...if you're like me, you see the cover of this week's NYTimes Mag and you just cringe:
Oh, no..not another hack job like the Kramer piece in the New Yorker...please..
But you know what?
It's not horrible. There are a few big holes in it, reflective of both blind spots and an not-surprisingly shallow Rolodex pool, but I'd say it's as good a long-form treatment of Benedict as we've seen in the mainstream secular media.
The focus of the piece is obvious from the title: Europe and modernity in general. I'm not going to summarize it for you, but I'll just point out a couple of refreshing notes and some omissions:
Credit is given where credit is due. "God's Rottweiller" is trotted out and given some credence, but not overplayed, and Benedict's intellect, generosity of spirit and (in particular contrast to the Kramer piece) true open-mindedness and interest in intellectual dialogue is noted.
Benedict's popularity is noted, but only in terms of crowds at the General Audiences. As we've pointed out before, it's odd that when trying to figure out how "popular" Benedict is, no one gives book publishers a call. 220,000 copies of Sacramentum Caritatis sold in Italy in the first week after its release. Copies of Deus Caritas Est sold quite well. 5 weeks before its release in the US, The Pope's book on Jesus is #230 on Amazon.
I was quite cheered to see that the author, Russell Shorto, gave attention to the New Movements - he describes a few seemingly dead parishes in Europe (although I'm sure one could randomly find many busy parishes as well - the parish Benedict visited in Rome a few weeks ago has six masses every Sunday, and it didn't look like a small church. ), and accurately highlights the role both John Paul II and Benedict seem to hope New Movements will have in revitalizing Catholic life in places where parish life might seem to be weakened. The movements that are highlighted are San 'Egidio and Focolare, but (and here we move on to the weaknesses of the piece) of course, the movement with which Benedict is most personally connected, Communion and Liberation , isn't mentioned.
Could be better:
As is so often the case, this piece falls short in connecting some crucial dots. Much is made of Benedict's concern about secularism and relativism and how he (it is claimed) believes that the solution is a "hard line" on Catholic doctrine, yadda, yadda, with the final point being..well, you know the poor fellow does just doesn't seem to get it - that people are, you know, turned off by this 'dogma" and "doctrine" so that's just not the way to go.
The writer of the piece acknowledges that Benedict''s audience numbers are greater than John Paul's, "despite" his "professorial" style. Well, let's parse that. The implication is that those coming are interested in what Benedict has to say...you know, all that "dogma" and "hardline" stuff he's peddling.
Which leads us to the huge gap in this piece, a point that is very hard for secular writers, it seems, to grasp. Let's focus it by noting that it's generally acknowledged that the most important document a pope produces is a thing called an "encyclical." Benedict has written one so far. The piece doesn't mention it.
What we get is the now-expected routine about Benedict being a pastor now and maybe even going kind of soft and stuff:
But when Ratzinger became Benedict, “God’s Rottweiler,” as he was sometimes known, grew far tamer; he has instead played the roles of pastor and father. With some notable exceptions (he issued a reminder last month that “hell, of which so little is said in our time, exists and is eternal”), the emphasis has been less on railing against the Catholic evils of abortion and birth control than on occupying the safe high ground: peace in Iraq, religious freedom, confronting poverty. One reason may be that while Benedict is the same person as the Cardinal Ratzinger who served as John Paul II’s enforcer, “he is also the same person as the young theologian who helped craft some of the progressive measures of the 1960s” during the Second Vatican Council, the Rev. Keith Pecklers, a professor of liturgical history at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, told me recently. “Perhaps he’s rediscovering some of that freedom.”
Last month, the pope stood on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica and exhorted the thousands gathered below for his Saturday greeting that they must pray every day, telling them that prayer is “a question of life or death.” It was Benedict speaking, not Ratzinger. As pope, he has focused attention on such matters as the need for Catholics to reconnect with the Virgin Mary, the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the importance of the liturgy in the Mass — all touchstones of Roman Catholic piety.
But the church is more than piety. It is undergirded by a network of rules, obedience requirements, punishments and admonitions of which Ratzinger is perhaps the chief modern architect and by a system of protecting its own that is centuries old.
*Now, what that last paragraph leads into is a discussion of the sexual abuse crisis, but the broader point is that in this very long article which contains a great deal of interesting material, as per usual, the theological agenda of Benedict's papacy is ignored or dismissed as "piety" or the "safe high ground."
On this night of Easter, the night when we hear:
This is the night,
when the pillar of fire destroyed the darkness of sin.
This is the night,
when Christians ev'rywhere,
washed clean of sin and freed from all defilement,
are restored to grace and grow together in holiness.
This is the night,
when Jesus broke the chains of death
and rose triumphant from the grave.
What good would life have been to us,
had Christ not come as our Redeemer?
...it should be clear that speaking of Jesus is not a pietistic sideline. That a person of real faith does not, cannot slice and dice his vision of life into sections.
It should be clear to anyone that speaking of Jesus and faith in Him is the Pope's main job, that this Pope's career as a theologian has been centered on Christ and the truth and shape of Christianity in the world, and that if he has this other concern with secularism and the future of Europe, perhaps it is not, in truth a concern that is actually "other" and perhaps all of these things are connected.
Perhaps we would seriously consider that Benedict is concerned with a Europe losing its faith because he believes that Jesus Christ saves, he believes that human beings, created by God, find their natural and supernatural happiness and joy in God, and that all of this Church stuff is true, profoundly and decisively expressive of the Truth that is Jesus Christ, and that Creation - which includes us - finds its fulfillment and destiny in that Truth.
The gap Shorto describes in his piece between the spiritual yearnings of modern people and their views of and attachment to religious institutions is obviously real. But Shorto, taking his page from the modernity playbook, assumes that the two are inherently in opposition, that Benedict, in those times when he does his ChurchTalk, is saying the wrong things and missing the point and (I suppose) should be vague and uncommitted.
What he misses is that Benedict is very well aware of the gap himself and while he is obviously willing to speak of that gap on the level of cultural and social analysis, what concerns him the most is the theological. The gap exists because modern people are not meeting Jesus Christ. And they are not meeting him, for whatever reason - either because of their own blindness or the failures of the Church itself- in the Church, or what they see as Church. What Benedict seems to be trying to do, on one level, is reknit this piece, to do that slow, patient work of holding Jesus up to us, explaining who Jesus is, witnessing in various ways to his own faith in and love for Christ, and then pointing just a little further so we can see where Jesus is - in His Church, and at the same time, turning back around to those in the Church, ordained, professed and lay, and calling us to refocus our own eyes on Christ and witness to the truth of his love and mercy in all we do in the world, in our families, in our service to the poor, in our catechesis, and our liturgy.
This piece was far better than others, but secular journalists are just going to keep missing the boat until they can stop making the lazy choice of falling back on the "reinforcing Catholic rules and identity" meme (and truthfully - I defy you to scour the works of Benedict - or Ratzinger, for that matter - and find, in his theological and pastoral writing a call to "OBEY THE RULES AND BE A GOOD CATHOLIC!) and actually find the time to read what Benedict is saying about Jesus Christ - which is quite a bit - and doing some hard thinking about how all of this - from Creation to Redemption in Jesus to the Church to the state of the modern human person - is all connected in what Benedict is saying and doing.
What good would life have been to us,
had Christ not come as our Redeemer?
These words of the Psalm, read as a dialogue between the Risen Christ and ourselves, also explain what takes place at Baptism. Baptism is more than a bath, a purification. It is more than becoming part of a community. It is a new birth. A new beginning in life. The passage of the Letter to the Romans which we have just read says, in words filled with mystery, that in Baptism we have been “grafted” onto Christ by likeness to his death. In Baptism we give ourselves over to Christ – he takes us unto himself, so that we no longer live for ourselves, but through him, with him and in him; so that we live with him and thus for others. In Baptism we surrender ourselves, we place our lives in his hands, and so we can say with Saint Paul, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” If we offer ourselves in this way, if we accept, as it were, the death of our very selves, this means that the frontier between death and life is no longer absolute. On either side of death we are with Christ and so, from that moment forward, death is no longer a real boundary. Paul tells us this very clearly in his Letter to the Philippians: “For me to live is Christ. To be with him (by dying) is gain. Yet if I remain in this life, I can still labour fruitfully. And so I am hard pressed between these two things. To depart – by being executed – and to be with Christ; that is far better. But to remain in this life is more necessary on your account” (cf. 1:21ff.). On both sides of the frontier of death, Paul is with Christ – there is no longer a real difference. Yes, it is true: “Behind and before you besiege me, your hand ever laid upon me” (Ps 138 : 5). To the Romans Paul wrote: “No one … lives to himself and no one dies to himself… Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Rom 14:7ff.).
Dear candidates for Baptism, this is what is new about Baptism: our life now belongs to Christ, and no longer to ourselves. As a result we are never alone, even in death, but are always with the One who lives for ever. In Baptism, in the company of Christ, we have already made that cosmic journey to the very abyss of death. At his side and, indeed, drawn up in his love, we are freed from fear. He enfolds us and carries us wherever we may go – he who is Life itself.
Truly Christ puts the lost sheep upon his shoulders and carries it home. Clinging to his Body we have life, and in communion with his Body we reach the very heart of God. Only thus is death conquered, we are set free and our life is hope.
This is the joy of the Easter Vigil: we are free. In the resurrection of Jesus, love has been shown to be stronger than death, stronger than evil. Love made Christ descend, and love is also the power by which he ascends. The power by which he brings us with him. In union with his love, borne aloft on the wings of love, as persons of love, let us descend with him into the world’s darkness, knowing that in this way we will also rise up with him. On this night, then, let us pray: Lord, show us that love is stronger than hatred, that love is stronger than death. Descend into the darkness and the abyss of our modern age, and take by the hand those who await you. Bring them to the light! In my own dark nights, be with me to bring me forth! Help me, help all of us, to descend with you into the darkness of all those people who are still waiting for you, who out of the depths cry unto you! Help us to bring them your light! Help us to say the “yes” of love, the love that makes us descend with you and, in so doing, also to rise with you. Amen!