The perils of a 'part-time pope'
by John L Allen Jr on Dec. 16, 2011
* All Things Catholic
Marco Politi, to be sure, has a point of view. A veteran Italian journalist and commentator, mostly for the leftist La Repubblica, Politi's sympathies clearly run to the Catholic church's progressive wing. It thus may be tempting to see his critical new book on Benedict XVI, titled Joseph Ratzinger: Crisis of a Papacy, as the predictable grumbling of someone who just doesn't like what this pope stands for.
However understandable, that would be a mistake.
I've known Politi for two decades, covering Vatican happenings with him and reading his stuff. Whatever one makes of his big-picture perspective, he's an astute observer, and there's always something to learn from what he has to say. (Proof that Politi is taken seriously in the Vatican is that Gian Maria Vian, editor of L'Osservatore Romano, was among the panelists at a Nov. 16 presentation of the book in Rome -- even though Vian said he came as a "devil's advocate" to argue that the book "shouldn't be canonized.")
Politi's core thesis is expressed in the provocative assertion that Benedict XVI is a "part-time pope."
As Politi sees it, Benedict dips in to running the church or acting as a global leader only when circumstances require it. His passion, however, is focused on his private theological studies and his own writings.
"Joseph Ratzinger has revealed himself to be a fragile leader," Politi writes, "uncomfortable in the art of government, hesitant to confront the internal problems of the church, more sensitive to theology than geopolitics."
The result, according to Politi, is a "gap in governance".
Benedict, in Politi's eyes, has not articulated a clear vision for confronting the church's big-ticket challenges, such as the global priest shortage. So far, Politi asserts, the two most consequential reforms on Benedict's watch -- tighter norms on sex abuse and more transparent money management -- were "imposed by circumstances."
Perhaps most damaging, according to Politi, is that the geopolitical relevance of the Catholic church accumulated under John Paul II is in free-fall. For instance, he asserts that Benedict has had little incisive to say about the Arab Spring, arguably the most significant mutation of the global order since the collapse of Communism.
In the Vatican, Politi reports, there's a sense of frustration. He quotes a Vatican official who says that in the absence of monthly meetings of department heads, "everyone is running their own shop, without any reference to a common direction or a shared vision."
As a result, Politi writes, even after six and a half years of Benedict's papacy, "A priest, a journalist or a church historian can still be approached during a conversation and confronted with an apparently bizarre question: 'What's this pope like?'"
To be sure, there's much in Politi's analysis open to debate.
For the full text of Allen's review of Politi's book visit John L Allen Jr's blog "All Things Catholic"
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