The Pope and the Lama

Nothing better represents the difference between the pontificate of John Paul II and Benedict XVI than the recent announcement (or non-announcement) that the Pope would not be having a formal meeting with the Dalai Lama during his visit to Italy.

Meeting with the Dalai Lama would be an immediate reminder of John Paul II’s legacy of inter-religious dialog. While the late former pontiff on several occasions spoke out against the growing Western fascination with Buddhism, he seemed simultaneously to believe that in the modern world, the religious- whatever their specific affiliation- had more to gain through alliance and dialog with one another than to lose. In particular, John Paul II saw that the values of religious faith- of compassion, service, and selflessness- presented the only coherent challenge to the materialism that drove the communist and capitalist movements of the 20th Century. John Paul II saw the Catholic church expanding beyond its traditional boundaries, both culturally and geographically.

That expansion necessitated accommodation and compromise- never simple tasks for an organization that believes it preserves the single source of religious truth in the world. Benedict XVI represents a swing back towards conservatism and tradition, and this is reflected by the choice that he has made regarding balancing two attractive but mutually exclusive goals. On the one hand, speaking publicly with the Dalai Lama sends a message about religious unity in the face of materialist challenges, something that Benedict seems to feel as strongly as his predecessor. On the other hand, official contact with the exiled Tibetan leader risks damaging relations with China, where the Church is struggling to come to accommodation with a government wary of the assertion of its traditional authority.

The deciding factor, in this case, is the appointment two months ago of a new bishop of Beijing, this time with cooperative approval from both the PRC and the Catholic Church. Beijing has offered the RCC the opportunity to gain ground regarding one of its core powers and responsibilities: the appointment of ministers to guide Catholics in the various diocese around the world. Given the choice between making gains in the execution of a traditional Catholic role and furthering the cause of a new one, it’s not surprising that Pope Benedict chose to appease China rather than send a more over message regarding Catholic modernization and religious dialog.

So while the Vatican has announced that and informal meeting with the Dalai Lama might be possible, I doubt that we can expect any more public courting of the Dalai Lama by Rome. Pope Benedict is staking out his ground and his legacy, and it seems likely to be quite different from that left by his predecessor.

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