AS THE ONE-YEAR anniversary of the election of Pope Benedict XVI approaches, most commentary has focused on his lack of charismatic snap, crackle and pop in comparison with his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, and on the surprisingly positive and moderate tone of the first year.
Yet a little-noticed papal act last month offered another important clue to understanding this new leader of the largest and most complex religious organization on Earth: Benedict's decision to drop the traditional papal title "patriarch of the West."
In many ways, the Vatican retains the trappings of a royal court, which means there's a whole series of lofty-sounding titles attached to the pope: "successor of Peter," for instance, because the pope is considered to stand in the place of St. Peter as Christ's designated leader of the church. The pope is also known as the "prince of apostles." Not to mention "bishop of Rome," "servant of the servants of God" (a title added by Pope Paul VI in the 1960s to stress humility) and so on.
Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, "patriarch of the West" was also on the list. But without any fanfare, Benedict in early March crossed it off. Only a month later, in response to repeated inquiries, did the Vatican offer an official explanation.
Behind the decision is a fairly arcane debate among "ecclesiologists" about whether the term "patriarch" is the proper way to describe the pope's authority over what has usually been called the "Latin Church," meaning Western Christianity, as opposed to the ancient Churches of the East in places such as Russia, Egypt, Syria and India.
Basically, the pope has always had a much more direct authority over the West -- originally meaning those churches close to Rome in Italy and Western Europe, later expanded to include North America and wherever European missionaries planted their brand of Christianity. The ancient churches of the East never came under direct papal control.
For Eastern Christians, the pope is more like a wise old uncle, a sort of ultimate moral authority, rather than a father who makes the rules. Orthodox Christians have long insisted that clear limits to papal authority is condition No. 1 for any talk of reunification with Roman Catholicism in efforts to heal the split between East and West that occurred, according to convention, in 1054.
The tighter, more jurisdictional relationship of the pope with the Latin Church was what was supposed to be meant by "patriarch of the West." Yet the word "patriarch" is not a Western term. It comes out of the tradition of the Eastern churches, where the head of the church in Constantinople, or Moscow, or Athens is known as a "patriarch."
Some Western theologians have long complained that describing the pope as patriarch of the West thus puts him on the same level as those other figures, making it more difficult to see how he could claim real authority over the entire Christian church, East and West alike, which is the traditional Catholic dogma about the papal office.
Benedict's decision to drop the title -- and the way he did it -- thus illustrates an important key to unlocking his mind: On matters of faith and morals, he will brook no compromise; but on everything else, including a wide range of judgment calls that don't have clear answers in the catechism of the Catholic Church, he will be a surprisingly moderate and reconciling figure. He dropped the "patriarch" title because it could create ambiguity about the authority of the papacy, which Benedict believes comes from Christ and must be defended.
Yet in presenting the decision, he didn't wrap himself in the papal flag with the Keys of Peter, thundering at the Orthodox about the need to return to obedience. Instead, he explained that renouncing the title signifies "no new claim to papal authority" and that, in fact, the title had been a bit of a pretense by popes since it didn't come out of their Latin tradition and ought to be left to the Orthodox churches. In that sense, he said, the renunciation was actually a sign of respect "that could be helpful for ecumenical dialogue."
In other words, Benedict is shaping up as a "have your cake and eat it too" sort of figure, a pope who will insist on a strong defense of Catholic identity, but coupled with a sincere desire for outreach. His conviction is that only someone with a clear sense of self can open a meaningful dialogue with another.
Benedict seems willing to draw lines in the sand when the situation calls for it, but he is a listening, moderate and pastoral figure in every other sense.
That combination will make for some head-scratching, as reaction to the "patriarch of the West" decision illustrates, but it will also mean a papacy of drama and surprise.