WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Too much is unknown to predict how Pope Benedict XVI might change the Vatican's approach to world affairs, said panelists at a Washington forum April 29.
But speakers at the program of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life drew on bits of information about the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's philosophy to suggest the new pope would be a peacemaker, including in the Middle East, and might well continue his predecessor's efforts to bring world religions together.
They also suggested a pope with a lower public profile than that of the late pope might be healthy for the Church.
Raymond Flynn, ambassador to the Holy See from 1993-97, told of arriving in Italy to take that job and meeting with Pope John Paul II to discuss the U.S. government's diplomatic interests at the Vatican, including working for peace in the Middle East. After the pope noted that Flynn would be working with then-Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, the Vatican's foreign minister, he added, according to Flynn, "if I had any problems I was to talk to Ratzinger -- that's how he said it."
Pope John Paul added that then-Cardinal Ratzinger was "very committed" to peace in the Middle East. "He wants to see this happen," Flynn said he was told by the pope.
Flynn said the biggest challenge to the new pope's peacemaking efforts will be to bring together leaders of various religious faiths "so they can step over the political leaders" and encourage peace efforts by the people of their countries.
"I think he can do it," he said.
Newsweek contributing editor Kenneth L. Woodward, who has covered religion for the magazine since 1964, pointed out that under Pope John Paul, the Holy See became a more significant player in world events than it had been since the Renaissance era. Nations including the United States and Great Britain established formal diplomatic relations with the Vatican and progress was made toward ties with even Russia and China, he said.
Woodward said he would expect Pope Benedict to make few changes in how the Church approaches relationships with European nations and to continue to pursue peace and justice around the world.
Less certain is how the new pope will approach the question of whether the Vatican might back down from its strict opposition to the use of condoms in areas where HIV/AIDS is rampant, he said.
"I'm not so sure this pope is quite so intractable on this as his predecessor was," Woodward said, adding that it might depend upon what Benedict hears on the topic from the bishops of Africa.
A third panelist at the forum, Father J. Bryan Hehir, a professor of religion and public life at Harvard University and president of Catholic Charities for the Boston Archdiocese, was even more reluctant than Woodward and Flynn to try to predict the direction Pope Benedict might take the Vatican and devoted much of his commentary to discussing the differences in challenges for the new pope and his predecessor.
Pope Benedict stepped into a very changed world from the one that faced Pope John Paul in 1978, Father Hehir said.
The late pope became the head of the Church at a time when the world's politics and problems were much more black-and-white. Since then, the Cold War has ended, political boundaries have become less clearly defined and relationships of governments have gone from interdependence to globalization, he explained.
Pope John Paul was largely responsible for bringing human rights to the fore as a factor in world politics, for one thing, said Father Hehir.
He also changed the Vatican's political style.
"John Paul II often ran counter to the wishes of his own state department," he said, "and he won."
He also reshaped Church teaching on human rights, war and peace and economic justice, Father Hehir said. It wasn't so much that he changed the teachings as pushed them further than they had been in the past, he added.
Because most of the official documents of the Vatican are written as collaborations, and are not just the work of the pope, Father Hehir said, he expects continuity in most areas. In other ways, however, too little is known about Pope Benedict to predict what sort of a face he'll bring to the papacy, the priest said.
"We don't know what his pastoral style will be," he said. "He's not been a highly visible, pastoral person."
Flynn said in some ways the attention of the last 26 years to the individual at the head of the Church has been misdirected.
"We've been putting too much emphasis on the pope as a person," Flynn said. "There should be more emphasis on Mrs. O'Malley," meaning average Catholics.
"We shouldn't be looking to the Vatican for every point ... about the faith," he said.
Woodward said it might be a good thing for the Church if Pope Benedict is more of a stay-at-home, low-profile kind of pope than Pope John Paul was.
Much of the recent image of the Church and the papacy has been directly related to the personal charisma of Pope John Paul II, Woodward said. A pope who is not as highly visible in all the workings of the Church would open the opportunity for the world's cardinals to become more of the voice of the Church, he said.
"We might see that the cardinals have something to say, something worth listening to," Woodward said.
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