By David Gibson
Sunday, October 25, 2009; B02
When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected pope in April 2005, all the world rejoiced -- or recoiled -- with the certain knowledge that the cardinals had settled on the one man who would be more conservative than John Paul II.
For those who weren't so enthused about the Holy Spirit's selection, there was grim consolation in the fact that Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, was 78 years old and was himself predicting a brief papacy that would serve as a transition to whatever came next.
Some transition. In less than five years Benedict has shown himself to be quietly yet deliberately engaged in reshaping Catholicism. Even more surprising are the remarkably liberal means he has used to achieve his ends -- means that could lead to places the pontiff may not intend to go.
A case in point is last week's stunning announcement (it took even the leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion, Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, by surprise) that the pope is creating a novel "church within a church" so that Anglicans can join with Catholics without giving up their rites and traditions. The goal is to accommodate traditionalist Anglicans around the globe and conservative Episcopalians in the United States who are upset about the acceptance of openly gay clergy in North America and female bishops in the Church of England, and with what they see as the failure of their leadership to discipline the transgressors.
Under Benedict's unprecedented arrangement, bishops and whole dioceses and parishes could go Roman, and married clergy could bring their wives along and remain priests. Cardinal William Levada, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith -- and Rome's point man in the secret negotiations with disaffected Anglicans that preceded the move -- said 20 to 30 Anglican bishops have asked the Vatican about joining up.
But much uncertainty remains, for both Anglicans and Catholics. As Father Thomas Reese of the Woodstock Theological Center in Washington has pointed out, allowing a separate Anglican rite in the Catholic Church -- complete with married priests and seminarians, new hymnals and good music (finally, many Catholics might say!) -- could alter Catholic views on celibacy and liturgy as much as it changes the Anglican Communion.
What this move confirms, however, is that change is the paradoxical mantra of Benedict's papacy. In another development last week, one that drew far less notice but could have a profound impact, the Vatican opened a dialogue with the leadership of a traditionalist, right-wing sect that split with Rome in 1988 over what its members saw as dangerous and even heretical trends resulting from the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. Among other things, Vatican II affirmed the principle of religious liberty, launched dialogue with other churches and religions, expanded the role of lay Catholics and promoted liturgical changes that overhauled the Mass for the first time since the counter-Reformation Council of Trent in the 16th century.
Many observers say a rapprochement could require Benedict to make compromises on some of those issues, which could further encourage a critical reinterpretation of the Second Vatican Council and its modernizing reforms.
In 1988, under the direction of then-Cardinal Ratzinger, the Vatican had already created a special provision to allow the schismatic group (called Lefebvrists after their late leader, rebel Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre) to continue to use the old Latin Mass and other pre-Vatican II rites if they would stay connected to Rome in some fashion.
But Ratzinger has always wanted to do more to bring the remaining schismatics back into the fold, and as pope he has made extraordinary concessions to achieve that end. The principal innovation was his personal order, in 2007, to allow the old Latin Mass to be celebrated anywhere in the world, whether the local bishop likes it or not. That created, for the first time in Catholic history, two parallel rites in the Western church -- one in Latin, the Tridentine rite (after the Council of Trent); another in a newer form, which is almost always celebrated in the vernacular, or local language.
Now, with the new provision for Anglicans, there could be three versions of the Roman Catholic Mass for different constituencies. As Reese says, "Once we have three versions, it is more difficult to argue against more."
Thus far, Benedict's papacy has been one of constant movement and change, the sort of dynamic that liberal Catholics -- or Protestants -- are usually criticized for pursuing. In Benedict's case, this liberalism serves a conservative agenda. But his activism should not be surprising: As a sharp critic of the reforms of Vatican II, Ratzinger has long pushed for what he calls a "reform of the reform" to correct what he considers the excesses or abuses of the time.
Of course a "reformed reform" doesn't equal a return to the past, even if that were the goal. Indeed, Benedict's reforms are rapidly creating something entirely new in Catholicism. For example, when the pope restored the old Latin Mass, he also restored the use of the old Good Friday prayer, which spoke of the "blindness" of the Jews and called for their conversion. That prayer was often a spur to anti-Jewish pogroms in the past, so its revival appalled Jewish leaders. After months of protests, the pope agreed to modify the language of the prayer; that change and other modifications made the "traditional" Mass more a hybrid than a restoration.
More important, with the latest accommodation to Anglicans, Benedict has signaled that the standards for what it means to be Catholic -- such as the belief in the real presence of Christ in the Mass as celebrated by a validly ordained priest -- are changing or, some might argue, falling. The Vatican is in effect saying that disagreements over gay priests and female bishops are the main issues dividing Catholics and Anglicans, rather than, say, the sacraments and the papacy and infallible dogmas on the Virgin Mary, to name just a few past points of contention.
That is revolutionary -- and unexpected from a pope like Benedict. It could encourage the view, which he and other conservatives say they reject, that all Christians are pretty much the same when it comes to beliefs, and the differences are just arguments over details.
And that could be the final irony. For all the hue and cry over last week's developments, Benedict's innovations may have glossed too lightly over the really tough issues: namely, the theological differences that traditional Anglicans say have kept them from converting, as they could always do.
"If I believed everything that the Roman Catholic Church teaches as dogma, I would be one and I would have been one years ago," Bishop William Ilgenfritz, of the recently formed Anglican Church in North America, a conservative splinter group, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last week.
"I don't want to be a Roman Catholic," Bishop Martyn Minns, leader of a group of conservative Episcopalians, told the New York Times. "There was a Reformation, you remember."
Others, from England to Africa, have echoed that sentiment in the days since the Vatican's announcement.
In short, it may be premature to declare the Reformation over -- or to try to figure out which side is winning.
David Gibson covers religion for PoliticsDaily.com and is the author of "The Rule of Benedict: Pope Benedict XVI and His Battle with the Modern World."
Gibson's previous Outlook essay, "Who Is a Real Catholic?", addressed the controversies surrounding President Obama's speaking at the University of Notre Dame and the indiscretions of Father Alberto Cutié of Miami. For further discussion of the Vatican's outreach to Anglicans, go to "On Faith" at http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith.