Gerald Fogarty, a Jesuit priest and the William R. Kenan Jr. professor of religious studies and history at the University of Virginia, says Pope Benedict XVI is a member of the “old school” that “looks at Europe as a Christian continent.” For example, when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the new pontiff spoke out against the admission of Turkey to the European Union because it is predominantly Muslim. Still, Fogarty says, he expects the Pope to follow in the footsteps of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, and continue to reach out to other faiths.
Fogarty was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor of cfr.org, on April 20, 2005.
Do you expect Benedict XVI to follow the path of his predecessor, John Paul II, and travel the world, trying to win hearts with his charisma?
I would expect him to do some traveling. He certainly does not have the same charismatic presence as John Paul II, but I would expect him to continue his diplomatic endeavors. He may do it more by sending people out, rather than going himself. For one thing, he’s 78 years old.
Which diplomatic endeavors?
Under John Paul II, diplomatic work increased two-fold. The Vatican has relations with some 170 nations now, and there were only 80-some nations that had diplomatic relations with the Vatican when John Paul II was elected in 1978.
From the viewpoint of the United States, there are advantages and disadvantages. [During the hostage crisis in] Iran, the bodies [of U.S. servicemen killed in a failed April 1980 rescue attempt] were gotten out, if you recall, through the Swiss and the Vatican representative to Iran. Even today, there is a Vatican nuncio [ambassador] to Iran- and Iraq, too, by the way. So the means of communication the United States can use could be though the Vatican, because the Vatican maintains diplomatic contacts even with nations with which the United States doesn’t have diplomatic relations.
What about the Vatican’s relations with other religions?
People will point to Ratzinger’s  letter on Dominus Jesus [a 2000 doctrinal statement approved by John Paul II on Jesus’ role in salvation]. It did not really cut down respect for other religions [as has been claimed by some], but what it does do is remind theologians, especially those dealing with non-Christian religions in ecumenical dialogues, that Jesus is the one road to salvation. That doesn’t mean everybody has to be a Christian, but, nevertheless, there was a trend starting to develop which he called the “despotism of relativism.” I know what he’s driving at, to deal with a view that “one religion is as good as another.” He believes that a Christian or Catholic theologian, when in dialogue, still has to see Christ as the unique way to salvation. But that does not mean people have to be Christian in order to be saved, and that was a distinction that was missed by critics. In fact, I’ve seen that letter interpreted [to mean] you have to be a Catholic in order to be saved. Some of his stances have been misunderstood.
His job as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith made him a guardian of doctrine. But in his new job, he has a much broader mandate.
Yes, that’s true. Before, his job was to ensure orthodoxy. But there is a dispute over the particular theological methods that one uses. For example, a fellow German, Cardinal [Walter] Casper, disagreed violently with Ratzinger’s position that the church evolved from the universal church down to the local church. Casper was arguing the universal church emerges from the local churches.
A story in the New York Times quotes a number of leaders of major Jewish organizations who are very enthusiastic about Ratzinger.
When the question is raised, “Is Pope Benedict XVI going to be open toward non-Christians, as well as [relations] between Christians,” I would fully expect him to continue that.
Pope John Paul II made a big effort to get aid and support to people in the third world. Do you expect the new pope to continue this?
I think he has to. While the Church in Europe is declining, the Church in Latin America is being siphoned off by evangelical [denominations]; [worshippers are] leaving the Catholic Church. In Europe, they’re leaving Christianity altogether.
What about relations with the Muslim world?
I don’t know exactly where [Pope Benedict] would go with that, because we have the controversy over his opposition to Turkey’s membership in the European Union, because Turkey is predominately Muslim. That did not go over well in Turkey. [The Pope] is better traveled than most of us, but nevertheless, he’s not well traveled in terms of understanding the Muslim world, and I would say that that is paramount today to understanding the Palestinian question and to understanding Israel. This is a crucial issue, and it gets into diplomacy as well, in trying to mediate [diplomatic disputes].
Exactly where [Benedict XVI] stands on Islam, I don’t know. I don’t think anybody [has a clear sense of his views], except for the statement he made about Turkey. I can understand, in a way, where he’s coming from; he is still old school, and looks at Europe as a Christian continent.
That’s the view of many in Europe.
Yes, and there is an increasing Muslim population in Europe. Europeans, in general, still think of Europe as being culturally Christian, not that anybody necessarily believes it. There was a report that the weekly mass attendance in France was 12 percent. I don’t think it’s anywhere near that; it’s much lower.
How important are relations between the Vatican and the United States?
Diplomatic relations were established under John Paul II, only 21 years ago in January 1984. [President] Reagan thought it would be one way of muzzling the [U.S. Catholic] bishops after their pastoral letter in 1983 on the challenge of peace. Nevertheless, John Paul II had problems with what he thought was the materialism of the United States, and he never really warmed up to the United States. A lot of his views were shaped from his visits to the United States as a Polish cardinal; he visited Polish parishes and got complaints from Polish pastors about their treatment by the Irish hierarchy [of the U.S. church].
But the Pope was very popular in the United States during his visits here. He drew huge crowds.
Yes, but that was true in a lot of places [he visited]. When [commentators] talk about his appeal to youth, I say we have to wait and see what his appeal really was, because a lot of youth are going to go out to see anybody who’s famous. But are they listening to the message? There’s a difference between the singer and the song. They like the singer, but do they like the song?
What do you think Benedict’s priorities will be?
I think his priorities are going to be orthodoxy, according to his own theological view. I do not expect there to be a change; there’s still going to be a centralized papacy. He is talking about collegiality, but I don’t think he quite goes along with it. I think there’s not going to be any discussion of things like women’s ordination, but that would have been the case no matter who was elected Pope.
Or married priests?
Those are two separate things. Unmarried clergy- that’s simply a discipline in the Latin rite alone; the other rites of the Catholic Church have a married clergy. But whether he changes that or not- it could be changed by fiat- there’s no doctrine involved. On women’s ordination, a number of theologians maintain that there is doctrine involved. There’s the fact of the long-standing tradition against it, and also, by the way, the fact that the Eastern Orthodox Church simply would not tolerate it. And it’s rather important that we [the Catholic Church] keep up contact and relations with the Orthodox Church. The big one, the holdout, is the Russian Orthodox [Church]. It remains to be seen whether Ratzinger can pull that off. John Paul II could not; he never managed to get a meeting with [Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch] Alexis II.
Some Catholics were disappointed when he was elected. Why is that?
Because he symbolized very much the one side of the ideological split within the Church internationally, and certainly in the United States. He symbolizes the conservative reaction, and I stress the difference between doctrine and theology. He seemed to represent a particular school of theology that was quite closed to development, dialogue, and so forth. That’s why I think there was a massive groan among some people when his name was announced.
Did you groan?
Yep. I am a teacher, but also a priest. When I preach on Sundays, when I get attacked, it’s from the left and the right, simultaneously. I’m in the extreme center.