HONG KONG — Is the pope Catholic! This, of course, is a fabled American rhetorical expression, usually used sarcastically and meaning, how could you be so stupid as to doubt something?

“Would you like another beer?” is often cited as the kind of question that would elicit the above response.

But I would like to ask the question — is the pope catholic? — with a small “c” (from the Greek katholikos) meaning “universal.” Evidence is growing that Pope Benedict XVI is forgetting his catholic mission and is becoming dangerously isolated in his Vatican palace looking at the outside world through a narrow Roman keyhole.

It is appropriate to raise the issue as Christians last Wednesday began the season of Lent, 40 days of prayer and fasting in preparation for the suffering and death of Jesus Christ, followed by Easter when Christians believe that the crucified Christ rose from the dead.

The pope made international headlines when he decided to lift the excommunication of four bishops belonging to the ultratraditionalist Society of St Pius X. Puzzlement over “why” turned to international outrage when one of the four, the Briton Richard Williamson, questioned whether the Holocaust (Shoah) — the mass gassing and slaughter of 6 million Jews in Nazi Germany — really happened.

After Bishop Williamson’s claims, some Jews accused the pope of being a closet Nazi. German Chancellor Angela Merkel joined the fray. Either her timing was bad or she was trying to make political capital, because the pope had already upbraided the bishop. It is utter nonsense to regard the pope as a some kind of closet Nazi. He has condemned the Holocaust in forthright terms several times.

Yet the pope seems careless about the controversies he causes. He stirred another when he announced that Monsignor Gerhard Maria Wagner would become auxiliary bishop of Linz, Austria. Monsignor Wagner had infamously declared that the damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans (2005) was “God’s punishment” for a sexually permissive society. He also condemned the Harry Potter books for “spreading Satanism.” The domestic storm was such that he withdrew his name.

But the real charges against the pope are graver: It is not merely that he is taking the church in a more rightwing direction but that he is denying its catholicity.

There are more than a billion Roman Catholics worldwide, perhaps 1.5 billion if baptized but not practicing members are included, but the pope is concentrating his thoughts and energies on the old faithful heartland of Europe, where about 200 million Catholics live.

The double tragedy is that the pope is trying to create a kind of dreamland that never existed in the holy state in which he imagines it and he is neglecting both the billion Catholics outside Europe and the commands of Jesus Christ.

Yes, I can sympathize with the pope. The old rituals — though going back only a few centuries — of high Mass with richly clad priests, sweet choir singing glorious Mozart, Latin incantations to God swept upward by wafting incense, conveyed a great sense of the sacred, certainly more than some of the modern clap-hands- Jesus-loves-us forms of worship. The old certainties of faith in an unchanging world were also reassuring. But the good old days, even where they existed, too often masked their own evils of priestly dictatorship and repression of women.

They were also the days when the church enjoyed a dominating central role that no one — neither modern governments nor their populations — will allow again. Does Benedict himself wish for a Catholic theocracy?

Even so, it is hard to understand why he made overtures to the ultra- traditionalists. Unlike the Prodigal Son, they did not ask to be allowed back, let alone beg forgiveness. They are still deemed as undermining the Vatican II reforms, which they see as a modern evil.

Apologists say the pope wishes to purify the church and is prepared to see a slimmed down version of true believers. If so, he is going against the instruction of Jesus Christ, who demanded that his disciples go out “and teach all nations.” As pope, his job is to look after the entire flock, the weak, the suffering and the lost, as well as those few who are his intellectual equals or share his certainties of faith.

The tragedy for the pope and for the Catholic Church is that while the smiling John Paul II was pope, outgoing and welcoming the entire world, he had Cardinal Ratzinger as his doctrinal enforcer and adviser to warn him of going too far. But Benedict XVI has no one as his foil. And no one dares to challenge his undoubtedly mighty intellect. He eats alone. He reads his books. His travels have been to safe Catholic countries, not to Asia, not to Africa.

Benedict XVI, sadly, seems to lack human empathy. He has lived all his life amid the certainty of books and dogma, so that he is unable to understand the plight of ordinary people who have to find jobs, support their families in difficult economic times and make tough choices.

A mutual acquaintance of two European cardinals tells of their visits to Latin America. One went to Brazil, where his formative experience was seeing a weeping father walking from his railway track shanty carrying a battered shoe box containing his dead child. The other, Josef Ratzinger, went to Argentina and spent his time in bookshops where he lamented the surfeit of self-help psychology books and the lack of devotional volumes by St. John of the Cross and other mystics.

What does it matter? Anyone who is a Catholic must mourn the loss of a catholic mission. Even many non-Christians must wish for an alternative moral voice that asserts the primacy of a philosophy of love and peace over greed and self-seeking, warmongering, financial manipulation, going GDP gang-busters without concern for others or the health of this fragile planet. It would be good if the pope can devote his Lent to meditating on this.

Kevin Rafferty was editor of The Universe, then the world’s biggest-selling Catholic newspaper.

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