“Let us go forward.” These were nearly the first words of the new Pope, spoken with great hope and confidence. But what lies ahead for this successor to St. Peter and vicar of Christ?
Pope Benedict XVI assumes the office with one of the most impressive backgrounds of any pope in history, even including Pius XII and John Paul II. He was one of the great theologians of the twentieth century, a dedicated archbishop and cardinal, and for more than twenty years the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which safeguards the purity of Catholic teaching. He fulfilled these varied duties with exemplary skill, charity, and dedication to the truth. As pope, Benedict brings a wealth of experience and a treasury of wisdom to the overwhelming duty of shepherding more than a billion souls and charting a course for a world increasingly in need of moral and spiritual direction.
Much energy has been spent by the secular press in analyzing the problems facing Pope Benedict XVI. Most, sadly, have concentrated on the rather provincial concerns that reflect the views of editors and writers for magazines and “progressive” organizations urging “meaningful change” in the Church (i.e., the ordination of women, an end to clerical celibacy, and the toleration—or even endorsement—of homosexual acts, contraception, abortion, and euthanasia). Lost in the hyperbole have been the words of Benedict as to where he thinks his priorities rest in light of the Holy Spirit’s remarkable decision to guide the college of cardinals in its election of him as pontiff.
What follows is a brief glimpse at the issues that then-Cardinal Ratzinger and now Pope Benedict XVI has stressed over the last years. Five seem to have the greatest priority: the collapse of Christian culture in the West and the spread of the culture of death, the new challenges of ecumenism and interreligious dialogue, the crisis of fidelity to Church teachings among Catholics, liturgical reform, and the call to the young.
The list could include other issues, such the ongoing problems faced by the Church in the third world and the need for progress in the development of the ecclesial movements, such as Focolare and Communion and Liberation. These are genuinely important matters, but Pope Benedict’s previous writings suggest that they will not be his first priorities.
Collapse of the West
The cardinals entering the conclave that elected Ratzinger spoke repeatedly of the need for the next pontiff to confront the greatest spiritual crisis of the modern age: relativism and the collapse of a Christian identity in Europe and even in the United States. Then-Cardinal Ratzinger went so far as to say in 1996:
Relativism has thus become the central problem for the faith at the present time. No doubt it is not presented only with its.aspects of resignation before the immensity of the truth. It is also presented as a position defined positively by the concepts of tolerance and knowledge through dialogue and freedom, concepts that would be limited if the existence of one valid truth for all were affirmed.
He reiterated the seriousness of this problem in his now famous homily delivered on the very morning of the conclave, on April 18, 2005. His homily was a superb analysis of the corrosive effects of relativism: We must be “adults in the faith” and not “children in a state of guardianship, tossed about by the waves and carried here and there by every wind of doctrine.” This demand is all the more urgent, because the times are plunging forward into “a dictatorship of relativism that recognizes nothing as definitive and leaves as the ultimate standard one’s own personality and desires.”
What are the practical effects of relativism? The relentless destruction of objective morality; the spread of abortion, homosexual acts, and euthanasia; de-Christianization in the name of diversity; and silencing of those who try to follow the truth by labeling them intolerant or extreme fundamentalists. Relativism is at work in the Church as well, in the push to make the ecclesiastical governance more “democratic” or loosen Church teachings to conform to the current sexual trends instead of adhering to the unchanging truths of the Catholic faith.
Such positions are toxic not only for the human soul but for human society as a whole, because they destroy universal norms of conduct. As Ratzinger wrote: “If we cannot have common values, common truths, sufficient communication on the essentials of human life—how to live, how to respond to the great challenges of human life—then true society becomes impossible.”
Benedict does not simply bemoan the state of affairs in the world; he offers a concrete solution: embracing the complete standard of living offered by Jesus Christ, “the criterion for discerning between the true and the false, between deception and truth.” He also asks that we have the courage to proclaim the truth, to stand up to a culture that dismisses the proclamation of the gospel as religious fundamentalism. The model for this activity is the Church in the first centuries, when there were few Christians in a largely pagan world. The small numbers of Christians were joyous in proclaiming Christ, challenging the culture of their time, and living with a sense of universal mission. Catholics in the modern world have the same mission as our brothers and sisters nearly two thousand years ago, “to make present the real answer to the demand of a life that corresponds to the Creator.”
In a world that is shrinking because of communications, swift transportation, and a global economy, Christianity has come into direct contact with the world’s religions. Sometimes that meeting leads to dialogue; sometimes it leads to strife and even bloodshed. And then there is the ongoing need to reach out to our separated brethren in the hope of achieving Christian unity.
As pope, Benedict has pledged himself to the continuation of John Paul II’s longstanding program of outreach and dialogue, but he does so—like John Paul—with a clear awareness of the genuine Catholic position regarding salvation outside of the Church and the opportunities and risks that dialogue brings.
In speaking of ecumenical dialogue, Benedict declared:
Following in the footsteps of my predecessors, in particular Paul VI and John Paul II, I feel intensely the need to affirm again the irreversible commitment assumed by Vatican Council II to journey on the “path toward the full communion desired by Jesus for his disciples.”
The task is complicated by the movement of some Protestant denominations away from the Catholic positions regarding the ordination of women, toleration of homosexuality and abortion, and (in the case of the Episcopalians in the United States) the consecration of a practicing homosexual to be a bishop in their communion. Nevertheless, Pope Benedict is committed to the quest for unity, and he has received a warm response. As Dr. Rowan Williams, the Anglican archbishop of Canterbury said after Benedict’s installation homily on April 24, the events of Pope John Paul’s death and the election of his successor:
have shown a kind of foretaste of a worldwide fellowship of people gathered for worship in a way that has somehow gone around the difficulties of doctrinal definition. It is as if we have been given a glimpse of other levels of unity, and my own feeling is that is the level at which he will seek to work.
Even more complicated are relations with the Orthodox churches, in particular the many lingering issues of theology and history. Benedict has pledged a continuation of ecumenical dialogue, and there are signs of a thaw in the works. The Orthodox are as concerned as the pontiff over the pressing problems of relativism and de-Christianization that are spreading across Europe, and it is distinctly possible that the Pope will have fruitful meetings with the Orthodox and perhaps one day will even journey to Moscow, an unfulfilled dream of John Paul.
In the dialogue with other religions, Benedict is acutely attentive to three main relationships: with Islam, with Judaism, and with the ancient religions of Asia, most notably Buddhism and Hinduism. Benedict sees the need to differentiate between moderate Muslims and Islamist extremists who have killed Christians and missionaries, promoted international terrorism, and even plotted to murder John Paul II. Much progress was made under John Paul II in dialogue with Islam, and Benedict renewed the Church’s promise “for the growth of dialogue between Muslims and Christians, both at the local and international level.”
Likewise, the Pope received a cordial welcome from most Jewish communities after his election, despite the overblown and minor controversy that erupted in the days after his election regarding his enforced membership in the Hitler Youth and his brief mandatory service in the German army at the end of World War II. The record of the new Pope in the area of dialogue with Judaism is a strong one, including his involvement with the notable documents Memory and Reconciliation, which expressed regret for the actions of some of the Church’s members toward Jews over the centuries, and The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible, a report prepared by the Pontifical Biblical Commission that encouraged dialogue with the Jewish people through the “inexhaustible riches” of our shared sacred texts.
With regard to the religions of Asia, Benedict will confront the pressures in India and elsewhere for Catholics to compromise the faith in order to deal with other religions. Again, the danger is of relativism. Ratzinger spoke in 1996 of this danger when he warned that Catholic theology in India might be tempted to “set aside the image of Christ from its exclusive position—which is considered typically Western—in order to place it on the same level as the Indian saving myths.”
Going to the heart of authentic interreligious dialogue, then, Benedict has given assurance that there will be no abandonment of authentic Church teachings in the name of progress in ecumenical or interreligious dialogue. As he said in 2002:
Christ is totally different from all the founders of other religions, and he cannot be reduced to a Buddha, a Socrates or a Confucius. He is really the bridge between heaven and earth, the light of truth who has appeared to us. The gift of knowing Jesus does not mean that there are no important fragments of truth in other religions. In the light of Christ, we can establish a fruitful dialogue with a point of reference in which we can see how all these fragments of truth contribute to greater depth in our faith and to an authentic spiritual community of humanity.
Nor will he abandon the fundamental task of evangelization. He used his first visit as pope to the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls “to express the inseparable bond of the Church of Rome with the Apostle to the Gentiles,” by which he meant that, just like Paul, every Christian should share in the zeal of the great apostle for proclamation of Christ. Pope Benedict added that “the Church is by her nature missionary; her primary task is evangelization. . . . At the beginning of the third millennium, she feels with renewed force that Christ’s missionary mandate is more important than ever.”
Crisis of Fidelity
The problems of dissent from the magisterium and the failure of so many Catholics to adhere to Church teachings in their daily lives are urgent ones for the new Pope. The list is a familiar one: the call from some for the ordination of women and an end to priestly celibacy; the ongoing dissent over contraception, abortion, homosexual acts, and divorce; and a host of bioethical issues such as embryonic stem cell research. Benedict blames relativist tendencies for many of these issues and for the wider crisis of faith among some of the faithful. He said in 1996:
The abandonment of the faith by many is based on the fact that it seems to them that the faith should be decided by some requests, which would be like a kind of party program: Whoever has power decides what must be part of the faith. Therefore, it is important within the Church itself to arrive at power or, on the contrary—which is more logical and obvious—to not believe.
The solution he consistently proposes is ongoing catechesis of the faithful and fidelity to the renewal of the Church called for by Vatican II. On the ordination of women, for example, Ratzinger was actively engaged in explaining the Church’s inability to ordain women to the priesthood.
The new Pope has been equally forceful in his condemnation of the culture of death. As his predecessor did, he sees these matters as intimately connected to the dignity of the human person:
Where man is no longer seen as one who is under the particular protection of God, there begins the barbarism that tramples on humanity. Where the sense of the singular dignity of each person, in the light of God’s design, is lost, there the project of mankind is horribly deformed, and his freedom, devoid of rule, becomes monstrous.
As for the seemingly ceaseless controversies stirred up by media-assisted dissenters, Ratzinger in 2002 noted the tendency to be “too concerned with ourselves, with structural questions, with celibacy, the ordination of women, pastoral councils, the rights of these councils [and] of synods.” Instead, the focus must be on helping a world that is desperate for answers and does not know how to live. “This,” he argued, “is a fundamental point: We must make the gospel accessible to today’s secularized world.”
Tied to wider renewal in the Church is the call for genuine liturgical renewal, and Pope Benedict has devoted many decades of his life to that effort. He was a great supporter of the liturgical renewal that was intended by Vatican II, but since the first days after the Council, he has been an outspoken adherent of a “reform of the reform” to bring liturgical renewal into full compliance and fidelity with the Council. As he was quoted in 1984 in L’Osservatore Romano:
Expected was a new enthusiasm, and many wound up discouraged and bored. Expected was a great step forward, and instead we find ourselves faced with a progressive process of decadence that had developed for the most part precisely under the sign of a calling back to the Council and has therefore contributed to discrediting it for many.
For Benedict, then, the liturgy and the life of prayer are essential. As he said in an interview given to EWTN in 2003:
The liturgy is living catechesis. . . . You can see the sacrifice of Christ is here and the Triune God is in contact with us and we with him, and so on. Liturgy is very important. And so also is to deepen the prayer in the Church. I think the way to learn God is prayer. And a school of prayer is very essential, I think. With a concrete relation of prayer, we learn about God, and we learn the Church.
Youth: The Church’s Future
Benedict also inherits the happy legacy of John Paul II in connecting so profoundly with the youth of the world. In speaking to the cardinals the day after his election, the new pontiff noted that the Church left behind by John Paul II “is more courageous, freer, younger: a Church that, according to his teaching and example, looks with serenity to the past and is not afraid of the future.”
Indeed, there are millions of young people who call themselves “the John Paul II generation,” and the future of the Church rests in the hands of those young people, guided by the Holy Spirit. The problems they face are enormous, for they are growing in the faith at a time when the world seems determined to rob them of the truth. Benedict called out to all of them when he said on the morning after his election: “I am particularly thinking of young people. With you, dear young people, I will continue to maintain a dialogue, listening to your expectations in an attempt to help you meet ever more profoundly the living, ever young, Christ.”
Benedict, like his beloved predecessor, looks to the future with remarkable confidence. He envisions a new springtime for the Church—in Europe, in the United States, and across a planet grappling with the great trial of modernity. His confidence, though, is not misplaced, for it rests in the Holy Spirit. Benedict could thus declare on the day of his installation:
During those sad days of the Pope’s illness and death, it became wonderfully evident to us that the Church is alive. And the Church is young. She holds within herself the future of the world and therefore shows each of us the way toward the future. The Church is alive, and we are seeing it: We are experiencing the joy that the risen Lord promised his followers. The Church is alive—she is alive because Christ is alive, because he is truly risen.