VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Critics say Pope Benedict, in several recent controversial moves, is turning the Roman Catholic Church’s clock back by half a century and alienating Muslims, Jews and Protestants in the process.
Supporters say that by allowing a wider use of the Latin Mass and reasserting Catholic primacy over other religions, he is trying to revitalize his 1.1 billion-member church and prepare it for an uncertain future.
“Basically, what we are in the grip of at the moment, and Benedict is one of the engineers of this, is what I would call a strong re-assertion of traditional Catholic identity,” said John Allen, author of several books on the church and the Vatican.
Some saw his decision to allow a wider use of the old-style Latin Mass as a blow to the reforms of the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council, which substituted Latin for local languages, modernized the church and encouraged inter-religious dialogue.
Catholics who thought the days of incense and dead languages were behind them were puzzled. Jews voiced concern over the possible use of prayers for their conversion in the old Mass.
Benedict also approved a document which said all other Christian denominations apart from Catholicism were wounded and not full churches of Jesus Christ, drawing the ire of a number of Protestant groups who said it would hurt dialogue.
“This is the Pope being the German professor who is going to clarify language in his classroom,” said Father Tom Reese, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. “And he thinks the world is his classroom.”
“The problem with that is that he defines what a church is and by doing so takes any discussion of what a church is off the table in dialogue (with other religions),” said Reese, a leading U.S. Jesuit author.
In the wake of the 1962-1965 Second Vatican Council, Catholic identity underwent revolutionary changes.
The Latin Mass was phased out, Gregorian chant gave way to folk guitar masses, and Jews, Muslims and other members of other Christian faiths were no longer seen as heretics to be converted or shunned.
“The basic debate after Vatican II was ‘should we become more like the world, more modern, more relevant in order to meet it halfway, or is the world heading off in the wrong direction and the last thing we want to do is follow it?’” Allen said.
For most of the immediate period after Vatican II, modernizers won the day even though church attendance fell and the number of men who left the priesthood rose.
Nuns stopped wearing traditional habits, some priests took normal day jobs so they could better understand workers’ problems, and in many cases Catholic identity was thrown into the blur of the inter-religious blender.
With the election of Pope John Paul II in 1978, traditionalists began to make inroads again and Benedict’s actions this month were seen by some as a clear fingerpost for the church’s future — what some see as a hard right turn.
“His intention is not to insult people but many times that’s the way it come across,” Reese said. “He uses words the way he defines them whether people like it or not, whether it upsets gays, women, theologians, Protestants or Muslims.”
Last year Muslims protested after Benedict used a quote that associated Islam with violence. He said he was misunderstood and later expressed his esteem for Muslims but the sting remains.
George Weigel, a prominent U.S. lay Catholic theologian, author and leading conservative commentator, sees Catholic identity as a matter of life and death for the church.
“Christian communities which maintain a clear sense of their doctrinal and moral boundaries can not only survive the encounter with modernity, they can flourish within it. Whereas Christian communities which fudge their boundaries tend to wither and eventually die,” Weigel said.
Weigel believes Catholic identity and belief cannot be part of “options in a supermarket” if the church is to survive.
Some see a leaner, meaner Catholic Church in the future.
“The Vatican’s calculation is that the retrenchment we are going through now may result in a smaller church but it will be a church that is more focused, more energetic, and in the long term that will pay off,” said Allen.