Pope Benedict XVI has gone on YouTube and his speeches appear in Chinese on the Vatican Web site, but judging from the uproar over a Holocaust–denying bishop and his pronouncement that condoms deepen the AIDS crisis, he’s clearly struggling with his message.
During his nearly four–year papacy, criticism has been pouring in from Muslims, Jews and members of his own flock, as the German pontiff seems to step into controversy at every turn. The attacks by European governments this past week over Condom use are unprecedented.
The controversy could in the future weigh on cardinals when they choose Benedict’s successor, perhaps leading them to look for a younger man more attuned to a wired world.
His predecessor, Pope John Paul II, shared the title of “Great Communicator” with former President Ronald Reagan, and managed to steer clear of controversy even though he held many of Benedict’s conservative positions. John Paul mingled with reporters aboard his plane, walking the aisles, shaking hands and answering questions spontaneously.
“He was inquisitive to know what public opinion thought about him,” said Marco Politi, a biographer of John Paul. From time to time he would call his spokesman, Joaquin Navarro–Valls and ask, “What do they think about me?” Politi said.
As he set off on his first African pilgrimage last week, Benedict was just emerging from a crisis brought on when he lifted the excommunication of four ultraconservative bishops – one of them a Holocaust denier – in an effort to end a schism.
An unusual personal account addressed to Catholic bishops around the world in a letter made public by the Vatican helped clear the air. Benedict acknowledged mistakes by the Vatican and said he was particularly saddened that Catholics who should know his record against anti–Semitism “Thought they had to attack me with open hostility.”
But Benedict found himself under new attack when flying to Africa after he told reporters that condoms would not resolve the AIDS problem but, on the contrary, increase it. The statement was condemned by France, Germany and the U.N. agency charged with fighting AIDS as irresponsible and dangerous.
The pope was not taken by surprise by the question. Ever since he apparently misspoke about the excommunication of Mexican lawmakers on a trip to Brazil in 2007, the Vatican asks reporters to submit questions in advance and then makes a selection, giving Benedict time to prepare a response.
The 81–year–old Benedict doesn’t mingle with reporters individually but stands before them in the rear section of the plane flanked by aides, and responds drily to the questions.
Top church officials have rallied to Benedict’s side. Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, head of the Italian Bishops Conference, said the criticism “Has gone beyond good sense.”
While opposition to condoms is a long–standing church position, the Vatican felt constrained to step in and say Benedict wanted to stress that a reliance on condoms distracted from the need for proper education in sexual conduct.
The first controversy of Benedict’s papacy came in 2006 when the pope’s remarks on Islam and holy war angered much of the Muslim world, leading him to backtrack and declare he was “Deeply sorry.” He continues to say that true religion must distance itself from violence, but no longer points a finger at any faith.
The Rev. Thomas Reese, a Vatican expert at the Woodstock Theological Center in Washington, says Benedict deserves praise for admitting mistakes, apologizing and explaining.
But he also says that as a church leader and a world leader the pope has to communicate in an understandable and persuasive way. “Benedict does not understand how to communicate in the 21st century,” Reese said.
As prominent commentator Ernesto Galli Della Loggia wrote in Italy’s leading Corriere della Sera, the pope has only one weapon to overcome opposition and affirm his authority: “Charismatic media appeal that grabs the CNN screen and makes the front page of The New York Times.”
Benedict did just that when traveling to the United States last year, a trip viewed as a success after he expressed personal shame over a clergy sex abuse scandal rocking the American church.
In meeting with individuals, Benedict is invariably gracious, but he seems uncomfortable before large crowds.
After the 27–year pontificate of the highly popular John Paul, the College of Cardinals turned to a prelate who spent years as a theology professor and Vatican insider but few in a pastoral setting.
“After the death of John Paul II there was such a shock among the cardinals about losing a giant personality that they wanted to make a quick choice in order not to show division inside the church and so they choose the best theologian, the best moral and spiritual and intellectual personality,” Politi said.
“But they didn’t open a real discussion about the future of the church and they didn’t open a discussion also with the public opinion,” he added.