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 Honey and Vinegar 

April 19, 2005 
The election of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI comes as a shock to the liberal Catholics of Europe and America. Today's column is "HONEY & VINEGAR," dealing with Benedict XVI -- Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.For them the great papacy of John Paul II was a long ordeal, and Ratzinger, the uncompromising defender of Catholic orthodoxy, was a chief reason.

It had become customary for liberals to say they “disagreed” with John Paul’s “positions,” as if those were mere arbitrary personal opinions of the man himself rather than immutable truths upheld by the Church. On this view, a pope is a sort of dictator who may change the party line at his whim. If he doesn’t change it in keeping with the fashions of the age, he seems incomprehensibly stubborn.

But the Pope is chiefly a custodian, whose principal duty is to preserve the ancient faith we have inherited. It isn’t up to him to edit that faith to suit his taste or anyone else’s. In Catholicism, novelty is not a virtue. It usually signifies corruption, not improvement.

To the liberal mind, progress consists not in gradual development, but in dramatic breaks with the past, typified by the U.S. Supreme Court’s use of the U.S. Constitution — a “living document” — to foist sudden changes on an entire polity. Old laws (in America, there is no such thing as the ancient) are abruptly declared unconstitutional. To be disruptive is to be “progressive.”

Until the 1960s, this outlook was alien to the Catholic Church. But the Second Vatican Council, summoned by Pope John XXIII, introduced the most sudden changes in liturgy and discipline in Catholic history. Liberals rejoiced, willfully mistaking these for changes, or at least the promise of change, in Catholic doctrine itself. The “spirit of Vatican II” became the equivalent of the American judiciary’s “living document” — allegedly authorizing unlimited change, including dissent from the most basic Catholic teachings. The supposed liberal “spirit” of the Council contradicted the orthodox letter of what the Council had actually said.

Like John Paul II, Cardinal Ratzinger was disturbed by the abuses that followed on the Council’s heels, and he has been an outspoken critic of false “reforms.” His doctrinal adamancy has earned him the opprobrium of liberals for whom there is no such thing as too much change.

[Breaker quote for 
HONEY & VINEGAR: The promise of Benedict XVI]For Catholic liberals — the sort who are liberals first, Catholics second — the Church should follow the model of the secular world. Since the old Pope died, the leading American newspapers have been running daily articles on the discontents of American Catholics, by which they mean those who grumble against Catholic teaching and tradition. We seldom read about those Catholics, here and abroad, who love the Church as it is; you’d think a few dissident Americans were the core of Catholicism.

The election of Benedict XVI means that the College of Cardinals does indeed want change; but not the kind of change the liberals crave. It wants the return to orthodoxy and discipline the new Pope has been advocating throughout the long papacy of John Paul II.

Under Benedict, we are not going to see female or married priests, let alone any softening of Catholic sexual morality. We can probably expect a vigorous reaffirmation of Catholic teaching on contraception, which has depopulated formerly Catholic Europe. No more than John Paul will Benedict tailor his words to opinion polls.

He may also prove a sterner disciplinarian than John Paul. It was often said of the late Pope that he was more loved than heeded; Benedict certainly won’t enjoy the same phenomenal popularity (who could?). But he is also a man who commands respect, because he has always preferred speaking truth to making friends.

After the honey of John Paul II, Benedict XVI may seem like a dose of vinegar. But at 78 he probably can’t look forward to a long papacy, and he must make his remaining years count. He has the example of the Savior, whose most startling teaching (in the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel) caused many of his disciples to desert him: “This is a hard saying; who can accept it?”

This new Pope knows that such hard sayings are the very essence of Catholic teaching. Whatever his reign may give us, it won’t be a watered-down Catholicism.

Joseph Sobran

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