Habemus papam! Now, what does that mean?
Within moments of the announcement Tuesday, the media was already trying to “frame” the situation, labeling the new pope, Pope Benedict XVI, as “controversial,” “conservative”–as if they think he is afraid of modernity and progress. Even some Catholics have gotten this idea in their head: a theologian at the University of Notre Dame, the Rev. Richard P. McBrien, was quoted in Tuesday morning’s Washington Post, as dismissing Cardinal Ratzinger, “I think this homily shows he realizes he’s not going to be elected. He’s too much of a polarizing figure. If he were elected, thousands upon thousands of Catholics in Europe and the United States would roll their eyes and retreat to the margins of the church.”
Thank goodness for Catholic theologians, eh? (With all due apologies to my father, Catholic theologian Michael Novak.)
Perhaps McBrien ought to understand the Church must stand for something–or it will fall for anything. And what is the point in believing in something that does not seem to believe in anything? Perhaps McBrien ought to try reading some of Pope Benedict XVI’s writings, or listening to his arguments.
For example, when then-Cardinal Ratzinger said in May 2004: “The Council, in fact, wished to show that Christianity is not against reason, against modernity, but that on the contrary it is a help so that reason in its totality can work not only on technical questions, but also on human, moral and religious knowledge.”
That doesn’t sound exactly controversial, anti-modern, or, for that matter, polarizing. Or maybe it is this thought that McBrien finds polarizing (from October 2001): “The Church will continue to propose the great universal human values. Because, if law no longer has common moral foundations, it collapses insofar as it is law. From this point of view, the Church has a universal responsibility.”
The truth is, this new pastor of the flock is a gentle, but fiercely intelligent man. He has thought deeply about many of the pressing issues facing the citizens of the world–as well as the Catholic Church itself. He is indeed conservative, in the sense that he believes strongly that there are absolutes, rights and wrongs, and that the Church must make a stand on these. It has long struck me as laughable that somehow it is controversial to believe that the Church should continue to stand for such things as life (from the beginning to the end). What is more controversial? To embrace and hold on to long-held principles? Or to discard them like used tissue?
Long before Monday’s homily, Cardinal Ratzinger propounded about the dangers of relativism, of not believing that not only there is truth, but also that one can seek to understand it. As he noted in 2002, “I would say that today relativism predominates. It seems that whoever is not a relativist is someone who is intolerant. To think that one can understand the essential truth is already seen as something intolerant.” He has also pointed out this fundamental truth about Christianity itself: “Christianity is not “our” work; it is a Revelation; it is a message that has been consigned to us, and we have no right to reconstruct it as we like or choose.” In other words, if to be “progressive” or “modern” is to reconstruct Christianity as we like or choose, than that is abandoning Christianity.
This is not a wholly unpopular message. Interestingly enough, it is in those parishes that are “conservative” and those vocations that are “conservative” and those countries where the faith is still “conservative,” where the data shows that the Catholic numbers are growing. So it is clear that holding dear to Catholic Church principles is not controversial–it is in fact, expansive. So while this may leave the Church, in some communities, “on the margin of society” (as the cardinal put it), in many it does not–far from it.
That is not to say this is not–and will not be under Pope Benedict XVI–a vibrant, living, and breathing Church. The pope may understand that there are essential truths or principles that the Church must uphold–but he is also at heart a scholar and a pastor. He understands that faith is much like science–you cannot simply ignore those truths that are “inconvenient” to your thesis, and every day you must constantly seek truth.
Perhaps most important, though, is the pope’s understanding of the human condition itself. He knows–and has experienced himself–of the suffering and pain of life. But he has learned it’s redemptive value. As he so eloquently put it, “Anyone who really wanted to get rid of suffering would have to get rid of love before anything else, because there can be no love without suffering, because it always demands an element of self-sacrifice, because, given temperamental differences and the drama of situations, it will always bring with it renunciation and pain.”
This is not a man not of this world. This is a man who is firmly aware of its conflicts and despairs–and of its peace and joy. He is, indeed, the perfect “beast of burden” (his coat of arms reflects a bear to represent this sense as a beast of burden for the Church) for the Church to depend upon at this time in history. It seems the Holy Spirit was indeed at work over the last couple of days.
–Jana Novak is currently working on a book on George Washington and his religion. She is the co-author of Tell Me Why: A Father Answers His Daughter’s Questions About God and a part-time dogwalker who lives on Capitol Hill.