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A 'kinder, gentler' Benedict in first year as pope

THE FIRST anniversary of Pope Benedict XVI's election prompts some questions. This winter, a Roman journalist encountered a cardinal who hadn't visited Rome since Benedict's election. The cardinal burst out, ''What is Benedict doing? When will he make changes?"

Indeed, the new pope has kept a fairly low profile. Moreover, his first-year agenda was already set by John Paul II: World Youth Day, the international meeting of bishops last autumn, a decree barring homosexuals from the priesthood, even the encyclical about love were all already in the works. Benedict finished out John Paul's commitments, even though he often influenced them as well.

Yet if Benedict's substance was predictable, his style brings a major surprise: He has not lowered the boom. He has not cracked down on persons or trends in the church.

On numerous occasions when he could have denounced modern culture, he conspicuously did not. In fact, robust Catholic conservatives voice dismay over the ''kinder, gentler" Benedict.

Benedict's way of being pope points to the office, not the personality. John Paul acted as pastor of the planet. Benedict acts as self-effacing steward of a tradition. He doesn't see history culminating in his own millennial significance, as John Paul did. He desires more consultation with cardinals and bishops. For many, his modest personality makes the Gospel easier to absorb than the dramatic, autocratic John Paul did.

Benedict's restraint showed up in four compelling moments. First, when his encyclical on love was announced, one critic asked, ''What will he condemn this time?" Yet Benedict passed over anticipated hot-button issues and warmly praised sexual love as part of God's plan. Second, his major address at World Youth Day encouraged young people to attend church and receive Communion, but never denounced youth culture as expected. Third, the decree against homosexual seminarians appeared with a tempered authority, leaving local bishops some discretionary power in carrying it out. Fourth, when Benedict appointed an American to fill his previous post as watchdog of doctrine, he chose a notably milder, more flexible, less confrontational figure than he himself had been.

In review, three themes and three events stake out Benedict's probable legacy. The first theme is a key to guide church affairs. In a major speech, he declared that reforms of Vatican II flow in continuity with church tradition; they do not break from it. This foretells continued obstacles to innovation, experimentation, and even women's roles in the church. Second, Benedict praises freedom -- not as individualism, but as humans' capacity to accept clear truth. Third, he makes a distinction, saying the church should not engage in political affairs but only seek to influence them. This is hard to explain and harder to live by. To some puzzling, to others hypocritical, it seems to allow church officials to have it both ways.

Benedict's key events began with streamlining church bureaucracy by shrinking the size of the Vatican administration and appointing specialists, not career churchmen, to offices. Second, he took a high-stakes risk by accepting an invitation to visit Turkey. This could heal Catholic relations with Greek Orthodox leaders, but aggravate foreign relations, since Benedict opposed Turkey's admission to the European Union because it is an Islamic country. On the other hand, Turkey allows religious freedom, a policy the Vatican supports against many Islamic states that do not. Third, while Benedict is deeply committed to Jewish-Christian dialogue as a religious matter, Vatican-Israeli relations remain a difficult diplomatic matter. Benedict has deferred invitations and requests by the president of Israel and leading rabbis while longstanding Vatican requests are negotiated.

Often, Benedict rises above the fray, leaving tough action to others. For issues closer to home such as parish closings, clergy sexual abuse, and the bishops' delinquency in handling it, the Vatican has let local authorities sweat out their own decisions. He may continue to give little guidance on those matters. If frustrating, a less centralized church may be one that many Catholics long for.

While Benedict will surely not change his own or John Paul's positions, his calling as pope shows greater awareness of his earliest calling as a teacher. Teaching relies on patience and slow progress, rather than instant clarity and compliance. The surprises of his first year may signal a pope of some paradox after all.

James M. Weiss, associate professor of church history at Boston College, is a specialist on the modern papacy and College of Cardinals.

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