Catholic News Service photo
Pope Benedict waves as he arrives to celebrate Mass outside the Cathedral of St. Peter the Apostle in Frascati, Italy.
Catholic News Service photo
Pope Benedict waves as he arrives to celebrate Mass outside the Cathedral of St. Peter the Apostle in Frascati, Italy.

VATICAN CITY — Every year about this time, American legal journalists review the recently ended Supreme Court term, trying to identify trends and themes that cut across the court's most important rulings.

As it happens, the court's October-through-June term coincides almost exactly with what we might call the papal year, which starts when the pope returns to the Vatican each fall and ends when he leaves for the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo (where he relocated this year July 3). Almost all of the Vatican's important business gets done in this span, making it the most relevant unit of time to use when analyzing the papacy's activity and its implications for the church as a whole.

So what can the 2011-12 papal "term" tell us about where Pope Benedict XVI is leading the church?

If there was one message that the Vatican's agenda and statements this year seemed designed to convey, it was that the world needs the Catholic Church's help to solve its most urgent social and economic problems.

In five speeches over the course of six months to U.S. bishops on their "ad limina" visits to Rome, Pope Benedict said that the health and prosperity of American society as a whole require the engagement of its Catholic citizens, in fidelity to the church's teaching on contentious matters, including marriage, abortion, euthanasia, immigration and education.

On a November visit to the West African country of Benin, the pope said that a "church reconciled within itself can become a prophetic sign of reconciliation in society," on a continent divided by often violent ethnic and religious conflicts.

Conceding no realm of human activity as beyond the church's scope, the Vatican delved into the highly technical field of international finance with a controversial October document blaming the world's economic crisis on a "liberalism that spurns rules and controls" and proposing global regulation of the financial industry and international money supply.

Pope Benedict made it clear that the church's appeals to secular society should be made not in terms of faith but in terms of the "natural moral law" accessible to all through the use of reason. He notably included prominent agnostic "seekers of the truth" alongside religious leaders at an October meeting to promote peace and justice in Assisi, Italy.

Yet the pope also insisted that the church's commitment to social justice must never be separated from a faith that transcends this world. During a trip to Mexico and Cuba in March, the pope said that the "church is not a political power, it is not a party," and told a crowd of more than 600,000 at an outdoor Mass that "human strategies will not suffice to save us" from war and injustice.

The following month, the Vatican published a "doctrinal assessment" of the U.S. Leadership Conference of Women Religious. The document, which had been expressly approved by Pope Benedict, recognized the LCWR's adherence to Catholic teaching in its promotion of social justice, but concluded that the group's neglect of the church's doctrine on a number of important moral issues, including abortion and euthanasia, reflected a crisis "characterized by a diminution of the fundamental Christological center and focus of religious consecration."

Pope Benedict also emphasized a link between the church's contributions to society and its right to freedom of religion, which he championed against varying degrees of restriction in communist Cuba, Mexico with its legacy of anti-clericalism, and the U.S., where the Obama administration seeks to make private Catholic institutions provide insurance covering sterilizations and contraception, in violation of the church's moral teaching.

As always, of course, the Vatican made some of its biggest news this year in ways that it had not planned at all.

The biggest such story was undoubtedly the so-called "VatiLeaks" affair, the publication of dozens of confidential correspondence and reports, including letters to Pope Benedict himself, and the subsequent arrest of the pope's butler on charges of "aggravated theft."

While the documents themselves fuel an image of the Vatican as plagued by infighting, Pope Benedict has said that he expects his collaborators to work together as a family.

In October, the pope removed Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, author of several leaked letters accusing specific Vatican officials of corruption and incompetence, from his job as secretary-general of the governor's office of Vatican City. In an apparent sign of esteem for the archbishop's ability and integrity, however, the pope appointed him to the key post of nuncio to the U.S.

After months of furor over the leaks, in July, Pope Benedict defended Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican secretary of state, against "unjust criticism" in the Italian media, thus showing his appreciation for his longtime lieutenant, who had served under the future pope as secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, when then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was the congregation's prefect.
The papal "term" marked another chapter in the ongoing narrative of the Vatican's relationship with the breakaway traditionalists of the Society of St. Pius X, who reject some teachings of the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council and subsequent modernizing changes to the church.

In September, the Vatican presented the traditionalists with a "doctrinal preamble" outlining certain teachings, presumably including those of Vatican II, which the breakaway group would have to accept as a condition for reconciliation. In June, the Vatican presented them with a draft document proposing that a reintegrated society would hold the canonical status of a personal prelature, in effect an international diocese under the direct authority of the pope.

As the Vatican awaited the traditionalists' final response to these overtures, in late June, Pope Benedict named U.S. Archbishop Augustine Di Noia to focus personally on the SSPX negotiations. The appointment of Archbishop Di Noia, a distinguished theologian and longtime collaborator of the pope, underscores Pope Benedict's extraordinary determination to bring a group of separated brethren back into the Catholic family.