Biographer sees continuity between John Paul II, Benedict XVI

December 8, 2010

NEW ORLEANS (RNS) Five years into the papacy of Benedict XVI, papal
biographer George Weigel is struck by the continuity of mission between
Benedict and his predecessor, John Paul II, both of whom have pursued
activist papacies engaging an often-skeptical general culture.

Both popes are products of early 20th century European Catholic
culture, John Paul in Poland and Benedict in Germany. Both were deeply
influenced by World War II and its aftermath, and both were partly
shaped by the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.

Both popes preach "the centrality of discipleship," both seek to
spread the gospel -- Benedict, especially, in Western Europe -- and both
believe in outreach to the young, Weigel said during a stop here to
lecture on his newest book, "The End and the Beginning."

Weigel, John Paul's biographer in 1999's "Witness to Hope," also
wrote the forward to "Light of the World," a new book-length interview
on a range of topics Benedict conducted with German journalist Peter

"The End and the Beginning" is the sequel to "Witness to Hope" and
includes full-blown analysis of John Paul's papacy, as well as the fruit
of communist intelligence archives detailing Soviet and Polish efforts
to undermine him, Weigel said.

On his ascension to the papacy, Benedict was widely known as a
brilliant, professorial theologian who served John Paul for 22 years as
head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In that role he
was widely seen as the stern Germanic face that disciplined wayward
theologians around the world, although Weigel believes that is a mostly
false stereotype.

Since becoming pope, however, Benedict has demonstrated a gift as a
personable listener.

"He's really a fine pastor," Weigel said. "When he meets these
victims of sexual abuse, their testimony is he's a remarkably
compassionate pastor. They feel he understands the wounds they carry."

Still, Weigel said Benedict has been ill-served at times by the
Vatican bureaucracy -- particularly its archaic communications culture.

Part of the problem is that the institutional culture of the Roman
curia has not caught up to the communications revolution of recent
decades, Weigel said.

"They do not live in the 24/7 information environment," he said.
"They don't feel any institutional need to have a rapid-response
mechanism that every other major institution has. So the impression is
created they don't care. That's a false impression, but it's an
understandable one, given the fact that we're all used to living in the
same news cycle."

Moreover, Weigel said the current Vatican press office under the
Rev. Federico Lombardi does not insist on "message discipline," leaving
highly placed cardinals to sow controversy in personal remarks at
official functions that do not reflect Benedict's views.

Weigel cited Cardinal Angelo Sodano's observation during a Holy Week
homily last year deploring as "petty gossip" criticisms of the church's
handling of the clerical sex abuse crisis.

In addition, Weigel said a more professional communications
apparatus might have dampened some of the recent confusion and sensation
around a brief Benedict observation in the Seewald book about condom use
and AIDS.

Weigel said he's certain of Benedict's central point about AIDS and
condoms: that using a condom to prevent disease, though objectively
wrong in the church's view, may in some cases represent a morally
laudable intention.

Some theologians belatedly trying to explain the concept compared it
to a bank robber having sufficient conscience to at least use an
unloaded pistol to avoid hurting anyone. But by then, much of the public
damage was done.

"Why Lombardi could not come up with an illustration of that is just
beyond my imagination," Weigel said. "And the church is not well-served
by that. It's not been a happy week."