Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Pope's Name

A German pope is going to get attention from the German press, which, for the most part represents a far broader spectrum of opinions than we tend to find in the American press. Still, there was something unexpectedly striking about the language invoked by Die Tageszeitung, a left-wing paper cited in Mark Waffel's "World From Berlin" column for SPIEGEL ONLINE dealing with the Pope's visit to the United States:

The enormous magnitude of the nationwide pedophilia scandals will define the pope's visit. Will Ratzinger at least address the scandals fittingly? Or will he go as far as punishing those bishops who were more concerned with covering-up the scandals than exposing them? A lot will depend upon that.

The puritan Ratzinger is viewed in Washington as the "Enforcer," as someone who sternly watches over morals. That is why people's expectations are high. Although Pope Benedict already apologized for the child abuse cases on his flight over to Washington, that will not be enough if he wants to convince and reconcile the faithful. But that is something the Catholic Church desperately needs to do, as it is the only large church in the US to lose members.

There is a certain tone of defiance in the refusal to acknowledge the Papal name (with or without the number) in favor of a last name unadorned with any sign of respect. This is the linguistic tone that journalists apply to politicians, particularly when indicated disapproval.

It is not as if there is a sudden burst of cultural amnesia with regard to the Pope's birth name. The early years of the papacy of John Paul II focused on the diversity of activities during his youth. In London it even prompted a West End revival of a play he had written; and the playbill listed the author of the play as Karol Wojtyła (which is how the play was published). However, I do not recall any news reports of Vatican activities that referred to him by anything other than his Papal name.

Benedict is another matter. Under John Paul, as his Wikipedia entry reminds us, he "had been Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith," which is equivalent to a position that one could find in most of the old Communist regimes, usually called something like "Chairman of the Committee on Ideology." As Joseph Ratzinger he used this position to serve as a major representative of the Vatican before the press, which put him right in the thick of the abuse scandal when it broke in so many places over such a short period of time. Prior to his arrival in Washington, the BBC showed some old footage of one of their reporters interviewing him about this scandal. The reporter was not satisfied with polite evasive language and kept pressing for a more substantive statement. Ratzinger's response was to dismiss the reporter by slapping him (lightly, mind you) on the wrist to indicate that the discussion was over.

I have no idea if this footage was representative of how Ratzinger tended to deal with the press, rather in the manner of a disciplinarian Parochial School teacher. Back in 2006 it was clear that Benedict was a highly intellectual Pope, probably one of the most intellectual in the history of the Papacy; but he also gave the impression that he might have been happier with a faculty position at the University of Regensburg than as the Holy Father. As a rule the press (whether left or right) does not take kindly to displays of intellectual superiority, nor do they want to be treated as misbehaving children. By denying Benedict his Papal name, Die Tageszeitung may have decided that, if they are going to be treated as if they were misbehaving, they may as well willfully misbehave in some significant manner.

This is unlikely to do any noticeable damage to the institution of Catholicism. Indeed, in an era in which civil behavior is practically obsolete, the level of misbehavior is pretty much too low to deserve more than this passing notice. Rather, it is one of those "safe" acts of misbehavior, to which we sometimes resort for no reason other than to feel good. Die Tageszeitung probably knew that they were not going to score any substantive points against the Vatican; so they probably decided to do something that would make them (and probably many of their readers) feel better, even if it had no impact.

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