Pope's slips muddle message

The Associated PressMarch 27, 2009 

— From the Gospel to Google, the church has been seeking ways to announce the word of Christ for 2,000 years.

Pope Benedict XVI has gone on YouTube, and his speeches appear in Chinese on the Vatican Web site, but judging from the uproar over a Holocaust-denying bishop and his pronouncement that condoms deepen the AIDS crisis, he's clearly struggling with his message.

During Benedict's nearly four-year papacy, criticism has been pouring in from Muslims, Jews and members of his own flock as the German pontiff seems to step into controversy at every turn. The attacks by European governments this past week over condom use are unprecedented.

The controversy could weigh on cardinals in the future when they choose Benedict's successor, perhaps leading them to look for a younger man more attuned to a wired world.

His predecessor, Pope John Paul II, shared the title of "Great Communicator" with former President Ronald Reagan and managed to steer clear of controversy, even though he held many of Benedict's conservative positions. John Paul mingled with reporters aboard his plane, walking the aisles and answering questions spontaneously.

"He was inquisitive to know what public opinion thought about him," said Marco Politi, a biographer of John Paul. From time to time he would call his spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, and ask, "'What do they think about me?'" Politi said.

Trip will be a test

Benedict's communications ability will be tested when he visits the Holy Land for the first time in May. On Thursday, the Vatican announced the full schedule for the May 8-15 trip to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Among the potential pitfalls is the figure of the World War II pope, Pius XII. Some historians say Pius did not do everything in his power to stop the Holocaust, but the Vatican defends his actions and is considering him for possible beatification.

Top church officials have rallied to Benedict's side. Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, head of the Italian Bishops Conference, said the criticism "has gone beyond good sense."

While opposition to condoms is a long-standing church position, the Vatican felt constrained to step in and say Benedict wanted to stress that a reliance on condoms distracted from the need for proper education in sexual conduct.

The first controversy of Benedict's papacy came in 2006. Then, the pope's remarks on Islam and holy war angered much of the Muslim world, leading him to backtrack and declare he was "deeply sorry." He continues to say that true religion must distance itself from violence but no longer points a finger at any faith.

The Rev. Thomas Reese, a Vatican expert at the Woodstock Theological Center in Washington, says Benedict deserves praise for admitting mistakes, apologizing and explaining.

But he also says that as a church leader and a world leader, the pope has to communicate in an understandable and persuasive way. "Benedict does not understand how to communicate in the 21st century," Reese said.

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