April 23, 2008

Pope Benedict's revenge

I am convinced that the question of justice constitutes the essential argument, or in any case the strongest argument, in favour of faith in eternal life.

Pope Benedict XVI meets with a first responder after praying and lighting a candle at Ground Zero in New York, 20 Apr 2008So wrote Pope Benedict XVI in his Encyclical Letter Spe Salvi (Saved by Hope). Well, as Vaticanist Luigi Accattoli noted on his blog (in Italian) the day after the Encyclical was issued, it is always striking a pope who says “I am convinced.”

My first thought was: how can such a disarmingly gentle, kind and sensitive man be perceived as “just” a chilly intellectual, the fierce intendant, if not the aggressive guardian of Catholic orthodoxy, a kind of cross between Torquemada and Dr Strangelove? And sometimes—by Muslim extremists as well as by many within the ultra-secularist European establishment itself—as a sort of instigator of religious hatred!

But three years after his elevation to the papacy, thanks his most visible excursion into the limelight since then, namely the first papal trip to America, that perception of him has turned out to be false or, as Gerald Baker noted in last Friday’s Times, “as far from the reality as it is possible to be.” “What was missing—he writes—was an understanding of Benedict’s remarkable capacity to use words to speak to the emotional part of the human brain.” Yet,

[s]hortly before he became Pope, Benedict told a congregation: “Christianity is not an intellectual system, a collection of dogmas, or a moralism. Christianity is instead an encounter, a love story, an event.”

This idea of faith as a love story — God’s love for his people, and our love for Christ, the human face of God — is what Benedict seems to want us to understand as the defining theme of his papacy. His first encyclical was not on birth control or gay marriage, but on what many considered the somewhat surprising subject of the simple divinity of human love, including the sanctity of erotic love. This emphasis on the centrality of love to the human condition is so at odds with the caricature of the doctrinal vigilante, endlessly lecturing on the perils of sexual intemperance, that it requires us to think hard about the very nature of religion’s role in modern life. It is a useful counterweight to the popular secular view that religion is the root of all human discord.

Three years ago, as John Paul II was laid to rest under St Peter’s, his extraordinary and epoch-changing ministry at an end, a reporter turned to one of his colleagues and said, with evident feeling: “There goes one heck of a story.” But the story, as it happens, lives on, Benedict has opened a new chapter and if people would only listen they might find it has a surprising ending.

For a full account of the papal journey to the U.S. check the following links (to Sandro Magister’s website):

> The Pope's First Day in the U.S. - Against Sexual Abuse, and for America as a "Model of Positive Secularism"

> The Pope's Second Day in the U.S. – Benedict XVI Lays Down the Guidelines for the Bishops

> The Pope to U.N.: "The human person is the high-point of God's creative design for the world and for history"

> The Pope's Third Day in the U.S. - With Catholic Educators, Other Religions, Jews

> The Pope's Fourth Day in the U.S. – Benedict XVI Explains Why Christians Are So Divided

> The Pope's Fifth Day in the United States. - The Homily in the Heart of Manhattan, and the Meeting with Young People

> The Pope's Sixth Day in the U.S. - The Prayer at Ground Zero, and the Last Homily "in this land of freedom"