At the same time, the pope’s letter reminds Catholic progressives that Catholicism did not begin at Vatican II, or even begin anew at Vatican II. The Council’s documents have to be read in the light of 2,000 years of Christian tradition, not read against that tradition. The Church began with the Paschal Mystery of Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection, which Christians will celebrate one month from now on Good Friday and Easter; the Church did not begin on December 7, 1965, when Paul VI promulgated the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.”
The papal letter also includes a powerful plea to Catholics to re-focus on the real issues of the day: “In our days, when in vast areas of the world the faith is in danger of dying out like a flame which no longer has fuel, the overriding priority [for everyone in the Church] is to make God present in this world and to show men and women the way to God. Not just any god, but the God who spoke on Sinai . . . that God whose face we recognize . . . in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. The real problem at this moment of our history is that God is disappearing from the human horizon, and with the dimming of the light which comes from God, humanity is losing its bearings, with increasingly evident destructive effects.” Thus the pope puts into the proper context the problems posed by both the Lefebvrist schism and the psychological schism in which some Catholic progressives live — both forms of schism impede the evangelical mission of the Church at a moment when that mission has acquired a new urgency.
It remains to be seen whether Benedict XVI will now take in hand a reform of the personnel and practices of the Roman Curia, which is essential if the evangelical brilliance of this pontificate is to fulfill its great potential. For the moment, however, the Rottweiler Brigade has been put in its place; a major flaw in the Roman bureaucracy has been fixed; the Church has been reminded of the dynamic relationship between tradition and development in Catholic self-understanding; Catholics living in both formal and informal schism have been told, politely but firmly, that they are impeding the Church’s mission; the psychological path has been cleared for a successful papal pilgrimage to the Holy Land in May; and, as Jews approach Passover and Christians approach Easter, both have been reminded that their inevitable entanglement is of the will of God, as St. Paul tried to explain to the Romans two millennia ago. That’s accomplishment enough for one letter. – George Weigel is distinguished senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.