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Tuesday 16 September  
Pope Benedict XVI
Angelo van Schaik's picture
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Vatican City, Vatican
Vatican City, Vatican

Public relations problem for pope

Published on : 20 April 2010 - 4:08pm | By Angelo van Schaik (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
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Pope Benedict XVI promised on Sunday to take measures against the abuse of children within the Roman Catholic church. He also spoke to some victims of the abuse. The commotion caused by revelations from all over the world about abuse - sexual and otherwise - within the church has completely overshadowed the pope's 5th anniversary.

 
When Joseph Ratzinger stepped onto the balcony overlooking Saint Peter's five years ago, a slight sense of disappointment spread over the square. A German pope? His first words of intellectual rhetoric made it difficult for people to take Pope Benedict XVI to their hearts in the same way they had his predecessor. For many Catholic faithful, the warm, mediagenic Pope John Paul II remained 'their pope' rather than the cold, slightly distant, intellectual Joseph Ratzinger. The magic word was communication.
 
As former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Joseph Ratzinger has been partly responsible for the religious line in the Catholic church since 1981, and that line is conservative and dogmatic.
 
It was already clear during the funeral of Pope John Paul II what his programme would be if he were chosen as the next pontiff. In a long litany he criticised the "dictatorship of relativism that does not recognise anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one's own ego and desires", and proposed a different goal "the Son of God".
 
Conservative
Once he became pope, his conservative ideas became apparent in his categorical rejection of reform, as expressed in the Second Vatican Council, and in his orthodox views about sexuality and genetic research.
 
Italian politicians traditionally pay heed to the Vatican, but outside Italy his views often come under fire. His comments during a trip to Africa in March 2009, that condoms only increase the problem of AIDS, for instance, led to great consternation in Germany, France and the rest of the European Union in general.
 
Oecumenism
Nevertheless, Pope Benedict's policies are actually a continuation of his predecessor's. Conservatism and oecumenism are the two main aspects in that line. After John Paul II, Pope Benedict is the second pope in history to visit the synagogue in Rome and to advocate cooperation with the Anglican and Orthodox churches. In an inter-religious dialogue he is also seeking closer relations with Islam.
 
But poor communication and clumsy moves have meant that many of Benedict's actions have in fact led to rows. His decision to allow the Lefebvre bishops to rejoin the mother church after they were excommunicated for denying the Holocaust, led to serious problems with the Jewish community. The long deliberations on the matter illustrate that Pope Benedict XVI does not have the same instinct as his predecessor for the media and communication.
 
Islam
Another example came when he referred to a mediaeval text condemning Islam, in a time when relations with the Islamic world are under enormous tension. In a speech in the German city of Regensburg he quoted the words of a Byzantine emperor: "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only bad and inhuman."
 
According to Vatican-watcher Marco Politi, the fact that he broached such a delicate subject at such a time shows how communication is treated by this pontificate. "Pope Benedict sees his press office as a mouthpiece for his ideas and not as a place where journalists engage in dialogue with the church." 
 
Paedophilia
His handling of the paedophile scandal is another PR disaster, says Mr Politi. By not being open and putting the church's interests first, he has caused enormous damage to perceptions of the church and the papacy. It does seem very much as if he has no control over a number of matters within the Vatican: the fact that he was taken by surprise by the comments made by Bishop Cantalamessa ("The stereotyping, the transfer of personal responsibility and blame to a collective blame reminds me of the most shameful aspects of anti-Semitism.") during Easter Mass is a good example.
 
At an intellectual level Pope Benedict XVI is highly appreciated. Joseph Ratzinger is seen as a great, albeit conservative theologian. This is evidenced by his work as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, but has also continued during his papacy. The three encyclicals he wrote - Deus Caritas Est (2006), Spe Salvi (2007) and Caritas In Veritate (2007) - show him to be a great intellectual who is often able to make the connection between faith and society in an ingenious way. In Caritas in Veritate, Benedict's first social encyclical, he gives guidelines for an ethical economic development which have received a great deal of support.
 
Pull out the stops
After five years of Pope Benedict XVI we can say he is not particularly popular. St Peter's Square is regularly emptier than it was under the previous pope, and as long as the paedophile scandal has not been resolved adequately this tendency will continue. The church will need to pull out all the stops to come out of this dark period, and communication and supervision will have to be improved. Maybe Benedict is not the right pope for the job.

 

Discussion

Anonymous 23 April 2010 - 1:10pm / Cuba

April 24, 2010

Sex abuse victim lawsuit against pope 'without merit'

The Vatican's attorney said Friday that a lawsuit against Pope Benedict XVI over sex abuse committed by a US priest was "completely without merit."
Nothing New we acknoledge it long before in a country which allow sodomy and have so many homosexual in public charge and court no protection will be in the future for children and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Children Rights, will be derogate sonner or later. Both document have not " Merit" . It is a Bush Legacy.
Good Luck World.

Paul , Gibsons, Canada 22 April 2010 - 4:38am / Canada

it is easy to look at what happened yesterday through the lense of today. And, I dont know what it was like in the US or Canada; I do know that the legal situation was very different in Holland and no doubt elsewhere. It wasn't until the late 1990's that, if you know something is happening you not only have the duty to inform police etc, but actually the right to do so which, prior to that it was limited to a very select group (the child itself, parents or a special government body which was also in charge itself of supervision of certain residential schools and ran them) and even then there are some severe limitations. Up to that point the official line was very much a case of solve it yourself and solve it within the family/group/organisation it was happening (although some help was available in certain cases). There were (perhaps good) reasons for why that was the legal position (albeit naive in retrospect) but society has moved on and our expectations have changed.
So in the cases I am thinking of (and I know some) it wasn't a cover-up: it was how things were done and above all expected to be done in those days - keep it within and solve it!
If the church (and residential schools and schools and scouts etc) failed in something in those days, it was "solving it, preventing it from happening again", not in not posting it on the internet (which didnt exist) or informing the police (which it didnt have the right to in many cases... and nothing to do with the confessional; that was the legal position). It would be interesting to hear how the situation was (and is) in other countries before we judge based on today's norms and feelings.

jasmin 21 April 2010 - 11:05am / India

Thanks, I am flattered, Anonymous from Canada, but not every one is impressed by my reactions.

Anonymous 21 April 2010 - 3:34am / Canada

Once again, Jasmin has hit the nail squarely on the head. Further evidence that perhaps allowing a few good women to wear the collar and make some of those big decisions might be just the ticket for the Vatican in the 21st Century. In the meantime, somebody should hire Jasmine as a columnist.

Bart 20 April 2010 - 8:09pm / USA

Jasmine, I’m afraid you missed the point. The main virtue of a governor is prudence, not compassion. Precisely compassion towards the wrongdoing priests was what led to the nightmare of our days in the Catholic Church. Sometimes a ruler has to take decisive decisions even if they are not popular and in order to take the right ones you need to be learned.

jasmin 20 April 2010 - 9:20pm / India

Thanks Bart, but compassion does not mean that you shield the guilty persons and put the innocent at risk. This is called favouritism, not compassion. And being a learned man does not make you a good communicator or governor. You need to be understanding and empathic. A highly learned man makes his knowledge as an impediment and just cannot connect with the people who come from all walks of life and are at different stages of evolution. Yes, you do need to be spiritually sound to connect with others. Papacy has become more of a political post as it has more to do with power than with religion. A Pope should be able to connect with his flock, and at the same time be able to prune the rotten stems and do the necessary weeding of his garden. A mother is the most compassionate person after God, but both do punish their children for wrongdoing. I hope, I am able to make the point.

jasmin 20 April 2010 - 6:28pm / India

You do not need to be a theologian or a writer of great books to become a fisher of men or a good shepherd who can put his flock together and protect them from the wolves. A Good Shepherd needs to have compassion, and compassion is not taught in any university, religious place or can be bought from any market. It comes from within. Admitting guilt or feeling sorry requires a great deal of courage and humility. It does not make you weak or vulnerable but more open and loving. If Lord Jesus could die for humanity, the Pope who represents His legacy can very well admit the wrong-doings of the Church and resign from Papacy and pave way for a person who might be less knowledgeable but more compassionate. The Church again needs a sacrifice to save itself from getting torn by the wolves within it.

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