In the wake of Pope Benedict XVI’s stunning announcement that he’ll retire at the end of the month, a useful starting place for discussion is the phrase from Exodus 21:24: “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”
To modern readers, the biblical quote may seem cruel and rigid, but the Old Testament sentiment actually reflected revolutionary flexibility and progress in Western religion.
Ancient warfare involved unrestrained killing and pillaging. By contrast, this Hebrew law codified proportionality and restraint, rejecting annihilation. Likewise, the Roman Catholic Church historically represents humanitarian progress. Historically, the church has been a force for restraint in war, reflecting the proportionality cited in Exodus.
The essential Christian message emphasizes compassion, and the church over centuries has played a vital role in relief of hunger, poverty and other human misery. The cumulative positive impact has been profound -- among and well beyond the approximately 1 billion Catholics on the planet.
Today, hunger and poverty are gone for the majority of people in industrialized nations, and lifestyle and personal preferences have emerged as sources of major political controversies.
Reflecting enormous weight of tradition, the church maintains an essentially medieval structure and outlook, drastically at odds with popular contemporary culture. Vatican opposition to gay marriage and abortion has generated sustained, often acrimonious, public debate.
Benedict, who has led the church since April 2005, is both admired and condemned because he has pursued a strictly traditional interpretation of Catholic precepts. His rigid adherence to conservative Catholicism, along with a sometimes-clumsy public style, has fueled controversy.
Last April, he harshly criticized American nuns seeking greater equality within the church. His attack was unfair and politically unwise
During Benedict’s eight years in office, he has lived in the shadow of his charismatic, personable mentor and predecessor, Pope John Paul II. John Paul provided dramatic leadership in foreign policy. He supported Solidarity, the successful trade-union-based reform movement in his native Poland, which in turn contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union.