Thursday, April 24, 2008


Today in 2005 Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was inaugurated as 265th pontiff, head of the 1.2 billion strong Catholic Church, taking the name Pope Benedict XVI. For what it's worth, my own assessment of the man remains in line with what I wrote at the time in After Absolutism: The world, the church and the papacy, partly in response to a none-too-flattering TV documentary called God's Rottweiler. Around the time of the Regensberg controversy in September 2006 I also wrote Christendom remains the Pope's real fallibility.

The other day there was a brief discussion of Benedict's profile and work so far, on BBC Radio 4. Author and broadcaster Joanna Bogle offered an almost euphoric defence of the man, and Lavinia Byrne, former sister of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, remained sceptical. Lavinia has every reason to balk at those (including Radical Orthodoxy-type Anglicans) who romanticise Benedict, or focus on certain aspects of his philosophy abstracted from his actual actions.

Ratzinger, as was, headed up the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - John Paul II's 'theological enforcer' - when Lavinia's book Women at the Altar appeared. The 'disciplinary process' that followed was truly appalling, and all for the crime of thinking about women's ordination - something Benedict wishes to put off limits. Lavinia, who I followed in an editorial post at Heythrop College, and later at CTBI, never even got an audience with her inquisitor, nor a proper chance to put her case. Her book was subsequently pulped in the USA, after the Catholic publisher was ordered to do so.

Similar bullying has been meted out over the years to numerous scholars and writers who have raised critical issues arising from Catholic doctrine - including liberation theologian Leonardo Boff (for his fine book Church, Charism and Power), Hans Kung (Infallibility?), Sri Lankan priest and human rights advocate Tissa Balasuriya (Mary and Human Liberation). Jon Sobrino (Christology at the Crossroads), the late Jacques Dupuis (who wrote superbly on the theology of religions) and Roger Haight (Jesus Symbol of God). And that's just off the top of my head. Dupuis, a deeply faithful scholar, died a broken man a a result of the way he was treated.

This suppression of thought is inexcusable and deeply disturbing. It reflects a model of church and of ecclesial leadership which I believe is wholly at odds with the kind of practice needed in a Gospel community. We need to be accountable to one another, to the spirit of free enquiry and to the riches of the tradition. But not subject to threats and censorship. Without exception, all those I have mentioned are people with a passionate concern for the Christian message in the contemporary world, and some of them (Dupuis, Haight and Kung) are among the finest intellectuals of their time.

Jon Sobrino, who I had the honour of meeting briefly in the 1980s, has stared death in the face in El Salvador, and his work is thoroughly grounded in biblical thought and action. His accusers, by contrast, seem to have little grasp of the painful world out of which he writes - or, indeed, of what he has written.

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