Friday, April 22, 2005

Benedict XVI and Venezuela

As a boy and teenager, Josef Ratzinger experienced National Socialism in Germany at first hand. Though he participated, albeit unwillingly, in the movement's youth organization, few people nowadays (with the apparent exception of some UK tabloids) would argue that he would defend Nazism or similar fascist ideologies. Quite the contrary, in fact: Venezuelan journalist Nelson Bocaranda describes the following events that seem to indicate that the new pope, like his predecessor, clearly sees totalitarian ideologies for what they are.

THE VATICAN: Five days before the conclave and the secret vote. Various cardinals and bishops were conversing in the Santa Marta residence. A German cardinal -- there were six from this country -- dropped a tough statement into the conversation to emphasise a point that was being discussed: "fascism, nazism, communism, chavism... all of this comes from the same source and uses the same tactics". He surprised everyone with his inclusion of the Venezuelan political movement, and two of the participants asked what it was. He explained it to them. Today this cardinal is more important than he was at that time...
It is good to know that the new pope is aware of what is going on in Venezuela. I hope to see him take a stand against the Miraflores petrocrat; while that wouldn't convince Chávez to do the honorable thing and resign, it would mean that an important and authoritative voice would be added to the ever-increasing international chorus clamouring for change in Venezuela. For Venezuelans, it might help give them the courage to confront their inept and malevolent government and replace it by something better.

Saviour at Tibidabo, Barcelona, April 2005. Posted by Hello

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Stability vs. change: Benedict XVI's task

On Tuesday, 115 old men elected one from their midst to be the leader of the world's biggest religion. The new pope will lead an amazing organisation: it is not only the world's largest, with over a billion members worldwide, but also its oldest, with an uninterrupted history dating back almost 2,000 years. Growing to such a large size and surviving for such a long time are remarkable feats. How was they accomplished?

In essence, what the catholic church has managed to do is strike the right balance between flexibility and rigidity. It has adapted -- not always smoothly, of course -- to changing environmental pressures while maintaining an ideological and cultural core that has changed only very slightly over the millenia. Benedict XVI's task will be to continue maintaining the balance as best he can.

What are the main goals of the catholic church as an organisation? Contrary to what some critics may believe, maximising profits is not one of them. Instead, the church aims to maximise its membership without essentially diluting or changing its core values. In some areas of the world -- notably Europe, and to a lesser degree the USA -- there's a conflict between the two main goals. If the church refuses to modify its position on issues such as lay participation, women's rights, and sexual self-determination, it will unavoidably lose even more members. If it adapts in response to demands from members in the first world countries, it runs the risk of losing authority and identity -- which could lead to a further loss of membership.

Cardinal Ratzinger's position in this goal conflict has always been clear: he prefers a smaller, purer church to a more inclusive, but diluted one. Though I do not agree with many of the church's positions, I believe this to be a strategically sound decision. The church's greatest asset is its authority (and not its real estate, art collection, antiquities, company investments or stocks of precious metals and gemstones). This is the one asset which it must protect above all others -- even at the risk of alienating some members. And the way to protect its position of authority is to change very little, if at all; and never overtly in response to outside pressures, but only in accordance with its history and the evolving consensus of its leaders.