The New Shepherd
Will the new Pope be able to take up where John Paul II left off?
The Conquest of Rome
An inside look at how Ratzinger won the Papacy
The Turning Point
How the upheavals of 1968 turned a Vatican II reformer into an ardent conservative
What Should He Do?
American Catholics suggest priorities for the new Pontiff
Essay: The Vicar of Orthodoxy
The Pope's dogma is a circular system that's immune to reasoned query

A Pope's Progress
The life of Benedict XVI
Habemus Papam
Cardinal Ratzinger becomes Pope Benedict XVI
Spheres of Influence
Drawing on many sources

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The Vicar of Orthodoxy
Essay: The Pope's dogma is a circular system that's immune to reasoned query
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Posted Sunday, April 24, 2005
He is an intellectual opposed to questioning doctrine. He is a shepherd with scant pastoral experience. He is a creature of the 20th century deeply opposed to the modern world. In these seeming contradictions, you can begin to see the contours of one of the most unusual, gifted men to become Pope.

For the young Joseph Ratzinger, struggling out of the moral abyss of Nazi Bavaria, St. Augustine was a guiding light. "Augustine has kept me company for more than 20 years," Pope Benedict XVI once wrote. One of Augustine's key arguments was that human beings were so profoundly flawed they couldn't begin to figure out the meaning of life on their own. They needed something transcendent to bring them up from their knees. That was the message of the New Testament, the promise of the Christ. It was, in Ratzinger's words, "a matter of announcing to man the unthinkable, novel, free Act of God, something which cannot be drawn up out of the mental depths of man, because it announces God's unreckoning, gracious decision." What decision? To save humankind from itself.

For the new Pope, faith is a gift, not an acquisition. In Christianity, he once wrote, mankind comes to itself "not through what he does but through what he accepts." The Christian identity is not made or debated or thought through. It is "received." Because it is received, it cannot be altered. "Christianity is not 'our' work," Benedict told Italian journalist Vittorio Messori in the 1980s. "It is a revelation; it is a message that has been consigned to us, and we have no right to reconstruct it as we like or choose."

Alas, the Gospels do not tell us everything. Jesus never mentions, say, abortion, homosexuality, reproductive technologies or a celibate priesthood, to name just a few of the issues confronting the Roman Catholic Church. How do we know what is "revealed" about them? According to Benedict XVI, only the church hierarchy decides that, with the Pope as the ultimate authority. Because these truths are simply received from God and are therefore nonnegotiable, don't bother asking any questions. Faith, Benedict once wrote, comes "not from reflecting (as in philosophy). Faith's essence consists in the re-thinking of what has been heard." No wonder Benedict, in his former role as guardian of church orthodoxy, silenced so many theologians who had the temerity to reflect.

Benedict has thus been emboldened to make several claims. Take the question of women's role in the church. Their exclusion from the priesthood is not within his power to change, he claims. Women in society? A woman has "roles inscribed in her own biology," he says. And what would those be? Motherhood and virginity, "the two loftiest values in which she realizes her profoundest vocation." So a woman is less a woman if she is a scientist or journalist or Prime Minister? That's what "nature" seems to tell us. What happens when nature suggests that some women are not cut out for motherhood or virginity? Then those women are rebelling against their full potential. What if they live in a free-market society that rewards their skills? Then that society undermines the true meaning of being human. What if biology gives us, say, a child with indeterminate gender or a transgendered person or a homosexual? Then nature is somehow awry.

Gay people are often born homosexual, Benedict has argued. But they are beset by an inherent tendency toward an "intrinsic moral evil" and are thus by nature "objectively disordered." A whole class of human beings naturally more disposed to evil than others? Don't ask the obvious questions. Just accept the answers. And if the result is enormous human suffering, as women and gays labor under discrimination, condescension and prejudice? Suffering brings them closer to Christ.

Reading Benedict for a struggling gay Catholic like me is like reading a completely circular, self-enclosed system that is as beautiful at times as it is maddeningly immune to reasoned query. The dogmatism is astonishing. If your conscience demands that you dissent from some teachings, then it is not really your conscience. It is sin. And if all this circular dogmatism forces many to leave the church they once thought of as home? So be it. Benedict once wrote of the 18th century church, roiled by the Enlightenment, that it "was a church reduced in size and diminished in social prestige, yet become fruitful from a new interior power, a power that released new formative forces for the individual and for society." That is his vision. If the church withers to a mere shadow of its former self, then that is not failure. It is success. And even in a short papacy, Benedict might just manage it.

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