The Pope keeps failing to hit the note

Why does the Pope fluff his lines so badly and so often? Or have I got him wrong? As a non-Catholic I see it like this. First of all, the Pope matters: it won’t do to sneer and dismiss. He reaches out to the world and the world should try to understand him – or that part of the world which has an interest the Roman Catholic Church and Christianity as a whole. That’s the deal. Inevitably, all Catholics are implicated too, whether they like it or not, because what he’s up to so much defines them to the wider world they live in. Although there’s much more to it, lack of charisma is part of the problem. BXV1 walked in the footsteps of JP11, but just compare the different accounts of the two Holy Land visits. Yet life and faith are not all about PR. Benedict has different strengths, but how to describe them? It isn’t good enough for one unnamed Vatican apologist to say “Benedict is a rare, politically incorrect voice in a world cowed by intellectual conformity.” In the Holy Land last week Benedict XV1 trod the fault line between three faiths and a political chasm and only just managed to avoid falling over. Two papers not especially well versed in hermeneutics, the New York Times and the Economist, appreciated his better efforts but marvelled at his failures to connect. Take the visit to supposed site of Jesus’s baptism on the bank of the Jordan, as witnessed by the NYT.

Benedict XVI said that he wanted to walk in Jesus’ footsteps and experience the Holy Land first hand. So photographers waited eagerly by a turgid pool in the Jordan River for the pope to peer from a wooden promontory to a central spot in Christianity, where Christ is believed to have been baptized.
Benedict declined to get out of the golf cart that brought him there.

The Economist sources the disconnect in

the formal atmosphere of German academia, where charisma is a dirty word; and then the upper echelons of the Vatican, a world whose ethos, reasoning and vocabulary are utterly remote from the lives of most lay Catholics, let alone everyone else.
No surprise, then, that he lacked the street sense to send the right signals on a trip to the front line:

At the Holocaust memorial Vad Yashem, he disappointed by failing to speak as a wartime German.

The pope then made things worse for himself by speaking of the “tragedy of the Shoah [Hebrew for the Holocaust]” without attributing blame…. And yet another mistake: the pope used the word “killed” rather than “murdered..”. A tactful statement the next day at the Western Wall might have improved matters.

Although the Israeli paper Haaertz was gracious enough to point out he did something more important:

He reminded the world that anti-Semitism is still rearing its ugly head, and he committed the Catholic Church to combating it worldwide – today and tomorrow.

More widely, the Pope is responsible for three blunders:

the rehabilitation of the Holocaust-denying bishop; a statement, en route to Africa, that condoms were no help against AIDS; and the church’s heartless reaction to the nine-year-old Brazilian girl who had an abortion after being raped by her stepfather. The Archbishop of Recife declared that everybody involved in procuring the abortion (the girl’s mother, the doctors) was excommunicated. In all three cases, the story was not quite as simple as the headlines suggested

And for Moslems to complain about, he failed to recant

the lecture at the University of Regensburg in 2006, the shadow of which he failed to dispel in the Palestinian territories , when he quoted (though without endorsing) a Byzantine ruler who said that Muhammad brought “things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached

The Papacy has of course a right to its own agenda , even when some of it is unfathomable, such as the canonisation of Pius X11. Even though he may not deserve to be demonised, what on earth ( or in heaven) did that cautious, dry old diplomat achieve that deserves sainthood? The irony is, it would take little for the Pope to confound the lay critics of his wider mission beyond the pastoral . I was disappointed to read the normally critically-aware Tablet dismissing criticisms of his Jerusalem appearances outright.

Here seemed to be a strange doctrine of collective guilt behind these complaints, and a suspicion of bad faith that will never be completely banished because it is irrational.

Appeals to rationality are ill-judged, when it comes to defending the Pope. Regensberg exposed the gap with orthodox Islam. Jews, and not only Jews suspect that although the Church “forgave” them for killing Christ ( the charge that is the theological pretext for anti-Semitism), its continued insistence on the exclusive truth of Christianity emerging from Judaism remains a barrier that will be hard to breech.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London

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