It is too early to write off the Benedictine Revolution
First the media identified Benedict XVI as "God's Rottweiler". Then he became the gentle "German Shepherd". Now journalists have settled on a new moniker: the "gaffe-prone Pontiff'.
It is true that over the past year Pope Benedict has developed an unhappy reputation for faux pas. There is a growing media consensus that the majority of the Pope's foreign trips have been marred by avoidable "errors", starting at Auschwitz 12 months ago, peaking at Regensburg last September and ending with his address to the Latin American bishops last month. The Pope's critics argue that these three speeches insulted Jews, Muslims and indigenous peoples respectively, and forced Benedict XVI to make embarrassing U-turns once he stepped off the papal plane in Rome.
But this is not entirely accurate. On each of those occasions the Pope did not repudiate his statements but merely clarified them. There is no hard proof, for example, that Benedict XVI stumbled into a confrontation with the Muslim world over violence in God's name. The evidence suggests that he chose to press the issue, though he was perhaps unprepared for the hostile reaction that ensued. Likewise, after Auschwitz and Aparecida the Pope did not repudiate what he said but tried to make his points even clearer.
This week, however, the Vatican has announced a genuine reversal of papal policy: the restoration of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (POD) as a separate curial department.
Why has Pope Benedict taken this step, barely a year after he entrusted the Pontifical Councils for Interreligious Dialogue and Culture to a single cardinal-president (the elderly and overworked French Cardinal Paul Poupard)? Given the absence of official explanations, we can only speculate that it was the result of pressure from major players in interfaith dialogue — notably key Muslim leaders who were dismayed when Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, the English Islamic expert and head of the PCID, was transferred from Rome to Cairo.
Some will no doubt take Pope Benedict's decision as further evidence that this is a gaffe-prone pontificate. But we should see it in a more charitable light: the reform of the Roman Curia is a tremendously complex project and it is more likely to succeed if the Pope is humble and pragmatic enough to recognise when his reforms do not result in improvements. Such an ambitious programme was bound to suffer setbacks, but it is far too early to declare the Benedictine Revolution a failure.
Few popes have successfully reformed the Curia; many have been ground down and defeated by the task. But there is nothing to suggest that Benedict XVI has lost his appetite for reform. Perhaps he is even now preparing to make the famous words of Margaret Thatcher his own: "The Pope's not for turning!"
Elgar's enigmatic faith
Edward Elgar was born into a Catholic family and, as a young man, was firm in his allegiance to his faith. But, as Stephen Hough points out in his Notebook this week, even as he was writing his greatest Catholic work, The Dream of Gerontius, he was losing that faith, never to recover it. So, on this 150th anniversary of his birth, any attempts to claim him for England's Roman Catholic heritage are bound to be a little unconvincing.
But that is no reason for Catholics not to honour the memory of this genius. The spiritual impact of great religious music (which Gerontius certainly is) is not dependent on the doctrinal orthodoxy of the composer. The two greatest settings of the Mass for chorus and orchestra are surely Bach's B minor Mass and Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, written respectively by a Lutheran and a mystical Deist. Neither is particularly well-suited to liturgical performance (or so we are always told, though why not try?); but both masterpieces can illuminate the ancient prayers in the most extraordinary and rewarding way. Likewise, The Dream of Gerontius in Elgar's setting adds an extra poignancy to Newman's fine poem. No Catholic who loves music can listen to it without being inspired or troubled by its account of the journey of a soul.
But you do not need to listen to Elgar's sacred music to experience a lifting or deepening of the mood: the Violin Concerto, the Second Symphony, the Cello Concerto — these are works of a true master, underestimated even today. They, too, manifest a connection between spirituality and music that the institutional Church has horribly neglected in recent decades. Of course, Elgar is not everyone's cup of tea: but, if you want to understand the subtle nobility of spirit that is conveyed by his characteristic marking, nobilmente, then make some time for his music this week.