is man’ sums up everything you might want to say about Christian capitalism.

Most of the controversies he was caught up in amounted to precisely a failure to read or listen to what he said. That famous row about Islam was a quote – carefully described in his text as ‘harsh to us’ – from a Byzantine emperor on the subject of Islam and violence, but it was in the context of a discussion of the value of the Hellenic (as opposed to the Hebrew) element in scripture. It was addressed to academics in Regensburg, but it was parsed by people who didn’t even try to convey the argument before passing judgement on it.

Then there was that aside – delivered in passing – about condoms sometimes aggravating the problem of AIDS: it was extraordinary how it dominated his trip to Africa, and all his speeches on the roots of conflict, against violence toward women and his reflections on the nature of African spirituality. None of it counted for anything at our end; we just wanted to talk condoms.

Actually, the worst case I can think of was one Christmas address to cardinals, in which he talked about gender as something intrinsic to us, not contingent, which was taken up that morning on the BBC news as a condemnation of homosexuality. But it didn’t actually mention gay people, though I suppose the transgender lobby was entitled to get upset. Trouble was, the text wasn’t available from the outset in English; by the time it was, the damage was done.

Benedict is a pope who wasn’t cut out for our own time, and I don’t just mean the shyness. We have a narrow prism when it comes to those issues we are prepared to think about, and his views were too large for it. If he’s being held to account for his record on women priests, gay rights, contraception and abortion and found wanting, it says more about us than about him.

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