Good news from the Vatican

Monday, January 30, 2006

The new pope’s first encyclical is very encouraging indeed. The special Roman Catholic gift for issuing sophisiticated statements about fundamental Christian doctrines in clear, strong language addressed to the contemporary situation has always impressed me.

It is surely significant that Benedict XVI has chosen to writa about the centrality of the man-woman covenant in the plan and purpose of God. In this time of turmoil, not only in the RC church as a result of the pedophile scandals, but also in society at a time when traditional marriage is in trouble everywhere, it is striking that he has emphasized the way in which long-term marriages train us for turning away from the self to the spouse, and then to the next generations, in love which begins in eros but becomes more than eros.

Here’s a good article about the encyclical. Note especially the paragraph in bold type.

Benedict: A Man of His Words
By Ian Risher
New York Times, January 29, 2006

The old pope was dead. And a potential new one, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a man who somehow combined scholarly humility and a muscular certainty, gave a speech now famous among many Catholics.

“We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires,” Cardinal Ratzinger said at St. Peter’s Basilica, the morning last April before he and his fellow cardinals retreated into the majesty of the Sistine Chapel to decide who among them would become the leader of the world’s billion Catholics.
It was, for one priest who knows Cardinal Ratzinger, a “hold your hats” moment — not a campaign speech, but a warning, expressed typically vividly, that, should they choose him, the church would be in for an action-packed ride.

He did become pope, Benedict XVI. But to general surprise, the nine months that have followed have been marked less by action than by words — a flow of clear, rational, often lovely words — no less vivid than his “dictatorship of relativism” speech but usually more gentle.

At the moment, Benedict seems more, in the words of one Vatican watcher, “the teaching pope.” Call him, maybe, the “lucid pope.”

This perhaps unexpected turn was summed up last week in his first encyclical, the highest form of papal pronouncement. He set out no specific program for his papacy to re-evangelize an increasingly godless Europe, for example, or to denounce homosexuality, abortion or secularism.

He spoke, instead, of love.

And not just love in the abstract, but in the first place of carnal love, between man and woman — if they are married, monogamous and committed to each other for life.

“While the biblical narrative does not speak of punishment, the idea is certainly present that man is somehow incomplete, driven by nature to seek in another the part that can make him whole, the idea that only in communion with the opposite sex can he become ‘complete,’ ” Benedict wrote. (This led the conservative Italian newspaper, Il Foglio, to run a front page scribble of what looked like the pope dancing with a nun over the caption: “The encyclical: Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll!”)
For the many keen watchers of Benedict, a number of questions are surfacing: Are words enough in a papacy? Do the words themselves constitute a plan? Is it simply still too early to judge the reign of Benedict?

After his election, supporters spoke of Benedict’s “clarity,” expressed in decades of writings as a popular theology professor in Germany, then for two decades as Pope John Paul II’s defender of the faith. His writing style, as many people have noted, is remarkably clear and down to earth, especially for a German academic handling the most complicated, really unknowable, subjects on earth.

Some of his most often cited words tend toward the harsh: for example, his worries about “filth” in the church expressed last year. But more than one middle-aged priest in Rome can remember as a student reading Joseph Ratzinger’s best-regarded book, “Introduction to Christianity,” and marveling at his comparison between the problems faced by believer and the atheist.

“Just as the believer knows himself to be constantly threatened by unbelief, which he must experience as a constant temptation, so for the unbeliever, faith remains a temptation and a threat to his apparently permanently closed world,” he wrote. “In short, there is no escape from the dilemma of being a [hu]man.”

In comparison with John Paul, often referred to here in Rome as sort of mystic, Benedict is unfailingly rational, realistic and clear-eyed about the problems in the church. Last summer, he said that for many people in the world “the church seems to be outdated, our proposals unnecessary.”

There are a number of theories about the strategy behind Benedict’s so far low-key focus on the word.

The Rev. Thomas J. Euteneuer, president of Human Life International, a leading voice against abortion, noted that some conservatives in the church would prefer more action, especially in the internal governance. But, he said, Benedict seems to have decided first to state clearly the overall value of the church and its teachings in terms that most Catholics can agree on.

“He has to put in front of people’s eyes something positive,” he said. “Following from that he can systematically dismantle the cultures of death, cultural decadence and moral relativism.”

For John L. Allen Jr., a reporter for National Catholic Reporter, the words fit into Benedict’s familiar concerns that the church may shrink, since it is less these days a faith of culture and tradition than a choice of a smaller number of more fervent believers.

It is those people, Mr. Allen said, who will seek out those words, as opposed to simply being inspired by something like John Paul’s broader charismatic appeal.
There is another theory: that Benedict has decided on a papacy that falls, in fact, less into the world-event-shaping office of John Paul than on a more traditional one where the pope’s is one of many voices in the church.

“Quite deliberately, Benedict has said, ‘I am not going to say as much,’ ” said Nicholas Lash, an eminent British Catholic theologian. “There has been a delicious silence for the most part.”

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