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The Year of Two Popes

Paul Elie’s “Year of Two Popes” (January/February Atlantic) was an interesting tour of the rarefied atmosphere of the inner workings of the Holy See, but it scarcely touched on the real situation of the Catholic Church here on Planet Earth.

The Church in Ireland is in free fall in the wake of the Ferns Report on clergy sexual abuse. In Spain, psychologist Pepe Rodriguez has published two major studies on the same problem. In the United States, the clergy abuse scandals have not abated and could end up costing the Church billions, while donations, church attendance, and parochial-school enrollments have plummeted over the past third of a century.

If the Holy See could come down to earth, get over its obsessions with contraception, abortion rights, in vitro fertilization, divorce, homosexuality, and male dominance—obsessions that most First World Catholics do not share—and concentrate on the social-justice and ethical teachings of the Nazarene carpenter, it could make enormous contributions toward helping to solve the myriad real problems facing humankind today.

Edd Doerr
Silver Spring, Md.

Having lived at the Vatican for four years while doing graduate studies and having talked with Vatican “insiders” during recent visits to Rome, I read Paul Elie’s “Year of Two Popes” with interest. While not speculating on Elie’s sources, I am relatively sure that they are not mine.

One particular “conflict moment” seems overblown. If the image of George Carey in an episcopal role at the opening of the Holy Doors at St. Paul’s Outside the Walls was such anathema to Cardinal Ratzinger, why did Benedict XVI appoint Archbishop William Levada to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, when said prelate has publicly advocated a review of the question of the validity of Anglican orders? No one who knows Archbishop Levada believes that he would ever do or say anything that would fail to pass CDF muster—that is, Ratzinger’s analysis.

Could it be that Elie and his sources do not really know Benedict’s mind on this matter? Elie’s article is well written, but it also reminds some of us that there are many types of Vatican “insiders.”

Paul E. Cote
Portland, Maine

Paul Elie has hit a home run with his riveting and brilliantly written article. Only toward the end of his piece does he go seriously astray. His claim that Pope Benedict is “unschooled in the American experience,” and at age seventy-nine is too old to catch up, overlooks several trips Ratzinger has made to the United States, uninsulated by the pomp and ceremony of papal visits. What is true is that American pragmatism is alien to Benedict—as it was to his predecessor. A man of ideas, Benedict is a Platonist in philosophy (rather than an Aristotelian). His theological lodestar is Augustine, not Thomas Aquinas. A European theologian who worked closely with Ratzinger for many years reports that although the pope speaks elegant French and Italian, he is uncomfortable in English, and goes so far as to say on occasion that it is impossible to express ideas in our language.

In his frequent meetings with American churchmen over the years, however, Ratzinger has been warm, open, and curious about our problems. Elie cites testimony to this effect by Archbishop Harry J. Flynn of Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta confirms it. Gregory has stated publicly that in his twice-yearly visits to Rome as president of the Bishops’ Conference, the meetings with Ratzinger were the easiest and most productive he experienced.

Reverend John Jay Hughes
St. Louis, Mo.

Paul Elie criticizes the pontificate of Pope Pius XII, an era when Catholicism flourished, asserting that the leadership of Pius XII was not a factor in the prosperity of the Catholic Church during that time. Writing that “much of what is best in Catholic tradition has arisen in the shadow of an essentially negative papacy,” he draws a parallel to Benedict’s papacy and his hope for positive outcomes. As someone who grew up in the 1950s, during the pontificate of Pius XII, I had firsthand knowledge of the faith and generosity of that era’s Catholics, whose strong identity was rooted in the papacy and the belief that the pope was the successor to Saint Peter and the vicar of Christ to whom was pledged respect, reverence, and obedience.

Elie fears that “the clarity of [Benedict’s] world view will turn some Catholics away.” In today’s culture, those Catholics who reject cafeteria Catholicism, moral relativism, and secularism, and who are faithful to Church teaching, will carry on the tradition of the 1950s Catholics who accomplished so much for the Church. They will not turn away, but uphold the clarity of Benedict’s world view.

Mary Butler
Quincy, Mass.

Paul Elie replies:

My article was grounded in the testimony of my sources, even when they weren’t quoted directly, and I’ll base my reply here on what I was told in Rome. Was Ratzinger troubled by John Paul’s seeming endorsement of Anglican orders during the Jubilee year? As I made clear in the article, Cardinal Avery Dulles told me he thought so, and others did so, too; Archbishop Levada, in conversation in Rome, spoke of Anglican orders—namely the ordination of openly homosexual men as the dividing issue in Anglican-Catholic dialogue. Is the new pope unschooled in the American experience? This insight was volunteered by a crucial source—one personally acquainted with both the new pope and the Catholic Church in North America—speaking after the conclave. Will American Catholics turn away from Benedict’s clarity? Many probably will, in part because his clarity (as Mr. Doerr suggests) often seems like an indifference to the struggles of ordinary Catholics on the ground. Even so, it is likely that both those who leave and those who stay (as Ms. Butler suggests) will have had their own beliefs clarified through their consideration of Benedict’s. I made this point in the conclusion of the article.

Teen Sexuality

In the middle of Caitlin Flanagan’s lengthy article (“Are You There God? It’s Me, Monica,” January/February Atlantic), she takes a swipe at Frontline’s 1999 documentary “The Lost Children of Rockdale County,” accusing it of birthing the “oral-sex hysteria” in the media and criticizing it for depicting “isolated teen depravity.” She is wrong.

In reviewing the program, Dr. Richard Blum, professor and director of the Division of General Pediatrics and Adolescent Health at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, noted, “What is so disturbing about the program is not that we are witnessing a rare event in the United States, but rather an event that is quite common.” Indeed, our producers, who interviewed more than 100 middle- and upper-middle-class kids, found that these experiences were not those of an isolated cadre of “bad kids”; minimizing the experiences of these kids by calling them “hysterical” is exactly the kind of abdication of adult responsibility that led to these behaviors in the first place. It’s a shame that Flanagan never spoke with Frontline. Had she done so, she would have learned that we have received dozens of letters from teachers and mental-health professionals who found a resonance in this story with their own experiences with teens, and have used the program in their work to address issues of teen sexuality.

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