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Insight on the New Pope

Rev. Robert Sirico
President, Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty
Wednesday, April 20, 2005; 11:00 AM

The announcement of Cardinal Ratzinger of Germany as the new pope was greeted with cheers of excitement in St. Peter's Square. Now Pope Benedict XVI, the man who called himself "a simple, humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord," is being closely examined by Catholics and non-Catholics around the world. Will he live up to his reputation as a defender of Roman Catholic orthodoxy? How will his personal attributes and background contribute to his papacy?

Joining us to discuss the new pope was Rev. Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty and an expert on each of the cardinals considered for the papacy. He took your questions live on Wednesday, April 20 at 11 a.m. ET.

A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Aspen Hill, Md.: Why did the new pope choose to be Benedict XVI?

Rev. Robert Sirico: St. Benedict was, of course, the founder of Western monasticism, which historians tell us saved Western Civilization
The Holy Father's immediate predecessor, Pope B. XV was a man of peace who became pope in a time of war


Orono, Maine: Based on the comments of some of the Cardinals in today's Washington Post, it seems like the Catholic church sees this as its last real shot to regain a place of influence in the West. Europe, I've noted, is already being described as being in a "post-Christian" era.

Given that, is it wise for the church to choose a strict doctrinaire to lead it? At this critical juncture, wouldn't a more progressive thinker - in terms of doctrine -have been a better choice?

Rev. Robert Sirico: I think that much of the problem facing Europe is the lack of a clear understanding of what Christianity is. If the object of the Church is to proclaim the Gospel of Christ, then having someone who is very clear and faithful to its teaching is the right move. If, on the other hand, our prime object is to gain popularity, then perhaps another path could have been chosen. Card. Ruini, vicar of Rome, and himself one of the papabili, says there is hope for Europe, and I suspect he and the new pope will be having some interesting conversations.


Germantown, Md.: Much has been made of the age of the new Pope. But do we know anything about his health?

Rev. Robert Sirico: I have heard he has had delicate health all his life, but of course, we live in the most advanced age in terms of health care, so there is no telling. I doubt he will do as much travelling as JPII though.


Frederick, Md.: According to press reports, the Pope claims that he never fired a weapon during his military training, because of an infected finger. Suppose he had fired a weapon - and killed someone -during the war. Would that in itself have been enough to disqualify him as a candidate, in the eyes of the other cardinals?

Rev. Robert Sirico: I am not sure what the cardinals would have thought had he fired a weapon. I do know that in order to be ordained a priest, one would need a 'dispensation' if a man had taken a human life in any way.


Washington, D.C.: Hello:

The imagery elected by the new pope in his first public statement was that of a "vineyard". This is consistent with the Cardinal's previous statements on contraction of the Roman church in Europe and how decline precedes growth. Scripture repeatedly notes that the vine must be pruned from time to time, in order to bear fruit.
Is this an indication of the new pope's confidence and belief that we need to anticipate cutting away some of the "deadwood" and non-productive elements in the Catholic faith in order for the Church to grow and bear fruit in the future?
If so, this could be a very broad redefining moment for the Vatican's approach to facing the future and how we don't have to be a church for everyone...
Thanks for any thoughts you might have!

Rev. Robert Sirico: this is an excellent and sober question. As cardinal, Ratzinger has spoken in dark terms (he come from an Augustinian tradition), and I think he has said something to the effect that it is more importantt for the Church to be pure than to be large...thought we certainly want to make as credible case as possible for our contentions. I told a reporter, when asked what my reaction would be if Ratziner was elected pope, that we would have to buckle our seat belts. This is going to be an interesting pontificate.


Boston, Mass.: Fr. Sirico,

Thanks for coming on!
I first would like to say that I'm very excited about the Church now. This is a very spiritual event to see the election of a new pope to be the Vicar of Christ. He started off very well by saying he is a "humble and simple worker in the vineyard of the Lord."

My question is why do we try to pin on leaders of the Church the terms of conservative and liberal for the pope? These are leaders who are custodians of the faith- not policy makers like Senators or other elected officials. Moreover, they are accountable to God first! If they are not faithful to the teachings of the Church, how could they ever be faithful to the People of God?

Rev. Robert Sirico: Terms like 'liberal and conversative" are political terms, and really do not consistently apply to theology. At least within Catholicism (and Christianity) a better set of terms is orthodox and heterodox. of course, in some sense, the very job description of the pope is to 'conserve' the tradition he has received.

Another point here is that these words are most often employed in the media, and belive me, from having worked closely with reporters in the past two weeks here in Rome, they are not generally familiar with theology or religion. The closest thing in their experience to anything like this is a political race - hence "liberal and conservative" or 'right of left".


San Diego, Calif.: What kind of conscription under the Nazis did the present Pope face (labor or prison or both, and what kinds of work did he perform)? How reactionary was the present Pope to his enslavement by the Nazis? How did the present Pope circumvent the Nazi power over him (mentally or physically or both)?
What kinds of communications or behavior did the present Pope display to others to show his contempt for the Nazi government? Who did the present Pope display this to (friends, relatives, other conscript internees)?

Rev. Robert Sirico: It would be too extensive for me to reply in detail to this, but I can refer you to a biography of Ratzinger written by John Allen, probably the best English writing reporter on the Vatican (he writes for the National Catholic REporter), a rather progressive newspaper. He has told me that much too much is made of Ratzinger's past in this regard.


Waynesboro, Va.: How will the new pope reach out to Catholic women?

Will the new Pope have a program for recruiting new priests?

Rev. Robert Sirico: His first program for getting vocations is going to be his own example of fidelity to the faith and his prayer life. The bulk of the rest of the responsibility is going to rest with local priests and bishops - but I would not under estimate the impact JPII and now Benedict will have on increased vocations. Personally, I am very hopeful, especially given the reaction I saw here among the young people when his election was announced.


Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.: We know that the Church can survive poverty and oppression. But can it survive affluence and freedom? Can it thrive in a high-tech, postmodern society where we are all listening to our own iPods, where people prize autonomy as the highest good, where people prefer individual experience to obedience to authority? The evidence from Europe suggests not, the evidence from America suggests maybe.

Pope John Paul II seemed much more comfortable dealing with Eastern Europe under Communism than with today's free, comfortable, hedonistic Europe.

Rev. Robert Sirico: Actually, I think JPII has outlined some very good replies to the challenge of affluence, etc. His letter "The 100th Year" speaks in positive terms about economic progress, while all the time warning against materialism, etc. This, I think is the challenge for the future of people in a globalized and progressing market economy. This is why I founded the Acton Institute some years ago (see www.acton.org)


Arlington, Va.: Good morning, Father, thank you for taking questions. Mine isn't so much on the new Pope as on the era we are in in the Church. I have heard a number of mysterious at best allusions to "prophecies" attributed (among other places) to St. Malachy and the apparitions at Fatima that the pope following John Paul II would signal the "beginning of the end"... Needless to say I'm somewhat skeptical, and probably would not think twice about it if one of the commentators hadn't been my grandmother, who is a very religious woman and a faithful student of the Faith. Where exactly are people getting these "prophecies" from? Is there any concern here? Obviously the Church places emphasis on the holiness of Malachy since he was canonized, and the Church recognizes the miracles at Fatima.

Rev. Robert Sirico: I must confess that I am skeptical too. Have you ever actually read these 'prophecies" of St. Malachy? They seems like you can make almost anything you want out of them. I wouldn't put too much stock in them.


Calgary, Canada: What were the cardinals thinking???
Why elect someone that we, the people didn't want?? Why not someone from the Third World??
117 cardinals voting and not one who listened to or is serving the needs of the world's catholics??? I am so disappointed.

Rev. Robert Sirico: Well, I suppose the Cardinals (and there were 115 of them voting - 2 were absent due to illness) could have chosen someone like Card. Arienze, but I doubt that would be acceptable to you either. The Church is not a democracy and I think the sooner people stop thinking of the Church as a political entity, the better their understanding is going to be of the Faith. I am sorry you and Desmond Tutu are disappointed, but pleasing people is not the object of the Catholic Church.


Bowie, Md.: Thanks for your time! It's such an interesting period of developments around the papacy, the first, really for many of us. My question is about the conclave, and it's makeup.

Does anyone have a solid answer for the number of Jesuit cardinals were in the conclave? Is it fair to assume that they were most likely not ardent supporters of the new Pope?

Rev. Robert Sirico: I think there were at least 3 Jesuits in the Conclave - at least two of them then, I would think, would be supportive of the new pope. I am hearing that the younger SJ's are beginning to be quite traditional (as are most seminarians).


Falls Church, Va.: Do you think Pope Benedict will give a blanket approval to celebration of the Old Rite?

Rev. Robert Sirico: I would not be the least bit surprised if he did. What will be interesting to watch will be to se if he actually celebrates the Tridentine Rite, though it must be said that some of Ratzinger's fiercest critics come from this camp.


Madrid, Spain:
Who might have been the perfect successor to Pope John Paul II, according to American Catholics?

Rev. Robert Sirico: Of course, this would depend on which American Catholics you were asking. Among those most regular in Mass attendance, I suspect they will be very supportive of the new pope. Among those not so regular or among dissenting Catholics, I would think someone like Martini (Milan) and Danieels (Belguim)


Albany, N.Y.: While there seems to be some effort to downplay the new pope's "Rotweiler" image, is it reasonable to expect him to do anything different about relations with churches in Europe and the United States than he's already done? Denouncing secularism is all well and good, but it seems to have been ineffective as a strategy for reviving the church. After 20+ years inside the Vatican bureaucracy, does Benedict have the imagination to speak to Europeans and Americans in a way they will understand?

Rev. Robert Sirico: This is a man of great intelligence and compassion, as well as prayer. One wonders if the problem is a lack of imagination on the part of the Church (especially in Europe), or a lack of will to do they right. After all, one might make the same critique of Jesus during his life on earth (even his own disciples abandoned him when he spoke hard things to them), but in the end, the challenge of the message was so captivating, it converted much of the world, inspired Western Civilization, art, literature, etc. I have confidence in the resiliency of the Church to the extend it remains faithful to its Founder and the mission he entrusted to it.

The question presumes that evangelization is essentially a 'sales job'. While I agree we must do all we can to make the message accesible to people, the Christian gospel first takes effect in the interior on the individual soul,and only later in the culture.


North Carolina: Either prior to or during the conclave, do the Cardinals have any sort of system in line to do background checks prior to selection of a new pope, to include medical factors?

Rev. Robert Sirico: I thnk all that is already done in an informal way over time. Remember, these men generally know each over years, having been priests, bishops and then cardinals. A complete vetting process is supposed to be done prior to a man being made a priest and then bishop.


Washington, D.C.: Forgive my bluntness, but why does the leadership of the Church seem so old? Are there any young bishops, for example (are there even any younger than 50)? Indeed, of all the potential candidates for the papacy seemed to be 60+ years old. Are younger people these days unable to fulfill the role needed to advance the Church's mission?

Rev. Robert Sirico: This is always a balancing act - yes, of course there are younger bishops and priests, but given the responsibility, men have to prove themselves over time, hence the age factor.


Dover, Del.: Gaze into the crystal ball for a minute. How likely is it that we'll see a schism in the Catholic church down the road, with the American church perhaps going its own way and anointing its own Pope?

Rev. Robert Sirico: Porgressive American Catholics don't have to create (and I doubt they are interested in creating a schism). They can always join the American Episcopal communion.


Washington, D.C.: I've read that Cardinal Ratzinger actively urged American priests to deny Senator Kerry and other pro-choice politicians holy communion because of their views on abortion.

Can you tell me if he made any similar pronouncements regarding American politicians who actively supported the war in Iraq (which the Church opposed), or who actively support the death penalty?

If not, why?

Rev. Robert Sirico: These are not apt comparisons: going to war and the death penalty, in Catholic theology, as matters for prudential judgement. Abortion is seen as an intrinsic evil.


Fishersville, Va.: About four or five years ago, then Cardinal Ratzinger was the principal author of the "Domine Iesus"--I may have the title wrong--where all non-Roman Christian traditions were called "inferior" and not a valid means of "salvation"--which is the sole prerogative of the Roman Catholic Church. In so many words, Protestants were identified as heretical sects and inadequate. This seemed inflammatory at the time and appeared to "trash" decades of improved relations between Rome and other churches. Will this attitude determine the future ecumenical conversations, or will more conciliatory language indicate a softening of the seeming uncompromising stance of the Roman church?

Rev. Robert Sirico: There is a lot that can be said her and I am running out of time. Please read the document for yourself. All it attempts to do is clearly re-state how the Catholic Church really sees itself. It may be nice, but not ultimately helpful, to water all this down, but we do, believe after all, that the Church was founded by Jesus Christ. If we give up that belief, we really have nothing to bring to the table of dialogue. At least we can have a full and frank conversation about these things and move toward to authentic and honest relations.


Washington, D.C.: Was there ever a non-European pope?

Rev. Robert Sirico: Yes, several Africans and Peter was Israel.


Reston, Va.: In your responses, you have said that the new Pope thinks a smaller purer Church is better and that what people, i.e. Catholics want is not important. I think that this is in direct conflict with what Jesus said, according to the Gospels, and reminds me of Jesus' question whether he would find any of his Church upon his return. Alienation is not what Jesus taught. Nor did Jesus teach that those in power were necessarily right--did Jesus not say that he came not to uphold the Pharisees, but to challenge them? This type of arrogance is so anti-Christian that I am perplexed how it can be Catholic doctrine.

Rev. Robert Sirico: well, Jesus also said "I have come to bring a sword, not peace" and something about the gate being narrow, etc.


Princeton, N.J.: Historians told you monasticism "saved Western Civilization"? You need to meet some new historians...

Rev. Robert Sirico: see Christopher Dawson


Kensington, Md.: What bearing did Benedict's age have on the Cardinal's decision making?

Rev. Robert Sirico: Don't know - the Cardinal's ain't talking


Question from a non-Catholic: I hope you'll consider this question because I am honestly trying to understand the policies of the church rather than criticize. From my outside view the gospels and early church policies were written during a time when society was very male dominated. Does the church consider that roles change over the centuries and that views on women, birth control and medical advances are much different now than in the first century? I guess I'm asking why blindly follow instead of question?

Rev. Robert Sirico: You question is a very good one. Actually, Jesus broke the ancient taboos on dealing with women, etc.

Role may change, but essential human nature does not,a nd from our perspective, the Church is more than a sociological construct - it is founded by Christ and takes it mission from him.

You are free not to believe this, but if you are going to understand how we approach things, this is an essential element.


Rev. Robert Sirico: I want to thank you all for your interest and time. This is my first attempt at something like this and I apologize for not being about to get to all the questions. Please read the Catechism of the Catholic Church for an understanding of who we are. God bless you all.


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