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(RNS) As Pope Benedict XVI marks the fifth anniversary of his election on Monday (April 19), the cloud of controversy that’s overshadowing the Vatican likely isn’t what he had in mind to mark the occasion.
A spreading international scandal over the sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy has focused in recent weeks on charges that Benedict, when still a cardinal, mishandled several cases of pedophile priests in his native Germany and the United States.
Recent polls show more than 70 percent of people in both countries are dissatisfied with the pope’s record on sex abuse. Earlier this month, a major German news magazine, Der Speigel, declared Benedict’s a “failed papacy.”
Although the current crisis is the gravest of Benedict’s reign, it is hardly the first. Over the last five years, the pope has sparked prolonged controversy by:
— Quoting a medieval description of Islam as “evil and inhuman”;
— Reviving a traditional Good Friday prayer for the conversion of the Jews;
— Lifting the excommunication of an ultra-traditionalist bishop who turned out to be a known Holocaust denier;
— Saying that the distribution of condoms “aggravates” the spread of HIV/AIDS.
“For the outside world, the story of this papacy is basically lurching from one crisis to another,” says John L. Allen Jr., Benedict’s biographer and senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter.
But the pope, Allen said, is “legendarily someone who thinks in centuries. He can see past today’s headlines. I’m sure his conviction is that with time a more balanced judgment of his record will emerge.”
Benedict himself laid out his priorities in a series of speeches in the early days of his papacy, statements that he later described as his “plan of action” as pope.
High among his avowed goals were greater unity among Christians; dialogue between reason and faith as an alternative to European-style secularism; revival of traditional forms of Catholic worship; and a second look at modernizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) that stressed continuity with tradition.
So, judging him on his own terms five years later, how has Benedict fared?
One of the unheralded successes of Benedict’s pontificate, Vatican watchers say, has been improved relations with the world’s 250 million Eastern Orthodox Christians, especially those in Russia.
The Vatican last year finally established diplomatic relations with Russia, a move that had been resisted by Orthodox leaders who viewed the Catholic Church as a competitor for adherents. Last month, the Russian newspaper Pravda even ran an article defending Benedict from his critics. Hopes for a papal trip to Russia — a goal that long eluded Benedict’s predecessor, Pope John Paul II — have never been higher.
Where Russian leaders once viewed the Polish-born John Paul with lingering suspicion, Australian theologian Tracey Rowland said Orthodox leaders also share Benedict’s “concern about the secularization of Western culture.”
Reaching out to a different group of Christians, Benedict announced that he would allow Anglicans who join the Catholic Church to retain a collective identity, using many of their traditional prayers and hymns in their own specially designed dioceses.
That decision, made to accommodate Anglicans upset with their church’s growing acceptance of homosexuality and female clergy, strained the Vatican’s relations with Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury, leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion. But Benedict has insisted that the plan serves the “ultimate purpose” of ecumenism, “which consists in reaching full and visible communion among disciples of the Lord.”
Benedict has also encouraged the revival of many traditional Catholic forms of worship that fell out of use after Vatican II, including the traditional Latin Mass.
According to Rowland, dean of the John Paul II Institute in Melbourne, Benedict’s effort to revive a more solemn air of worship has proved surprisingly popular.
“The fact that young people seem to turn out in large numbers for evenings of Eucharistic adoration is a sociological fact which is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore,” Rowland said.
But the Rev. Richard P. McBrien, professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame and a prominent critic of Benedict’s, finds that the pope has met with only “limited success” on his liturgical agenda, while simultaneously managing to get “many active Catholics upset and fearful about what might come next.”
A widespread return to traditional worship “would set the Catholic Church back to its pre-Vatican II days and, in effect, nullify the council,” McBrien said. “In that event, there would be even greater defections from the church.”
Benedict’s effort to repair the breach with those disaffected by Vatican II has unintentionally led to two of the biggest controversies of his reign, both of which have placed a strain on Catholic-Jewish
relations: reviving a traditional Latin prayer for the conversion of the Jews, and lifting the excommunication of the Holocaust-denying Bishop Richard Williamson.
While ultra-traditionalist Catholics show little sign of returning to the fold, and relatively few Anglicans have embraced the pope’s overture, Benedict’s defenders insist he’s in for the long haul.
In pursuing another goal — highlighting reason in the dialogue between faith and society — Benedict inadvertently heightened tensions with Islam. In his now-famous 2006 speech in Regensburg, Germany, Benedict borrowed a medieval description of Islam as “evil and inhuman”
and “spread by the sword.” That remark led to riots across the Muslim world, attacks on churches in Palestine and the murder of a nun in Somalia.
Even many of the pope’s most ardent defenders say that media relations have been a weakness of his papacy, reflecting a larger deficiency in the quality of his appointments to the Curia, the Vatican’s central bureaucracy.
“There’s no question that (Benedict) has been ill-served in the past by curial incompetence,” said George Weigel, the official biographer of Pope John Paul II. “But ultimately he’s responsible for his personnel choices.”
“One hopes he turns his hand to serious curial reform in the future,” Weigel said. “Not to settle scores but to make his own ministry more effective.”
It might be hard to focus on major reforms of any sort, however, with sex abuse distracting the attention of Benedict’s followers and collaborators.
“Everything is up in the air as long as the current controversy swirls about the pope,” McBrien said. “Only he can put it to rest by being as open and as truthful as he can.”

Copyright 2010 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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