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Originally published July 20, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 20, 2007 at 9:48 AM

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Guest columnist

The pope shows his fangs

Pope benedict XVI wrote a truly beautiful papal encyclical on Christmas Day 2005, titled "God is Love. " In that letter, the pope bathed...

Special to The Times

Pope Benedict XVI wrote a truly beautiful papal encyclical on Christmas Day 2005, titled "God is Love." In that letter, the pope bathed the world in sweetness and light, making Catholic thought a beacon of goodness and hope.

The man once nicknamed "God's Rottweiler" showed signs of leaving behind his old job (essentially, a doctrinal policeman of sorts) and embracing his new job: gentle pastor for the world.

Sadly, though, the fangs are back, and probably to stay.

Earlier this month, the pope reached into his dusty old files (repeating much of a document he released seven years ago as a cardinal) to repeat to the world that there's only one true path to salvation: the Catholic Church.

You know, the one true faith. The one true church. The church with no "defect," "wound," or any of the other words Benedict used to express Catholic centrality and primacy over and against Protestant and Orthodox Christian denominations.

It was something the folks at Trent (the 16th-century Catholic council) could have embraced. But now? In the 21st century? On the heels of the sex-abuse crisis? In an environment where ecumenical fellowship is needed more than ever?

At a time in human history when inclusion and unity are needed more than ever, this pope — for all his literary credentials and artistic gifts — has chosen to divide the human family.

I don't think the pontiff sees things that way, but that's precisely the problem: When you're a pastor for the world, you need to first listen to what the world is saying, feeling and longing for. Sure, popes aren't supposed to tell people what they want to hear. But, popes and all people in positions of pastoral religious leadership need to be intimately connected to the pains of the people they're trying to nourish.

Benedict, simply stated, is speaking like a man who hasn't met a lot of people since he took over the barque of Peter (the church) more than two years ago. It's as though he made his mind up long ago about the things he wanted to say during his papacy. And, if people are offended, excluded or shut out, too bad.

Purification of the faith (read: reduction in numbers to include only the perfectly obedient) seems to be Joseph Ratzinger's only goal right now.

That might be good for him, but it's not good for Catholics across the world, especially in places like Seattle, where the ex-Catholic population rivals the Catholic population, and where secularism seems to be breathed in more deeply than religious devotion.

Being Catholic has given affirmation to the deepest parts of my being; anyone who has tasted Catholicism at its best can relate to what I'm saying.

Because of this, I stay awake at night wondering how more people can experience this same significant taste of life.

But statements such as the ones recently made by Pope Benedict make it harder for me and other Catholics to muster up the courage to say, once again, "Look at the faith, not the institutional church."

When the pope makes divisive statements that nevertheless tie into longstanding elements of Catholic ecclesiology, the task of separating the institution from the faith becomes that much more complicated. The Vatican's document — that other communities are not true churches because they lack apostolic succession — likely prompted either a dismissive chuckle or an outraged yell; in other words, anything but the serious thought and contemplation Benedict is hoping for.

There is much beauty in Catholicism. Benedict — in trying to reveal that beauty — is serving only to put ugliness before the world's eyes. For that, I am deeply sorry, and completely heartbroken.

Matt Zemek is a Catholic parishioner from Seattle and author of "Liberalism the Right Way." E-mail:

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