Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Papacy: Grounded in Truth and Holiness or Super-Stardom?

I found two articles on MSN yesterday that assert very different viewpoints about Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the United States. The first article, "Why This Pope Doesn't Connect," was written by Lisa Miller, a senior editor at Newsweek. She claims that "American Catholics want...to feel something, a catharsis, a connection to their tradition, a sense that their leaders see and hear how difficult it can be to be a Catholic in this imperfect and chaotic world." Miller admits that her statement is a generalization, but is a catharsis, a release of emotional tension, really what American Catholics are really looking for? Since the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church in America has experienced major confusion. For many clergy and laity, implementing the changes in the Second Vatican Council meant sloughing off what made them "feel" constrained and guilty in liturgy, theological doctrine, and moral action. Miller supports this point by providing the following statistics:

  • 58% of American Catholics believe you can be a "good" Catholic and disregard the Church's teachings on abortion

  • 65% believe you can ignore its position on divorce and remarriage

  • 75% believe you can disregard the ban on birth control

    • Those numbers alone do little to prove the need for a release of emotional tensions, which would characterize such a catharsis. I believe those numbers show that Catholic Americans have distanced themselves from their tradition. Our consumer/utilitarian culture, moral relativism and a lack of catechesis are at least partially to blame for the current crisis of disconnect in America. It is essential for American Catholics to connect with their tradition, as Miller asserts. However, connecting to the tradition of the Catholic Church is more than attending papal ceremonies and experiencing warm fuzzies at the sight of the current pontiff. American Catholics will connect with their Catholic tradition when they make the effort to connect to the teachings of Christ and his Church that remain largely unchanged, even since the Second Vatican Council. They will connect when they practice the tradition of faith handed down by the Apostles. They will connect to the Church upon a conversion of heart, mind, and action; the very thing Pope Benedict longs for and prays for for his entire flock.

      The second article, "How Benedict XVI Will Make History", was written by George Weigel, a Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Catholic theologian, and author of John Paul II biography, A Witness to Hope. He purports a different viewpoint on the same man, the same office. Weigel gives an interesting history of America's relationship with popes, beginning with the first Catholic diocese, Baltimore, erected in 1789. "That many Catholics feel a deep personal connection to the pope is another relatively new, and in some respects surprising, phenomenon." In 1963, for the first time, there was a "bond of personal affection" between a pope and the American people when Blessed John XXIII fought and died of stomach cancer. After him, Pope Paul VI was riddled with controversies over worhip, sexual moraltiy and church governance, and John Paul I died after just 33 days in office. Enter John Paul II. For the next 26 years, the world saw and heard the pope as he had never been seen and heard before. He was a gifted speaker, writer, preacher, and friend to all. He became "John Paul Superstar!" His funeral was even touted as "the human event of a generation."

      Needless to say, Pope Benedict XVI follows a tall order. He has not attracted as much media attention, and he is not the public speaker John Paul II was. He requires one "to look closer and deeper to discern the imprint of the shoes of this fisherman."

      Most interesting to me is the juxtaposition between the viewpoints of Miller and Weigel on the most controversial episode of Benedict's Pontificate: his Regensburg lecture on faith and reason at his German alma mater in 2006. Quoting a Byzantine emporer's sharp critique of Islam brought Benedict worldwide criticism, and Miller cites that criticism as a reason for Pope Benedict's defenders to "explain away his impolitic comments." In contrast, Weigel sees that episode as creating a windfall of dialogue and signficant interactions between the Catholic Church and Islam. After the Regensburg lecture, some "significant personalites of Islam took the pope's point about the dangers of faith detached from reason quite seriously." Since the lecture, Benedict received two open letters from Muslim leaders that have resulted in a Catholic-Muslim Forum that will meet twice yearly in Rome and in Amman, Jordan. Benedict has also had influence on Sunni Islam via his relationship with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. The two recently began negotiations to build the first Catholic Church in Saudi Arabia.

      But what does all of this matter to Catholics in America? By forging unprecedented bonds with the Catholic Church and the Arab world, the pope is not just acting on the Church's interests in Arab countries. He is setting the stage for a cooperative effort with "a reformed Islam...[that] could be an ally in the struggle against 'the dictatorship of relativism'...an Islam recognizing religious freedom and affirming the separation of religious and political authority would be good for Muslims who want to live in peace with their neighbors and good for the rest of the world. The stakes couldn't be higher." In a country where we can't even bring water through an airport security check, these steps towards a more peaceful, tolerant society for Christians, Muslims, and all peoples are a welcomed endeavor.

      In some Roman circles it is said, "People came to see John Paul II; they come to hear Benedict XVI." Weigel suggests this contrast is too sharp, but it is true that John Paul II was a prolific writer, philosopher and theologian, and some of his more complicated works could make any scholar shake in their boots. However, Weigel asserts that "Joseph Ratzinger is one of the most learned men in the world; he is also a master teacher who can unpack complex Christian doctrines in an accessible way." Benedict's first two encyclicals regarding love and hope, Deus Caritas Est and Spe Salvi, are perfect examples of a teacher who specifically set out to speak to a world beset by fear while reminding it of the Christian message of hope, love, and salvation.

      Though Miller cites a few clergy and professionals who don't appear to take the pope's visit very seriously, there is at least one American who does: President Bush. In fact, the president met the Benedict's plane at Andrews Air Force base. He said this unprecedented greeting was due to the particular significance of the pope. In an interview with EWTN, the president said, "One, he speaks for millions. Two, he doesn't come as a politician; he comes as a man of faith; and Three, I so subscribe to his notion that there’s right and wrong in life, that moral relativism undermines the capacity to have hopeful and free societies. I want to honor his convictions, as well.”

      Regardless of whether Benedict has "done little" to appeal to American Catholics by Miller's estimation, he is still, by virtue of his office and as evidenced by his tireless commitment to the Truth, the "Servant of the Servants of God." (Gregory the Great) I think the last few lines of Weigel's article speak the impact of Pope Benedict on the world and the United States:

      "Popes matter in ways that challenge our conventional thinking about the way the world works. Popes no longer claim the power to bring penitent princes to their knees in the snow...the modern papcy deploys a greater power, the power to propose, persuade, religiously and morally. Popes matter by changing lives and changing history."

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