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Public relations problem for pope
Published on:Tuesday, April 20, 2010 - 17:08
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".
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.
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.
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."
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.