The Deacon's Bench

The Deacon's Bench

Is Pope Benedict a closet liberal?

That’s the question posed by my friend and former Beliefnetizen David Gibson in today’s Washington Post

Thumbnail image for pope_benedict.jpgThus far, Benedict’s papacy has been one of constant movement and change, the sort of dynamic that liberal Catholics — or Protestants — are usually criticized for pursuing. In Benedict’s case, this liberalism serves a conservative agenda. But his activism should not be surprising: As a sharp critic of the reforms of Vatican II, Ratzinger has long pushed for what he calls a “reform of the reform” to correct what he considers the excesses or abuses of the time. 


Of course a “reformed reform” doesn’t equal a return to the past, even if that were the goal. Indeed, Benedict’s reforms are rapidly creating something entirely new in Catholicism. For example, when the pope restored the old Latin Mass, he also restored the use of the old Good Friday prayer, which spoke of the “blindness” of the Jews and called for their conversion. That prayer was often a spur to anti-Jewish pogroms in the past, so its revival appalled Jewish leaders. After months of protests, the pope agreed to modify the language of the prayer; that change and other modifications made the “traditional” Mass more a hybrid than a restoration. 

More important, with the latest accommodation to Anglicans, Benedict has signaled that the standards for what it means to be Catholic — such as the belief in the real presence of Christ in the Mass as celebrated by a validly ordained priest — are changing or, some might argue, falling. The Vatican is in effect saying that disagreements over gay priests and female bishops are the main issues dividing Catholics and Anglicans, rather than, say, the sacraments and the papacy and infallible dogmas on the Virgin Mary, to name just a few past points of contention. 

That is revolutionary — and unexpected from a pope like Benedict.

Check out why, and much more, at the link.

Comments read comments(14)
post a comment

posted October 25, 2009 at 6:46 pm

“Benedict has signaled that the standards for what it means to be Catholic — such as the belief in the real presence of Christ in the Mass as celebrated by a validly ordained priest — are changing or, some might argue, falling.”
Sorry, what??? Talk about warping

report abuse

Peter Brown

posted October 25, 2009 at 7:11 pm

I’m sorry, I just don’t see the whole thesis of the piece. Change isn’t necessarily liberal or conservative–it’s just change. Was Bismarck a liberal? Margaret Thatcher? Ronald Reagan? John Paul II?
Gibson does have a point to make in that we’re seeing more change, and more far-reaching change, than many of us expected from Benedict XVI’s reign (expected, as Gibson says, to be short). But John XXIII’s reign wasn’t a real long one, either.

report abuse


posted October 25, 2009 at 7:25 pm

David Gibson has about as much credibility where Benedict is concerned as Maureen Dowd.
Does he actually believe that the church would welcome those who don’t accept the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the papacy?
Honestly, how do these people get their jobs?

report abuse


posted October 25, 2009 at 7:36 pm

Really? Because changing a handful of words in one prayer for one day of the year makes the entire Extraordinary Form a hybrid? I don’t think so.
Also, I think David Gibson doesn’t really understand the personal ordinariate – I didn’t see anything in the announcement saying that the Anglicans joining the Catholic Church don’t have to hold to everything the Catholic Church believes. Goodness knows, their beliefs about the Eucharist are probably stronger than many Catholics!

report abuse

Gen X Revert

posted October 25, 2009 at 9:45 pm

I am glad to see comments pointing out the 2 biggest errors in this mess of an article: “hybrid Mass” because of an updated prayer used once a year and somehow Anglicans being accepted in equals belief in real presence changing. What an embarassing article.

report abuse

Deacon John M. Bresnahan, Jr.

posted October 25, 2009 at 9:54 pm

Part of the problem seems to be that many in the media refuse to believe that only a religious leader who is regarded as “liberal” can be dynamic or creative. On the other hand relgious believers who are orthodox are regarded as “ossified” or “rigid” even in matters that don’t compromise orthodox teachings.

report abuse


posted October 25, 2009 at 10:50 pm

Deacon Greg,
I would welcome your insight into some of the articles to which you link. My heart breaks when I read likes of the Gibson and Dowd pieces… not because of their opinions, of which they are entitled, but because they are shockingly inaccurate and thus, ultimately dangerous.
These writers work for the most prominent and influential papers in the US, and are often the only voice that average readers hear on these topics. Ms. Dowd’s “ A Nun’s Story” showcases the angry, hyper-feminist shtick that characterizes her world view. But David Gibson presents himself as an expert on the church… it is how he makes his living. Gibson is the “go-to” guy whenever there is news relating to matters of faith. However, I rarely read an article or a quote(especially about our current pope) where he doesn’t make glaring mistakes and bizarre interpretations of events that affect the church and her relationship to the world. The most recent article is so full of error that a high school theology student could debunk his conclusions.
So I am left to wonder, why? Is he simply ignorant? Is he so ideologically driven that he is unable to discern the truth? Is he just provocative…hoping that he will garner many readers by saying outrageous things? And finally, the worst case scenario, is he just malicious…knowingly spreading misinformation to undermine any success that Benedict has in leading the church? Only David Gibson knows the answer.
In the mean time, judging from the comments of the readers of the W.Post, his work helps to perpetuate misunderstanding, bigotry and division…and worst of all, insures that those who need the loving embrace of our faith the most, will reject it.
The real emphasis of Benedict’s papacy is obvious to anyone who has really followed him with an open heart. It is neither liberal or conservative, political or cynical. It is simply that in union with the church, an encounter with Christ will lead to a life of true freedom, beauty and joy.

report abuse

Mere Catholic

posted October 26, 2009 at 1:12 am

I think David Gibson is mistaken in his views. The offer, so to speak, by the Holy See is to those Anglicans who are willing to submit to the authority of the Church but want to preserve their liturgical tradition (who can blame them with those lovely hymns). No where in this is denial of the Real Presence or of Mary’s role as Mother of the Saviour considered an option. In fact, on the website of the Traditional Anglican Communion, the primates maintain that they have signed a declaration attesting their belief in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Undoubtedly, there will be members of this flock who will not profess their allegiance to Rome, but I am hopeful for the ones that do come.

report abuse

Mo MoDo

posted October 26, 2009 at 7:11 am

If any liberalization comes out of Benedict’s appeal to disgruntled Amglicans it will be strictly a result of the law of unintended consequences.

report abuse


posted October 26, 2009 at 10:44 am

Gibson gets so much wrong in this article, it’s hard to take him seriously as an analyst for anything Catholic.
Benedict is not a sharp critic of the reforms of Vatican II, but a sharp critic of those who exploited the Council to push a political, social, catechetical and liturgical agenda the Council never intended.
This is not an unprecedented arrangement. Similar arrangements have been made by the Church in her efforts to re-unite eastern churches.
Benedict’s allowing the old Latin Mass to be celebrated did not create two parallel rites in the Western Church “for the first time in Catholic history”. Prior to the reforms of Pope Pius V in the late 16th century, there were numerous rites in the West. Even Pius’ reforms allowed dioceses and religious orders that had had their own liturgy for 200 or more years to continue celebrating those rites.
Women and gay clergy did not motivate these movements. This was a matter of the Holy Father responding to a request for rescue by those caught in a communion that had long ago abandoned any pretense of fidelity to twenty centuries of Christian orthodoxy. Women and gay clergy are only the most recent and blatant examples of such.

report abuse

John M.

posted October 26, 2009 at 1:24 pm

Gibson’s right, but for completely wrong reasons.
Is Benedict XVI a “closet liberal”? If by “liberal,” one means someone willing to accept diversity but with a core of unshakeable moral convictions, then “yes.” If by a “liberal,” you mean someone who wants to moderate extremist traditionalism by accepting those who are different, then “yes.”
But Gibson doesn’t understand why. Instead, please read Benedict’s apology after the flap over SSPX and Bishop Williamson. He makes it clear is that this goal is not to “turn back the clock” in the Church, but to draw splinter groups back into a healthy unity with the wider church. His goal is to affirm what is healthy in these movements (SSPX, Traditional Anglican Communion) but also to moderate them — each Latin Mass Catholic has to accept that they have a charism of preserving the liturgical tradition, but also that the Novus Ordo is acceptable — and now an Anglican liturgy, too. Benedict’s ultimate ecumenical goal is union with the Orthodox. It is self-proclaimed “liberals” who cannot tolerate the presence of conservatively inclined believers in the life of the Church.
The goal of the present move is not to gloss over the theological differences between Anglicanism and Catholicism — the document is a response to Anglicans who’ve already said they will accept The Catechism of the Catholic Church. But it is an attempt to distinguish uniformity from unity, something which was at the heart of Vatican II but has been badly done since.
To say Benedict is a “sharp critic of the reforms of Vatican II” is painfully simple-minded; he is a sharp critic of some of the actions done in the name of Vatican II, and also of some of the more optimistic passages in Gaudium et Spes, which seems to be the Council’s only document for progressives (although they ignore the sections upon which John Paul II built his papacy).
Anyone who thinks that Benedict doesn’t know that tradition is living and develops is simply ignorant (i.e, has not read or understood his writing). And if his actions have a “liberalizing” effect on Church disciplines, I doubt he is afraid. His mantra is not “reform of the reform” but “God is love.”

report abuse


posted October 26, 2009 at 4:31 pm

Teresa of Avila (“The Way of Perfection”) wrote, “For my part, I believe that love is the measure of our ability to bear crosses, whether great or small.”
When I read that this morning, my thoughts immediately went to Benedict XVI and his acceptance of not just the papacy when he’d rather be immersed in his library–but also of such harsh criticism throughout his public years of service to our Church. He did not seek to be in this role, but he must feel a deep sense of conviction that God has allowed him this access to the world stage. He is not going to waste a moment of it!
He goes forward with purpose, his eyes set on Jesus whom he invokes so frequently in his talks as if at the end of the talk, at the end of all the rhetoric, poetry, reason — all our Benedict wants you to remember is the name “Jesus” — through whom all things were made.
This is why his first public letter, his first encyclical is so perfectly titled, “God is Love.’ This man truly believes it and must spend every waking hour, wrestling with how to make that Love evident in every situation brought before a pope.

report abuse

Dana MacKenzie

posted October 27, 2009 at 5:28 am

I like Dave Gibson, but this article seems like nonsense to me. Even a casual student of Ratzinger knows that he was very much a “liberal” (as liberals were defined, back then) in the 1960’s and he and JPII were very much a part of VCII. Ratzinger (and JPII) both pulled away from so-called “liberalism” when it became clear that the “progressive” faction of the church was attempting to take the church where the Council never intended it to go and the liturgical abuses and distortions came to the fore. Benedict is still very much a “classical liberal” for what it is worth, and Gibson is a bit dishonest here in suggesting otherwise. Also, his contention that Benedict’s outreach to the Anglican church is “unexpected” is purely nonsense, as Gibson must know. Again, one did not have to be more than a casual student of Ratzinger’s to know that this has long been in the works. Was Gibson creating a straw man, just so he could have one on which to base this article?

report abuse

Dana MacKenzie

posted October 27, 2009 at 5:31 am

“Part of the problem seems to be that many in the media refuse to believe that only a religious leader who is regarded as “liberal” can be dynamic or creative. On the other hand relgious believers who are orthodox are regarded as “ossified” or “rigid” even in matters that don’t compromise orthodox teachings.”
Bravo, Deacon John. I think you’ve identified the major flaw within Gibson which has permeated this piece and the whole thesis. Gibson is trying to make an argument based on nothing more than his own prejudices. Really, not his best work, at all.

report abuse

Post a Comment

By submitting these comments, I agree to the terms of service, rules of conduct and privacy policy (the "agreements"). I understand and agree that any content I post is licensed to and may be used by in accordance with the agreements.

Previous Posts

This blog is no longer active
This blog is no longer being actively updated. Please feel free to browse the archives or: Read our most popular inspiration blog See our most popular inspirational video Take our most popular quiz ...

posted 10:42:40pm Dec. 12, 2010 | read full post »

One day more
A reminder: "The Deacon's Bench" is closed! Please enjoy the archives! ...

posted 11:26:20pm Dec. 11, 2010 | read full post »

Meet Montana's married priest
Earlier this week, I posted an item about Montana getting its first married priest. Now a local TV station has hopped on the bandwagon. Take a look, below. ...

posted 10:29:55pm Dec. 11, 2010 | read full post »

Big day in the Big Easy: 10 new deacons
Deacon Mike Talbot has the scoop: 10 men today were ordained as Permanent Deacons for the Archdiocese of New Orleans. This group of men was formally selected on the day the evacuation of New Orleans began as Hurricane Katrina approached. The ...

posted 6:55:42pm Dec. 11, 2010 | read full post »

Gaudete! And let's break out a carol or two...
"Gesu Bambino," anyone? This is one of my favorites, and nobody does it better than these gals: Kathleen Battle and Frederica von Staade. Enjoy. ...

posted 1:04:10pm Dec. 11, 2010 | read full post »


Report as Inappropriate

You are reporting this content because it violates the Terms of Service.

All reported content is logged for investigation.