Benedict XVI

The pope, Twitter and what comes next

As soon as Pope Benedict XVI announced he would surrender St. Peter's throne, messages stopped flowing to the 1.5 million or so readers following his newborn @Pontifex feed at Twitter. This wasn't surprising since the 85-year-old theologian -- bookish and reserved, by nature -- cited his deteriorating health and declining energy as reasons to let a new pope wrestle with a world "subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith."

Twitter certainly is a barometer for change and a forum for questions. While the pope fell silent, the hashtag #askpontifex remained open and the questions and comments continued to build up. Here are a few typical mini-rants in English.

"Latin is a dead language. Latin is the language of the Dead," thundered "MichelArchange," linking to "#pope," "#bishops," "#vatican," "#hypocrits" and "#liars," among others.

"So, if i have sex before a child molester blesses my union, hell awaits me?", asked "BS Radar."

"We all feel abandoned by your abdication," tweeted "Geeky Catholic."

"Did central Italian bank or someone else forced you to abdicate?", asked "Patlatus."

Benedict XVI and his team eventually returned to Twitter, with his first new tweet focusing on spiritual growth during the sobering season that precedes Easter and, this year, a papal election: "During the season of Lent ... we renew our commitment to the path of conversion, making more room for God in our lives."

When @Pontifex opened, on Dec. 12, Vatican officials stressed that while Benedict XVI would not be handling the technology for tweets, the content would come from him. Still, no one addressed a key issue -- whether the elderly pope would be interacting with real messages, in real time, from real Twitter users.

If he did, this blast from cyberspace must have been a shock, noted Elizabeth Scalia, a Catholic blogger known as "The Anchoress." While some might consider the thought absurd, she also wondered if the pope's exposure to online life added a digital last straw to his already heavy burdens.

"When Benedict finally logged on to Twitter he got to see firsthand the sort of raw, unhinged anti-Catholic hatred so active within social media threads," she said, in an online essay. "We who work in new media experience this hatred so regularly it barely registers with us, but for Benedict, or those around him, it must have been a shocking revelation to encounter the vilest expressions of hatred, the intentional voicings of malice and evil hopes, flung squarely at the Holy Father, in real time."

Much of this venom directed at the church, she wrote, "has been inspired (and earned) by the deplorable scandals of the past decades (for which we are due a long season of penance)." But much of the anger also stems from the church's refusal to compromise in the public square, where its ancient traditions serve as a "sign of contradiction" to modernists.

Catholics are bitterly divided, as well, as anyone can see by scanning #askpontifex for a minute or two.

"I wonder if our sensitive pope looked into the abyss of pain, screaming hatred and ignorance so easily accessed by just a few clicks of a keyboard, and felt called to humility and prayer -- a full renunciation of everything in the world, including earthly power and communion with the faithful -- in reparation, penance," Scalia observed.

The pope will soon settle into a monastic life inside the Vatican walls to read, to write and to pray. The status of the Twitter account @Pontifex -- Latin for "bridge builder" -- is unknown.

If Benedict XVI plunges into a monastic life of prayer then he will not "retire" at all, stressed Scalia. No one who has studied his life truly believes he is walking away from the papacy in order to relax in a library or play Mozart on his piano.

"During his entire priesthood, the man has not shaken off duties and burdens, but consented to carry more and more. This is who he is," she said. "Increasingly, I believe Benedict's resignation, rather than releasing himself from a heavy weight, is necessary so he may take on something much more cumbersome."

The evidence, Scalia concluded, is that he will be "doing penance for the church, and for the world -- for those of us who cannot or will not do it, ourselves."

Searching for Catholic sins

One tough challenge that Catholic shepherds face, Pope Benedict XVI said this past Lent, is that their flocks live in an age "in which the loss of the sense of sin is unfortunately becoming increasingly more widespread."

The pope has consistently described the forces at work as "pluralism," "relativism" and "secularism."

"Where God is excluded from the public forum the sense of offence against God -- the true sense of sin -- dissipates, just as when the absolute value of moral norms is relativized the categories of good or evil vanish, along with individual responsibility," he told a group of Canadian bishops, early in his papacy.

"Yet the human need to acknowledge and confront sin in fact never goes away. ... As St. John tells us: 'If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves.' "

But there's a problem at pew level. Many American Catholics who regularly attend Mass simply do not agree with their church when it comes time to say what is sinful and what is not. In fact, according to a recent survey by Ellison Research in Phoenix, if the pope wanted to find large numbers of believers who share his views on sin he should spend more time with evangelical Protestants.

For example, 100 percent of evangelicals polled said adultery is sinful, while 82 percent of the active Catholics agreed. On other issues, 96 percent of evangelicals said racism is sin, compared to 79 percent of Catholics. Sex before marriage? That's sin, said 92 percent of the evangelicals, while only 47 percent of Catholics agreed.

On one of the hottest of hot-button issues, 94 percent of evangelicals said it's sinful to have an abortion, compared with 74 percent of American Catholics. And what about homosexual acts? Among evangelicals, 93 percent called this sin, as opposed to 49 percent of the Catholics.

The Catholics turned the tables when asked if it's sinful not to attend "religious worship services on a regular basis," with 39 percent saying this is sin, compared to 33 percent of the evangelicals.

In this survey, a Catholic was defined as "someone who attends Mass at a Catholic parish at least once a month or more," said Ron Sellers, president of Ellison Research. The goal was to focus on the beliefs of active members, as opposed to ex-Catholics and "cultural Catholics" who rarely, or never, go to Mass.

The researchers also collected data on church-attending Protestants and this group -- mixing mainline Protestants and those in conservative churches -- tended to give answers that were more conservative than those from by Catholics, but more liberal than those given by evangelicals. Sellers said his team sifted evangelicals out of the larger Protestant pool by asking participants to affirm or question basic doctrinal statements, such as, "The Bible is the written word of God and is totally accurate in all that it teaches" and "Eternal salvation is possible through God's grace alone."

The split between Catholics and evangelicals jumped out of the statistics.

"It's hard to talk about what could have caused this without doing in-depth research that would let us move beyond speculation," he said. "But you can't look at these numbers without asking: Why are American evangelicals more likely to have a Catholic approach to sin than American Catholics?"

It's clear that most Americans are operating with definitions of sin that are highly personal and constantly evolving, said Sellers. These beliefs are linked to faith, morality, worship and the Bible, but are also affected by trends in media, education and politics. For example, 94 percent of political conservatives believe there is such a thing as sin, compared to 89 percent of political moderates and 77 percent of liberals.

The declining numbers on certain sins would have been even more striking if the Ellison researchers hadn't added a strategic word to its survey. The study defined "sin" as "something that is almost always considered wrong, particularly from a religious or moral perspective."

Note that linguistic cushion -- "almost."

"We had to put that 'almost' in there," said Sellers. "Most Americans do not believe in absolute truths, these days. So if you present them with a statement that contains an absolute truth, people are immediately going to start challenging you and looking for some wiggle room. ... They just can't deal with absolute statements and that messes up your survey."

Big Ben preaches human rights

It would be hard to pick a more symbolic moment to join the church than during an Easter Vigil Mass -- the high point of the ancient Christian calendar.

Thus, the pope traditionally baptizes several new Catholics during this rite in St. Peter's Basilica. This year, one of the converts was Magdi Allam, a high-profile journalist and, perhaps, Italy's most famous "moderate" Muslim.

This caused a firestorm. One Muslim scholar active in interfaith talks condemned the "Vatican's deliberate and provocative act of baptizing Allam ... in such a spectacular way." Aref Ali Nayed, director of the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center in Jordan, wrote: "It is sad that the intimate and personal act of a religious conversion is made into a triumphalist tool for scoring points."

This dramatic scene caught Vatican watchers by surprise.

When experts compare Pope Benedict XVI with his predecessor, one common observation is that Pope John Paul II was, because of his background as an actor, the master of grand gestures that soared above the usual dense papal prose. Meanwhile, the current pope -- a former professor who has written shelves of theological works -- has a reputation for being rather dry.

"If John Paul weren?t a pope, he would have been a movie star," said John L. Allen, Jr., the National Catholic Reporter's veteran Vatican correspondent and author of two books on the current pope. "If Benedict weren?t a pope, he would have been a university professor."

Nevertheless, it would "be a mistake to believe that Benedict is simply incapable of talking in pictures when he has a point he wants to make or that kind of flair for the just right dramatic gesture," said Allen, speaking at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

The question, of course, is whether Benedict will make any dramatic gestures during his upcoming visit to the Washington, D.C., and New York City. While politicos will insist on sifting his texts for any sound bites that might affect the White House race, Allen and another Vatican expert said it would be wiser to focus on Benedict's April 18 speech at the United Nations.

This is, after all, the official reason that he is coming to America. And, after that symbolic Easter baptism, the pope may choose to underline a passage in the UN's own Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

"Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion," states Article 18. "This right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private. ..."

Benedict knows that the UN is, throughout 2008, celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, said George Weigel of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, who is best known for writing "Witness to Hope," a 992-page biography of John Paul II. For the pope and Vatican diplomats, this document represents "a kind of moral constitution for the world," built on a "common moral consensus" that is under attack.

Any defense of human rights, stressed Weigel, requires the use of a "word that Benedict XVI has brought into the Vatican's inter-religious dialogue in a powerful way -- reciprocity. If there is a great mosque in Rome welcomed by the leadership of the Catholic Church, why not a church in Saudi Arabia? If we recognize the freedom of others to change their religious location as conscience dictates, that needs to be recognized by dialogue partners as well."

Or to cite another example, a Christian who converts to Islam in Italy doesn't need to hire armed bodyguards. But this isn't true for Muslims who choose to convert to another faith while living in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt and other parts of the world -- even in some corners of Europe.

The key, said Allen, is that Benedict XVI isn't trying -- here's a sound bite -- to "launch a new crusade." Instead, the pope wants to encourage more Muslims to defend religious liberty, while continuing to reject any brand of secularism that denies the existence of universal, eternal, truths.

"In that struggle," said Allen, "Benedict believes that a more moderate, reformed form of Islam ought to be Christianity?s natural ally." In the pope's worldview, the "serious religious believers in the world ought to be the ones who hold the line against the dictatorship of relativism."

A Catholic education flashback

The young pope was friendly, but blunt, as he faced the 240 college leaders from across the nation who gathered at Catholic University to hear his thoughts on faith and academic freedom.

"Every university or college is qualified by a specific mode of being," said Pope John Paul II, who was only 57 on that day in 1979. "Yours is the qualification of being Catholic, of affirming God, his revelation and the Catholic Church as the guardian and interpreter of that revelation. The term 'Catholic' will never be a mere label, either added or dropped according to the pressures of varying factors."

It is especially crucial, he said, for theologians to realize that they do not teach in isolation, but are part of a body stretching from the local pews to the Vatican. Working with their bishops, theologians are charged with preserving the "unity of the faith," said John Paul, sending a shock wave through many Catholic schools that lingers to this day.

"True theological scholarship, and by the same token theological training, cannot exist and be fruitful without seeking its inspiration and its source in the word of God as contained in Sacred Scripture and in the Sacred Tradition of the Church, as interpreted by the authentic Magisterium throughout history," said John Paul.

While embracing "true academic freedom," he stressed that the work of truly Catholic theologians must take into "account the proper function of the bishops and the rights of the faithful. ? It behooves the theologian to be free, but with the freedom that is openness to the truth and the light comes from faith and from fidelity to the Church."

It was a word of encouragement and warning. A few years later, the Vatican revoked Father Charles E. Curran's authorization to teach theology at Catholic University, after public debates about his views on birth control, abortion and homosexuality. The Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith noted that this censure was the result of his "repeated refusal to accept what the church teaches."

That public letter was signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a theology professor from Germany who, nearly two decades later, would become Pope Benedict XVI. And now, Benedict has called the leaders of more than 200 Catholic institutions of higher learning back to the Catholic University of America to hear another address about the state of Catholic education.

The pope will almost certainly use this forum next month in Washington, D.C., to discuss the further implementation of "Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church)," John Paul II's urgent 1990 call for reform in Catholic colleges and universities. It took the U.S. bishops nine years -- amid fierce protests by many academics -- to approve any guidelines seeking to enforce this Vatican document.

"To understand what all of this means, you have to look at the whole sequence of what has happened in the past few decades," said Patrick Reilly of the Cardinal Newman Society, a pro-Vatican think tank on education. When John Paul II made his 1979 visit, "Catholic University was known as a center of dissent. Now, we see Pope Benedict coming to a campus that -- from the viewpoint of Rome and the bishops -- has completely turned around. Catholic University will greet him with open arms."

Meanwhile, many Catholic campuses keep making headlines.

There was, for example, that University of Notre Dame performance of "The Vagina Monologues" and the teen pregnancy conference at the College of the Holy Cross featuring speakers from Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Rights Action League. On some campuses it's easier to find free condoms these days than it is to obtain guidance on how to become a nun or a priest.

During a recent meeting of the Congregation for Catholic Education in Rome, Pope Benedict included five clear references to current and future educational reforms in his speech -- making it clear these issues are on his mind.

"Today, the ecclesiastical disciplines, especially theology, are subjected to new questions in a world tempted on the one hand by rationalism which follows a falsely free rationality disconnected from any religious reference, and on the other, by fundamentalisms that falsify the true essence of religion with their incitement to violence and fanaticism," he said. "Schools should also question themselves on the role they must fulfill in the contemporary social context, marked by an evident educational crisis."

Was Ahmadinejad story left behind?

Imagine the following event in your mind's eye.

President George W. Bush is addressing the United Nations amid global tensions about nuclear weapons. He closes with evangelical language that expresses his yearning for the triumphant second coming of Jesus Christ and prays that this apocalyptic event will unify the world -- sooner rather than later.

Do you think the speech would cause a media storm? Do you think journalists would dissect his mysterious words, along with his theology? Would this be considered one of the year's most controversial religion-news events?

Bush, of course, never delivered an address of this kind. However, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did say the following as he ended his dramatic Sept. 20th United Nations speech.

"I emphatically declare that today's world, more than ever before, longs for just and righteous people with love for all humanity; and above all longs for the perfect righteous human being and the real savior who has been promised to all peoples and who will establish justice, peace and brotherhood on the planet," he said, referring to a Shiite doctrine about a coming apocalypse.

"O, Almighty God, all men and women are your creatures and you have ordained their guidance and salvation. Bestow upon humanity that thirsts for justice, the perfect human being promised to all by you, and make us among his followers and among those who strive for his return and his cause."

If these references to "the perfect human being" do not sound familiar, there is a reason for that. This section of his address received little media attention. Thus, it isn't surprising that the Iranian leader's end times vision was not selected as one of the top 10 stories in the Religion Newswriters Association's 2006 poll. In fact, it didn't appear in the top 20 events.

Instead, the top story selected by the religion-news specialists was the deadly violence ignited by the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad in periodicals in Denmark and a few other European nations. Boycotts led to protests and then to destruction and, in Nigeria, Muslims and Christians died in the riots.

Clearly, mainstream journalists still struggle with the complicated religious beliefs that loom behind today's headlines. Offensive cartoons in the West are a huge story. But mysterious words in the East -- even offensive words -- do not draw nearly as much ink.

So what was Iran's outspoken leader saying?

"Ahmadinejad is calling upon God to bring about the coming of the 12th Imam ? who heralds the Apocalypse," noted pundit Andrew Sullivan. "He is also saying that he will 'strive for his return.' It is the most terrifying statement any president of any nation has made to the U.N. We have a dictator on the brink of nukes, striving to accelerate the Apocalypse. ... Paradise beckons."

Meanwhile, here is the rest of the RNA top 10 list:

(2) Pope Benedict XVI angers Muslims by quoting an ancient text linking Islam and violence. He quickly apologizes and later pays a diplomatic visit to Turkey.

(3) Episcopal leaders elect a female presiding bishop who favors rites to bless same-sex unions and supported the consecration of a noncelibate gay bishop. Thus, seven Episcopal dioceses refuse to recognize the leadership of Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. Some of America's most prominent parishes vote to align with Third World bishops and the Diocese of San Joaquin becomes takes the initial steps to secede from the Episcopal Church.

(4) Ted Haggard resigns as National Association of Evangelicals president and is dismissed as pastor of the massive New Life Church in Colorado Springs after allegations of gay sex and drug use.

(5) Candidates backed by the Religious Right suffer key fall-election defeats, while Democrats take steps to reach out to churchgoers, especially Catholics.

(6) Religious voices grow louder for peace in Iraq. However, sectarian conflicts between Sunni and Shiite Muslims increase. Elsewhere, an Israeli incursion in Lebanon follows new Hezbollah attacks, touching off another round of combat.

(7) The schoolhouse shooting deaths of five Amish girls in Bart Township, Pa., draws global attention to Amish beliefs about grace and forgiveness.

(8) "The Da Vinci Code" movie calls new attention to Dan Brown's novel, which says traditional Christianity is a fraud. Churches are divided over whether to boycott or hold discussion groups. The plot argues that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and they had a child.

(8 -- tie) Same sex-marriage bans pass in seven of eight states during mid-term elections. Arizona becomes the first state to defeat a ban.

(10) Bush vetoes a bill calling for expanded stem-cell research, pleasing religious conservatives and the disappointing liberals.

The popes and evolution, part II

It would be hard to name two more radically different men than the late Pope John Paul II and New York Times columnist Frank Rich.

Nevertheless, the acerbic culture-beat scribe did his best to say something positive when biding the pope farewell. At least, said Rich, John Paul II had seen the light on the "core belief of how life began."

"Though the president of the United States believes that the jury is still out on evolution," he wrote, "John Paul in 1996 officially declared that 'fresh knowledge leads to recognition of the theory of evolution as more than just a hypothesis.' "

America's newspaper of record underlined this in its obituary, claiming that the pope believed "the human body might not have been the immediate creation of God, but was the product of evolution, which he called 'more than just a hypothesis.' "

Thus, the cultural powers were flummoxed when Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna, an editor of the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church, wrote a recent New York Times essay that included this statement: "Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense -- an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection -- is not."

Schonborn emphasized 1985 remarks by John Paul about the "evolution of all things" in which he said it is impossible to study the universe without concluding there is "a Mind which is its inventor, its creator."

John Paul II continued: "To all these indications of the existence of God the Creator, some oppose the power of chance or of the proper mechanisms of matter. To speak of chance for a universe which presents such a complex organization in its elements and such marvelous finality in its life would be equivalent to giving up the search for an explanation of the world as it appears to us. In fact, this would be equivalent to admitting effects without a cause."

In the wake of Schonborn's essay, a circle of scientists petitioned Pope Benedict XVI seeking a clarification. The letter was written by Case Western Reserve University physicist Lawrence Krauss, author of an earlier New York Times essay on the compatibility of Christian faith and Darwinian orthodoxy.

"The Catholic Church," the letter said, must not "build a new divide, long ago eradicated, between the scientific method and religious belief." It was especially crucial to reaffirm that "scientific rationality and the church's commitment to divine purpose and meaning in the universe were not incompatible."

Part of the problem is the 1996 papal address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, with its familiar quotation that "new knowledge leads us to recognize that the theory of evolution is more than a hypothesis."

The question is whether John Paul said "theory" or "theories." According to official translations, the pope said: "Rather than the theory of evolution, we should speak of several theories of evolution. On the one hand, this plurality has to do with the different explanations advanced for the mechanism of evolution, and on the other, with the various philosophies on which it is based."

The pope then rejected all theories arguing that humanity is the product of a random, unguided process of creation. Thus, he said that "theories of evolution which, because of the philosophies which inspire them, regard the spirit either as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a simple epiphenomenon of that matter, are incompatible with the truth about man."

At the time John Paul II spoke these words, the National Association of Biology Teachers had officially defined evolution as an "unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable, and natural process ... that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments." Critics said this definition veered beyond science into theological speculation. Thus, in 1997 the association's board reversed itself and removed the words "unsupervised" and "impersonal."

This is still the crucial issue today, said Michael J. Behe, author of ``Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution.'' He is a Catholic who teaches at Lehigh University.

"The problem is that people can't agree on what 'evolution' means," he said. "Common origins are not the problem. What the church has never accepted is the idea of a blind, random, meaningless process of creation. The church cannot accept that, because that would be atheism."

The popes and evolution, part I

Editor's note: The first of two columns.

Vatican watchers pay close attention to the sermons a pope preaches during the historic rites that immediately follow his election.

Yet few flinched when Pope Benedict XVI made the following comment on the origin of human life during the Mass marking the inauguration of his pontificate.

"The purpose of our lives is to reveal God to men," he said, in St. Peter's Square. "And only where God is seen does life truly begin. ... We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary."

That sounded innocent. But a direct statement about evolution later inspired howls of outrage when it appeared in the sacred pages of the New York Times. Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna, a member of the Vatican's Congregation for Catholic Education, said he was trying to stop what he believes are media attempts to plant Rome firmly in the Darwinist camp.

"The Catholic Church, while leaving to science many details about the history of life on earth, proclaims that by the light of reason the human intellect can readily and clearly discern purpose and design in the natural world," he wrote. "Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense -- an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection -- is not."

Scientists -- Catholics and non-Catholics alike -- on both sides of the Darwin wars said it was crucial that Schonborn claimed to have written his essay after consulting with Pope Benedict, at that time an influential cardinal. The new pope, he told reporters, shares his concern that many are confused about the church's stance on an "unguided," "random" approach to evolution. It was also significant that the cardinal was, in part, responding to a Times essay by Case Western Reserve University physicist Lawrence M. Krauss, who posited the compatibility of Christian faith and Darwinism.

In that May op-ed, Krauss wrote that the Roman Catholic Church "apparently has no problem with the notion of evolution as it is currently studied by biologists. ... Popes from Pius XII to John Paul II have reaffirmed that the process of evolution in no way violates the teachings of the church. Pope Benedict XVI, when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, presided over the church's International Theological Commission, which stated that 'since it has been demonstrated that all living organisms on earth are genetically related, it is virtually certain that all living organisms have descended from this first organism.' "

The problem, according to Schonborn, is that this quotation is only part of the commission's statement on philosophical questions linked to Darwinism. In particular, its statement warned that a much-quoted -- and misquoted -- 1996 letter on science by Pope John Paul II cannot be "read as a blanket approbation of all theories of evolution, including those of a neo-Darwinian provenance which explicitly deny to divine providence any truly causal role in the development of life in the universe."

The commission's verdict was especially blunt: "An unguided evolutionary process -- one that falls outside the bounds of divine providence -- simply cannot exist."

Once again, stressed Cardinal Schonborn, the crucial distinction for Catholic believers is that they are not supposed to embrace versions of Darwinism that teach that evolution was and is an impersonal and random process.

Thus, he noted, the doctrinal bottom line is stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: "We believe that God created the world according to his wisdom. It is not the product of any necessity whatever, nor of blind fate or chance."

What infuriates the church's progressive wing, according to liberal Catholic critic Andrew Sullivan, is the possibility that this public effort to argue that God guided evolution represents another initiative by traditional Catholics to join forces with cultural conservatives.

"Now we have Benedict in charge and the rush back to the Middle Ages, already seen in fundamentalist Islam and fundamentalist Protestantism, looks as if it is going to be endorsed in the Vatican," wrote Sullivan, in an online commentary. "I expected reactionary radicalism from Benedict. But this kind of stupidity? ... And so we return to the 19th century."

NEXT WEEK: What did Pope John Paul II say and when did he say it?

Anglicans meet Rome's Big Ben

Father Peter Toon is a strict traditionalist in all things liturgical, which is fitting since he leads the Society for the Preservation of the Book of Common Prayer.

Thus, the Anglican priest has little sympathy for those who want to wiggle out of translating the Latin word "Credo" -- the root for "creed" -- as "we believe" instead of the more personal and definitive "I believe."

"Of course 'Credo' means 'I believe.' ... And it's the same thing in the Greek Orthodox liturgy, because 'Pisteuo' can only mean 'I believe,' " he said.

These liturgical wars have been going on for decades and the combatants are always seeking allies at other altars. This is how Toon began corresponding with the leader of the Vatican's influential Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany -- now Pope Benedict XVI.

The cardinal agreed that it wasn't heresy to translate "Credo" as "we believe." But Ratzinger also said that this error would eventually need to be corrected in the Roman Missal, said Toon. They had a friendly series of exchanges.

Now that Ratzinger is pope, contacts of this sort have gained symbolic weight. Toon and others in the balkanized Anglican Communion have good reason to wonder if this articulate, outspoken Catholic intellectual may soon play a role in their tense debates about sex, worship and doctrine.

Progressive Episcopalians certainly remember a stunning letter that Ratzinger sent soon after the 2003 election of the openly gay Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.

Writing to a Texas conference held by the conservative American Anglican Council, he wrote: "The significance of your meeting is sensed far beyond Plano, and even in this City from which Saint Augustine of Canterbury was sent to confirm and strengthen the preaching of Christ's Gospel in England. ... In the Church of Christ there is a unity in truth and a communion of grace which transcend the borders of any nation."

The address on the envelope was even more symbolic than the text, with its familiar John Paul emphasis on truth as a source of unity, not division. What mattered most was that Ratzinger sent the letter directly to the Episcopal traditionalists, bypassing the office of U.S. Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold in New York City.

Symbolic gestures of this kind are taken seriously in marble sanctuaries. If there is anything that Anglican prelates understand it is the subtle politics of protocol.

Thus, it was significant that Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams attended the inaugural mass for Benedict XVI, becoming only the second occupant of the throne in Canterbury to witness such a rite since the Reformation. Afterwards, the former Oxford don greeted the pope in German and presented him with a pectoral cross.

Ah, yes, but journalists and photographers paid close attention to the precise details of this rite of reception.

"Symbolism is everything," opined David Virtue, a conservative Anglican whose Internet reports circle the globe. "When the new pope met with the patriarchs from the Orthodox churches there were public embraces and kisses, but when Benedict XVI met Williams there was only a handshake. ... Williams edged forward perhaps hoping for a papal embrace but it was not forthcoming."

Then the London Times reported that, behind the scenes, Vatican authorities had been corresponding with the Traditional Anglican Communion inside the Church of England, discussing the possible formation of an Anglican-rite body in communion with Rome. This network claims the loyalty of more than 400,000 Anglicans around the world and perhaps 500 parishes.

Who was the key Vatican official behind these talks? According to Archbishop John Hepworth of Australia, it was Cardinal Ratzinger.

It is easy to make too much of these contacts, said Toon. After all, Benedict XVI supports traditional Anglicans in the Third World and elsewhere on many issues, but he disagrees with some of their compromises -- such as a softened stance against divorce.

"The new pope will continue to be a gracious friend," said Toon. "But I think he will be much too busy -- for some time -- handling events in his own church to have more than a few words to say about all of these little Anglican groups and their affairs."