As the Conclave begins

The world is watching Rome and the Roman Catholic Church, only as it does it the big moments. The attention that was riveted instantly on the papacy when Pope Benedict XVI announced his retirement has only intensified over the subsequent weeks. Now it’s in overdrive, as the College of Cardinals enters the Conclave to elect a new pope.

Here are a few things among many worth looking at right now, as the drama really heightens.

The first two cover the larger picture more deeply, and did so from the week of Pope Benedict’s announcement. They take the longer view and with great perspective.

Stephen White of the Ethics and Public Policy Center wrote this good article for the Huffington Post.

Our culture’s complicated relationship with organized religion is closely tied to our culture’s complicated relationship with truth. We love our truth, all right, but we treat truth a lot like religion — it’s fine, so long as everyone else keeps their truth to themselves. Tolerance — which our culture values over all other virtues — consists in not imposing your truth on someone else.

The problem with this well-meaning attempt at tolerance is that it is unsustainable. It’s self-cannibalizing. If there is only your truth and my truth, but no Truth, then there is no common ground upon which to meet one another. Either I’m right, or you are, and since there’s no middle ground, the matter is only ever settled when one side wins and the other side loses. A world without truth isn’t a world liberated from conflict; it’s a world without the possibility of reconciliation.

Pope Benedict’s episcopal motto Cooperatores veritatis — “co-operators of the truth” — suggests a very different understanding of reality; one in which both faith and reason owe allegiance to the same reality, that is, to truth. And truth, at least as the Catholic Church understands it, is best demonstrated, not by carefully reasoned arguments (though those are important) and certainly not by violence, but by self-giving love. There is nothing more compelling, nothing more true, than sacrificial love.

(The central truth of Christian faith — God became man in Jesus Christ, through whose suffering and death we are redeemed — can be summed up like this: God got tired of telling us how to do it, so He decided to come down here and show us.)

It also suggests that Pope Benedict XVI understands a pope’s role in the Church as one of leadership, but primarily of service. Among the pope’s many titles — Vicar of Christ, Successor of the Prince of Apostles — is this, The Servant of the Servants of God. He is only a custodian, a shepherd of Someone Else’s flock. The papacy, in other words, was not given him for his sake, but for the sake of the Church’s mission.

These words of Pope Benedict will undoubtedly be foremost in the minds of the 117 Cardinals who will choose his successor: “[I]n today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the barque of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary.”

The Church exists to proclaim the Gospel: That and nothing else is the “relevance” of the Church in the world.

EPPC’s George Weigel, renowned papal biographer and expert Vatican analyst, wrote this commentary that same week for this momentous occasion.

The challenges facing the successor of Pope Benedict XVI come into sharper focus when we widen the historical lens through which we view this papal transition. Benedict XVI will be the last pope to have participated in the Second Vatican Council, the most important Catholic event since the 16th century. An ecclesiastical era is ending. What was its character, and to what future has Benedict XVI led Catholicism?…

Evangelical Catholicism — or what John Paul II and Benedict XVI dubbed the “New Evangelization” — is the new form of the Catholic Church being born today. The church is now being challenged to understand that it doesn’t just have a mission, as if “mission” were one of a dozen things the church does. The churchisa mission. At the center of that mission is the proclamation of the Gospel and the offer of friendship with Jesus Christ. Everyone and everything in the church must be measured by mission-effectiveness. And at the forefront of that mission — which now takes place in increasingly hostile cultural circumstances — is the pope, who embodies the Catholic proposal to the world in a unique way.

So at this hinge moment, when the door is closing on the Counter-Reformation church in which every Catholic over 50 was raised, and as the door opens to the evangelical Catholicism of the future, what are the challenges facing the new pope?

Catholicism is dying in its historic heartland, Europe. The new pope must fan the frail flames of renewal that are present in European Catholicism. But he must also challenge Euro-Catholics to understand that only a robust, unapologetic proclamation of the Gospel can meet the challenge of a Christophobic public culture that increasingly regards biblical morality as irrational bigotry.

The new pope must be a vigorous defender of religious freedom throughout the world. Catholicism is under assault by the forces of jihadist Islam in a band of confrontation that runs across the globe from the west coast of Senegal to the eastern islands of Indonesia.

Christian communities in the Holy Land are under constant, often violent, pressure. In the West, religious freedom is being reduced to a mere “freedom of worship,” with results like the ObamaCare Health and Human Services contraceptive mandate.

Thus the new pope must be a champion of religious freedom for all, insisting with John Paul II and Benedict XVI that there can be neither true freedom nor true democracy without religious freedom in full. That means the right of both individuals of conscience and religious communities to live their lives according to their most deeply held convictions, and the right to bring those convictions into public life without civil penalty or cultural ostracism.

This defense of religious freedom will be one string in the bow of the new pope’s responsibility to nurture the rapidly growing Catholic communities in Africa, calling them to a new maturity of faith. It should also frame the new pope’s approach to the People’s Republic of China, where persecution of Christians is widespread. When China finally opens itself fully to the world, it will be the greatest field of Christian mission since the Europeans came to the Western Hemisphere. Like his two immediate predecessors, the new pope should recognize that the church’s future mission in China will be imperiled by any premature deal-making with the Chinese Communist regime, which would also involve an evangelical betrayal of those Chinese Christians who are making daily sacrifices for fidelity to Jesus Christ.

The ambient public culture of the West will demand that the new pope embrace some form of Catholic Lite. But that counsel of cultural conformism will have to reckon with two hard facts: Wherever Catholic Lite has been embraced in the past 40 years, as in Western Europe, the church has withered and is now dying. The liveliest parts of the Catholic world, within the United States and elsewhere, are those that have embraced the Catholic symphony of truth in full. In responding to demands that he change the unchangeable, however, the new pope will have to demonstrate that every time the Catholic Church says “No” to something — such as abortion or same-sex marriage — that “No” is based on a prior “Yes” to the truths about human dignity the church learns from the Gospel and from reason.

And that suggests a final challenge for Gregory XVII, Leo XIV, John XXIV, Clement XV, or whoever the new pope turns out to be: He must help an increasingly deracinated world — in which there may be your truth and my truth, but nothing recognizable as the truth — rediscover the linkage between faith and reason, between Jerusalem and Athens, two of the pillars of Western civilization. When those two pillars crumble, the third pillar — Rome, the Western commitment to the rule of law — crumbles as well. And the result is what Benedict XVI aptly styled the dictatorship of relativism.

What kind of man can meet these challenges? A radically converted Christian disciple who believes that Jesus Christ really is the answer to the question that is every human life. An experienced pastor with the courage to be Catholic and the winsomeness to make robust orthodoxy exciting. A leader who is not afraid to straighten out the disastrous condition of the Roman Curia, so that the Vatican bureaucracy becomes an instrument of the New Evangelization, not an impediment to it.

The shoes of the fisherman are large shoes to fill.

And that process, which began broadly and unofficially weeks ago, and officially with the cardinals assembling in Rome for over a week and a half, begins with new gravity now.

‘Peter is not there’

The official Latin term for the time between popes holding the office of the papacy is the Interregnum. There is no pope. Vatican operations go into near shutdown or at least restricted mode with key officials doing only essential duties, attending to the most critical things, while the college of cardinals carry the weight of the church and world on their shoulders. But there’s no word for the uneasiness countless Catholics feel around the world for this time of the sede vacante, the empty seat. As one renowned cardinal put it last time around, in 2005, ‘it’s frightening, Peter is not there.’

Time and again over the past several days, I’ve heard Catholics in high places say they are unsettled, anxious, sad and even ‘orphaned’, which is especially poignant given that in his final message as pope, Benedict XVI said he takes each one of us with him (everyone in the world) and prays for us ‘with a father’s heart.’ One of his legacies is helping us see how we’re all in this together, that each one of us in the world has equal dignity and rights and responsibilities.

The cardinals are starting to work out the details of the process of going forward now. Benedict is finally resting and spending time in privacy, praying and reading and enjoying his favorite books and music, and praying some more. But his legacy is among the weighiest of the modern popes. Papal biographer George Weigel told me in an interview that he considered Pope Benedict XVI the greatest papal preacher since Gregory the Great.

Pause a moment with that one…

Carl Olson wonders, was he ‘The Last of the Giants’? It’s all hard to summarize, the pontificate and analyses of it. Read this whole piece, it’s a good one. But here’s the end of Olson’s commentary:

Judging Benedict XVI’s pontificate is a difficult thing to do, hardly possible on the day it has ended. The key question is: what criteria will be used to judge, and who will do the judging? With that in mind, I conclude this essay with two quotes, both from Mark Brumley, President of Ignatius Press, from whom I learned so much about John Paul II’s thought (when Mark was my professor in the late 1990s) and who has worked so tirelessly to bring the writings of Ratzinger/Benedict XVI to English-speaking readers throughout the world.

First, in a 2005 interview with ZENIT, Mark was asked, “What will Pope Benedict XVI bring of himself and his theological interests to the pontificate?” He replied:

Although Ratzinger the prefect is distinguishable from Ratzinger the theologian, we are blessed in Pope Benedict XVI with a theologian and pastor who has thought and prayed long and hard about Jesus Christ, the Church and her mission to the world.

He will, I believe, continue the twofold task of Vatican II — renewing the inner life of the Church and reinvigorating the Church’s mission in the world. He is committed to a renewal of biblical studies and a deepening of ordinary Catholics’ appreciation of and participation in the sacred liturgy.

He staunchly proclaims the universal call to holiness of Vatican II. He understands the importance of dialogue among Christians and dialogue with world religions and seekers, while he upholds the integrity of Catholic faith and insists on a renewed missionary drive to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ to the world.

And he knows that in the areas of morality and social justice, the Christian message has not been tried and found wanting, as G.K. Chesterton noted, but has been found difficult and left untried. Furthermore, he sees the threat of radical relativism and many other “isms.”

And today, in a press release, Mark states:

Although Pope Benedict’s pontificate has been relatively short, he has accomplished a great deal amidst profound challenges, both within the Church and in the world. By stressing the “hermeneutic of reform” in contrast to the “hermeneutic of rupture,” he has shown the way forward in clarifying the relationship between the Second Vatican Council and the Church’s Tradition. He has presented clearly, forcefully, thoughtfully, and winsomely “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3), and he has strengthened the Church’s efforts to evangelize the world. He has sought to deepen the renewal of the Church’s worship and sacramental life by fostering a recovery of “the spirit of the liturgy.” He has appointed and elevated men to the episcopate who perceive the importance of an authentic understanding of the Second Vatican Council, in light of the Church’s Tradition and the “joy and hope, the grief and anguish” of our world (cf. Gaudium et Spes, no. 1).

And then he ended it all with utmost humility and simplicity. His final public words:

Thank you – thank you from my heart!

Dear friends, I’m happy to be with you, that I can see the Creator’s beauty around us, and all the goodness you’ve given to me – thank you for your friendship and your affection!

You know that this day of mine hasn’t been like those before. I’m no longer the Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic church…now I’m just a pilgrim beginning the last part of his journey on earth.

With all my heart, with all my love, with my prayer and all my strength – with everything in me – I’d like to work for the common good of the church and all humanity. I feel your kindness so much.

Let us always move together toward the Lord for the good of the church and of the world. Thank you for bringing yourselves [here] – with all my heart, I give you my blessing….

Thank you and goodnight!

Tom McDonald, a savvy, witty blogger, hardly knew what to say.

And so it ends.

The last great man of Europe takes the stage for the final time, and reminds us that greatness is measured not by political machinations, military or economic might, or even important discoveries, but in staying grounded in the vast messiness of this frustrating and glorious human family with compassion, humility, and gentleness.

He was the teacher we needed at the time we needed him. The Holy Spirit is funny that way. As the world was careening towards armageddon, with almost half its population locked in near-slavery, He gave us a firebrand: a charismatic leader who spoke with a force that toppled nations.

When our greatest enemy was ourselves–our prosperity, our tendency to selfishness, our triviality, our refusal to be taught–he sent a quiet viticulturist of souls. In one of those great cosmic ironies that proves God is a brilliant joker, He sent a teacher to a people unwilling to be taught: a people under the delusion of a radical individualism that says each man is his own Lord and Master, and thus must find his own way by his own light, rather than by the one Light Who illuminates all.

For a people easily distracted by an infinitely multiplying, utterly inconsequential number of small things, he turned the bright beam of his intellect on the big things: the things that mattered: hope, faith, love. In an era when the people who have assumed the mantle of “humanism” are the most anti-human of all, he gave us a true Christian humanist rooted where it must be rooted: in the God who loves.

Non-Catholics can’t possibly understand the connection truly faithful Catholics have to their pope.  He’s not magic, he’s not a god, and oddly enough he doesn’t even need to be holy or even particularly inspirational. (Fortunately, this last part is rare in the history of Christ’s Church.) What he is, is this:  a promise. He is a promise, made by the Incarnate Lord, of a visible leadership that will last for all time, beginning with the flawed, hot-headed, cowardly fisherman who sat at His right hand, and stretching down through the millennia to us today. “Tu es Petrus et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam.”

And I will miss him more than words can express. He was “my” pope. I read him for years as Joseph Ratzinger, marveling at a mind so sharp it could convey complex points with utter simplicity. As someone called to a teaching ministry, I was inspired by his ability to teach at any level required of him, and teach so well that he also could inspire.

And that, my friends, bespeaks my sentiments exactly. I read him for years as Joseph Ratzinger, quoted him in articles I wrote and talks I gave and on radio shows, because he taught the depths of human truths with such clarity and elegance and art. All that Thomas said, yes.

In recent days, I’ve twice interviewed Fr. Joseph Fessio, founder and editor of Ignatius Press and former student of the former Fr. Joseph Ratzinger with whom he has maintained a close 40 year long friendship. It has been enlightening and joyful and inspiring to talk with him, a priest who can really call Ratzinger/Benedict “my pope.”

“He was different, and people came to listen to him. He offered a very personal, meditative reflection. As people now recognize, he was articulate, organized and coherent,” recalled Father Fessio, during an interview that shared recollections of Ratzinger’s role as a teacher and offered an appreciation of his gifts as an author.

But Father Ratzinger’s intellectual gifts were even more striking during the graduate seminars, “where there would be five or six of us. In each session, one person would make a presentation, and others would respond,” Father Fessio remembered. “Father Ratzinger would listen, and then, in the discussion, he would make sure that others also spoke. My German was not good, and I couldn’t say very much.”

During the seminars, Father Ratzinger “would sit back, and then, at the end of the seminar, in two or three sentence, he would summarize all that was said. He pulled the discussion together into an organic whole in a way that was always illuminating.”

Fr. Fessio told me Ratzinger/Benedict had the gift of synthesizing thoughts in something like “an intellectual symphony,” a beautiful and perfectly apt description of Benedict’s exquisite expression. “He had a power of seeing,” Fr. Fessio told me again on Monday. “He wrote with clarity, depth and breadth. His deep faith gave him the power of seeing everyting integrated as a whole, with an inner unity.”

From the interview in National Catholic Register:

Father Fessio recalled a remark the Pope made during a meeting some time after his election.

Another Catholic publisher asked the Holy Father why only Ignatius Press was publishing his works. Father Fessio recalled  that the Pope calmly responded, “Because when no one else cared, they published my works.”

Those of us who knew the mind and eloquent expression of Joseph Ratzinger always cared, in fact valued it highly, and hung on every word. Fortunately, they will be with us for a lifetime and many more after us, no matter who his successors are to the Chair of Peter.

Pope Benedict’s last audience

The world is watching. Hopefully, they’re watching, reading and listening to reputable sources on what the pope said at his last public address.

Here it is in full. It’s loaded with Benedict’s characteric nuance and gentle sounding references to loaded messages. He’s a maestro. 

A key snip:

When, almost eight years ago, on April 19th, [2005], I agreed to take on the Petrine ministry, I held steadfast in this certainty, which has always accompanied me. In that moment, as I have already stated several times, the words that resounded in my heart were: “Lord, what do you ask of me? It a great weight that You place on my shoulders, but, if You ask me, at your word I will throw out the nets, sure that you will guide me” – and the Lord really has guided me. He has been close to me: daily could I feel His presence. [These years] have been a stretch of the Church’s pilgrim way, which has seen moments joy and light, but also difficult moments. I have felt like St. Peter with the Apostles in the boat on the Sea of ??Galilee: the Lord has given us many days of sunshine and gentle breeze, days in which the catch has been abundant; [then] there have been times when the seas were rough and the wind against us, as in the whole history of the Church it has ever been – and the Lord seemed to sleep. Nevertheless, I always knew that the Lord is in the barque, that the barque of the Church is not mine, not ours, but His – and He shall not let her sink. It is He, who steers her: to be sure, he does so also through men of His choosing, for He desired that it be so.This was and is a certainty that nothing can tarnish. It is for this reason, that today my heart is filled with gratitude to God, for never did He leave me or the Church without His consolation, His light, His love.

Emphasis added, of course. To highlight the point otherwise lost on those who just listened to an address of nice words about a beloved church and faith and office of the papacy, etc. No, this was pointed. The ship has pitched and tossed about on stormy seas. But it is not the ship of fools the world and particularly the world’s opinion shapers believe or want to believe it is. It is ‘the Lord’s barque,’ even when he didn’t seem to be part of the crew. And “he does so also through men of His choosing, for He desired that it be so.This was and is a certainty that nothing can tarnish.” That is key.

No matter how imperfect the ministers, the ministry is set by the one who set it on course and continues to direct it, he was saying.

Do read his entire address. It was longer than usual and filled with gems that deserve consideration. In due time.

But since some big media want to highlight imperfect ministers and paint the church with the broad brush of accusation or condemnation or guilt by implication…or whatever…that needs to be addressed.

On the Wednesday Benedict would deliver his historic, final audience, the New York Times ran a front page, above the fold color photo of a dark Roman night sky over St. Peter’s Basilica, with the featured piece under it being a news analysis by Laurie Goodstein that doesn’t deserve attention. Except that so many irresponsible media do such lazy journalism that consists of reporting what the Times reports, and then others report off of that pack journalism until we’re all with Alice in Wonderland.

At the least, this is media misfeasance. And that’s all the attention I’ll give it, because it’s not worthy of snipping and addressing and analyzing. But it should be exposed as the irresponsible, tendentious, undisiplined press that it is. Report what is true, when you can source it and it is reliable and not coincidentally timed to an opportunity to sway opinion before the college of cardinals commences their process to elect a new pope.

I’ve been in big media long enough to know they can selective choose which sources to seek out, and which quotes make it into print.

Which heaps more attention onto the great service some bloggers are providing as new media giving news consumers alternatives to the old gatekeepers.

Like Patheos, where the insightful, cutting edge blogging on the Catholic Church is overseen by The Anchoress.

Tonight, no lightning strikes; mere hours away from the of Benedict’s pontificate, a bright beam shines from the heavens and the absence of gloom almost gives a shiver: a light shines in the darkness, a light ever-ancient, ever-new.

Read the whole post. It’s loaded with links. Worthy of attention.

Of Benedict XVI and Andrew Cuomo

So there, side by side in two top-of-the-fold articles in the Sunday New York Times the other day, were two stories that are seemingly unrelated, but are totally of a piece. A few days later now, they demand attention.

One was ‘Papal Electors Are Sizing Up A Field of Peers’ by Laurie Goodstein, which revealed a good deal more homework preparation than her piece right after Pope Benedict’s resignation announcement. The one next to it was ‘Cuomo Bucks Tide With Bill To Ease Abortion Limits.’

What to say…

Start with Goodstein’s article about the conclave, although I’d prefer to focus on Benedict while he’s still in office. I will do that in the days to come, and probably for years afterward, frankly. He’s that profoundly important to the global mission of peace and brotherhood and the correct understanding of the human person at the center of it all.

She got to speak to Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George, who is brilliant and practical and right on target with where the church is in the modern world at this moment.

“People are reluctant to speak about themselves,” said Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, who voted in the conclave that elected Benedict in 2005. “So you go to a friend and say, Can you tell me about cardinal so-and-so?”

“The questions are usually about the qualities you want to see in a pope. Is he a man of prayer, is he deeply rooted in the apostolic faith, can he govern, is he deeply concerned about the poor?” Cardinal George said in a telephone interview. “It matters far less where he happens to be living or where he’s from.”

Pay attention, media. Because while you’re absorbed in political thinking about ‘constituencies’ and ‘succession battles,’ the electors who will make this transcendent decision are concerned with humanity at its core.

Goodstein cites Vatican expert Sandro Magister, thankfully, because he’s a longtime trustworthy source of truth about the church and faith. Besides handicapping the papabili candidate, she quotes him on something that receives far too little attention for these times.

The other Italians who are more solid candidates, Mr. Magister said, are Cardinal Angelo Scola, the archbishop of Milan and a theologian who has often addressed the challenges of secularism and Islam in Europe…

Papal biographer and world renowned Catholic Church expert George Weigel makes a point of those challenges and the need to address them in this tribute to the legacy of Pope Benedict XVI, brief as the piece is. Weigel calls Benedict “a hinge man, the pivot on which the turn into the evangelical, mission-driven Church of the third millennium was completed.”…

Why? Because he understood that, for postmoderns uneasy with the notion that anything is “true” or “good,” the experience of beauty can be a unique window into a more open and spacious human world, a world in which it is once again possible to grasp that some things are, in fact, true and good (as others are, in fact, false and wicked).

(more on that in a moment)

He proved an astute analyst of contemporary democracy’s discontents, as he also correctly identified the key twenty-first-century issues between Islam and “the rest”: Can Islam find within itself the religious resources to warrant both religious toleration and the separation of religious and political authority in the state?

There is so much to unpack from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI, we will be doing it for decades. Others will for centuries.

But since so much of it is about the ‘new humanism,’ the human person having inestimable dignity and worth, value that pre-exists the State and – because it doesn’t derive from the State cannot be deprived by the State – it relates to all the issues of the day from economics to foreign policy, arms control to sustainable development, digital communications to immigration.

And that relates to the Andrew Cuomo story. Because there’s such a disconnect there involving a Catholic governor using such radical rhetoric to push such an aggressively anti-human agenda, it’s jaw-dropping.

Bucking a trend in which states have been seeking to restrict abortion, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is putting the finishing touches on legislation that would guarantee women in New York the right to late-term abortions when their health is in danger or the fetus is not viable.

Wait…what? Do people in politics and media who talk like this even think about what they’re saying, much less proposing and enforcing? We need to re-set the conversation about what abortion is. Every abortion is the termination of the life of an already existing human being in its mother’s womb.

“Late-term abortions” are acts of infanticide. What qualifies as ‘health in danger’ is so elastic these days, it is not defined or definable in current law. And talking about a “late-term abortion” when “the fetus is not viable” is just incoherent, besides being inhumane. (If it’s “late-term” it’s viable, and it’s a baby no matter how much the term fetus is used to distract from that fact.)

Mr. Cuomo, seeking to deliver on a promise he made in his recent State of the State address, would rewrite a law that currently allows abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy only if the pregnant woman’s life is at risk. The law is not enforced, because it is superseded by federal court rulings that allow late-term abortions to protect a woman’s health, even if her life is not in jeopardy. But abortion rights advocates say the existence of the more restrictive state law has a chilling effect on some doctors and prompts some women to leave the state for late-term abortions.

Read that paragraph again. It’s very revealing of the radical abortion agenda. Right down to the language used for “abortion rights advocates” as opposed to “anti-abortion activists” or other jargon for pro-life advocates.

Mr. Cuomo’s proposal…would also clarify that licensed health care practitioners, and not only physicians, can perform abortions. It would remove abortion from the state’s penal law and regulate it through the state’s public health law.

Okay, two things. Now he proposes going from bad to worse, letting the broad field of “health care practitioners” to perform abortions and “not only physicians.” And states’ public health laws haven’t been equally applied to regulating abortion clinics as they have other medical facilities, in many states. That’s a smokescreen.

There’s so much wrong with this. Which is confirmed by how it’s being received.

Abortion rights advocates have welcomed Mr. Cuomo’s plan, which he outlined in general terms as part of a broader package of women’s rights initiatives in his State of the State address in January.

We need to examine “women’s rights initiatives,” which we will continue to do here.

But the Roman Catholic Church and anti-abortion groups are dismayed; opponents have labeled the legislation the Abortion Expansion Act.

And once again, the Times and other major media outlets revert to their updated, agenda driven style books for reporting that requires pro-life groups to be labeled “anti-abortion groups” and “oppenents,” giving readers the cue to think negatively about…what?…human life? Yes.

I saw a clip from Gov. Cuomo’s press conference in which he firmly declared and then repeated two more times “It’s a woman’s body. It’s a woman’s body. It’s a woman’s body.” And, he said, it’s her choice what to do with it. But the other body, and it may be female as well, is the one inside the woman’s body. It is not her body, she is only carrying that child she conceived. No matter how strongly Cuomo states his refutation of that fact by his single focus on the ‘woman’s right to choose,’ that doesn’t change the reality that the doctor seeing a pregnant woman has two patients. And the abortionist kills one of them.

Pope Benedict has addressed life issues, as Pope John Paul II did, over and over in every message whether spoken or written, on one way or another, because it’s the consistent ethic of life that determines how a society will live. Or not.

In this one, Pope Benedict said “…everyone must be helped to become aware of the intrinsic evil of the crime of abortion. In attacking human life in its very first stages, it is also an aggression against society itself. Politicians and legislators, therefore, as servants of the common good, are duty bound to defend the fundamental right to life, the fruit of God’s love.”

And again:

Life is the first good received from God and is fundamental to all others; to guarantee the right to life for all and in an equal manner for all is the duty upon which the future of humanity depends.

Weigel says Pope Benedict understood and showed the way to “a more open and spacious human world, a world in which it is once again possible to grasp that some things are, in fact, true and good (as others are, in fact, false and wicked).” Whoever succeeds Benedict will need to continue making that robust affirmation.

While Benedict XVI is still Pope

The media and Vatican watchers are busy speculating about the recent past (what ‘really’ prompted this resignation) and the future (who is ‘most likely’ to replace him), I think it’s important to take the opportunity while he’s still in the Chair of Peter to recognize what is the legacy of Pope Benedict XVI.

There’s no use drumming up conspiracy theories about his motivation, I take him at his word in his declaration. And there’s time enough to cover the conclave when cardinal electors do their spiritual and temporal work of discerning who should succeed to the papacy to lead the church into the future.

Fr. Robert Barron, Rector of Mundelein Seminary in the Archdiocese of Chicago, founder of Word on Fire media ministry, and creator and narrator of the magnificent Catholicism series, has done a number of media interviews since the announcement was made public last week and they’re always short and demand practically sound bites for answers (to questions not always well informed to begin with). So he put together this video on the WOF site to elaborate just a bit.

And he talked with me about it Monday in an interview. It was edifying.

The legacy of Pope Benedict XVI encompasses so much, it couldn’t fill a blog post, even with a bundle of hyperlinks. But Fr. Barron has a way of paring things down to the perfect essence, perfect for our short attention span these days, and with a message that’s easy to grasp. He sums up that legacy in three things, he told me, reflecting what you can see on that video.

Pope Benedict was an interpreter of Vatican II. Joseph Ratzinger was at all four sessions of the Second Vatican Council and “contributed mightily to the writing of many of its documents.” As opposed to the prevailing winds blowing after the Council that it had been about a revolution in the church, Ratzinger knew it was the evolution of the church to make it an apt vehicle to go out into the modern world and engage. ‘The intention of the Council was not to modernize the church,’ Fr. Barron said, ‘but to Christianize the world.’ Meaning…for modern sensibilities out of touch with that message…that it was a missionary council filled with zeal for doing with Christ commissioned the apostles to do, which was go out and be a witness to people in the world for the hope and joy you have.

Second, he said, Pope Benedict brought an “affirmative orthodoxy” to the church and the world watching it. Which very much countered the media portrayal of him at his election as the ‘doctrinal hardliner,’ the ‘Panzer Cardinale,’ or ‘God’s Rottweiler,’ among other slurs against the man. In his addresses, messages and writings, ‘the dominant word he used was “joy,” over and over,’ said Fr. Barron. “His stress was always on divine love.”

And third, Benedict’s legacy is all about Christocentrism, in everything he wrote and taught and said and lived. It’s so simple and basic, Catholics and Christians can easily overlook it for the longer, more wordy and complex message. But Benedict simplified it in a most eloquent, theologically brilliant and intellectually clear message: “It’s finally all about Jesus,” said Fr. Barron. “That’s what he leaves us with.”

Benedict did something unprecedented in history by producing a major theological work as pope, a three volume study of Jesus of Nazareth. In the masterpiece by Romano Guardini, The Lord, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote the Introduction in a later release of the work. It was a foreshadowing of what would become the centerpiece of his papacy one day. In it, he wrote this:

As we are taught by Guardini, the essence of Christianity is not an idea, not a aystem of thought, not a plan of action. The essence of Christianity is a Person: Jesus Christ Himself…

Our time is in many respects far different from that in which Romano Guardini lived and worked. But it is as true now as in his day that the peril of the Church, indeed of humanity, consists in bleaching out the image of Jesus Christ in an attempt to shape a Jesus according to our own standards, so that we do not follow Him in obedient discipleship but rather recreate Him in our own image.

And that is truer still today, many years after Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict wrote that Introduction. We are hardly able to even talk about these beliefs in public, hard enough to hang onto them in a world growing increasingly secularized and hostile to Christianity, where ‘tolerance’ has been elevated to the greatest virtue, though it’s terribly skewed.

There’s a very good piece reflecting on this at a Huffington Post blog, and good for them for posting such a good reflection.

Our culture’s complicated relationship with organized religion is closely tied to our culture’s complicated relationship with truth. We love our truth, all right, but we treat truth a lot like religion — it’s fine, so long as everyone else keeps their truth to themselves. Tolerance — which our culture values over all other virtues — consists in not imposing your truth on someone else.

The problem with this well-meaning attempt at tolerance is that it is unsustainable. It’s self-cannibalizing. If there is only your truth and my truth, but no Truth, then there is no common ground upon which to meet one another. Either I’m right, or you are, and since there’s no middle ground, the matter is only ever settled when one side wins and the other side loses. A world without truth isn’t a world liberated from conflict; it’s a world without the possibility of reconciliation.

Pope Benedict’s episcopal motto Cooperatores veritatis — “co-operators of the truth” — suggests a very different understanding of reality; one in which both faith and reason owe allegiance to the same reality, that is, to truth. And truth, at least as the Catholic Church understands it, is best demonstrated, not by carefully reasoned arguments (though those are important) and certainly not by violence, but by self-giving love. There is nothing more compelling, nothing more true, than sacrificial love.

(The central truth of Christian faith — God became man in Jesus Christ, through whose suffering and death we are redeemed — can be summed up like this: God got tired of telling us how to do it, so He decided to come down here and show us.)

Talk about that, Benedict exhorted the faithful. Witness that. You may be the only encounter with Christ people will ever have.

So at the end of the day, at the end of a papacy…

The pope is not a figurehead; he is an apostle. He is not a manager; he is a messenger. By announcing his resignation…Pope Benedict XVI has signaled that the Church of the 21st century will not be a Church of business as usual. It will not be a church of institutional maintenance, of isolation, or of longing for the past. The Church exists to spread the Gospel. And those who have inherited that mission by their baptism must be willing to sacrifice a great deal to answer that calling.

Dear media covering Pope Benedict:

Do your homework.

At the beginning of the week when the world was thunderstruck with the announcement that Pope Benedict XVI had submitted his ‘Declaratio‘ announcing his resignation, and therby vacating the Seat of Peter on February 28, 2013, there was so much breath-catching and jaw dropping and scrambling to get something out in the press…that I decided to focus on the good, right and true and leave the bad reporting alone. Some of my friends and colleagues in the Catholic media world were blogging and tweeting about the outburst of nastiness and venom aimed at the Pontiff and the Catholic Church in general, but I was all the more resolute not to pay attention to that because…sigh…there’s only so much time and space to devote to coverage and I wanted mine well spent.

That lasted a day.

By Tuesday, I couldn’t let nonsense pass without remark or challenge. Or, with fraternal charity, the exhortation to try harder to do better the task we journalists have to seek and report the truth. And seeking is easier these days with global digital access to archives and every thought and utterance expressed in some detectable form. So it’s just lazy journalism and tendentious reporting to let things like…say…the Tuesday, February 12 front page top of the fold headline news get reported as the New York Times did that day.

In the paper edition, the Times headline ‘Pope Resigns, With Church At Crossroads’ had a sub-head ‘Scandals and a Shift Away From Europe Pose Challenges’ sets you, the reader, up for plenty of loaded reporting. Take the lede:

Pope Benedict XVI’s surprise announcement on Monday that he will resign on Feb. 28 sets the stage for a succession battle that is likely to determine the future course of a church troubled by scandal and declining faith in its traditional strongholds around the world.

No, it’s not a “succession battle,” and to put it in such terms is shaping the news purposely. It is a process by which the college of cardinals goes into seclusion, and whether or not this is comprehensible in today’s world, devote themselves to prayer that the Holy Spirit guides their process of discernment. There are politics involved in anything human, but it’s not a “battle.”

So the third paragraph opens with this sentence:

Saying he had examined his conscience “before God,” Benedict said he felt that he was not up to the challenge of guiding the world’s one billion Catholics.

Why the set-apart citation “before God”? To distance the reporting from actually acknowledging through an otherwise paraphrased summary that Benedict prayed about this before God? And, as he stated it in his Declaratio, “repeatedly.”

After listing the sins and struggles of the Church in the modern world, right up front, the piece says the pope’s resignation “sets up a struggle between the staunchest conservatives, in Benedict’s mold, who advocated a smaller church of more fervent believers, and those who feel the church can broaden its appeal in small but significant ways, like…loosening restrictions on condom use to prevent AIDS,” as if Church teaching were a matter of papal opinion than Church ethics and moral handed down from age to age.

It’s no surprise the Times sees these matters in political terms because everything is political these days. But this reaches:

Many Vatican watchers suspect the cardinals will choose…someome who can extend the church’s reach to new constituencies.

New constituencies? This is not politics.

Someone who will be “the church’s missionary in chief, a showman and salesman for the Catholic faith…”

The ‘missionary in chief’ is the only part of that statement that resembles a respectable description of the role the Catholic Church needs to fill when Benedict vacates the Chair of Peter.

Next to that piece, center of the front page under the large photo of Pope Benedict, was this ‘news analysis’ piece by Laurie Goodstien. For some reason, these news outlets change their headlines from print version to online, but it was titled ‘For Benedict, Clear Teachings and Many Crises.” She focuses on crises, starting with this for some inexplicable reason:

He inadvertently insulted Muslims on an early trip to Germany, which resulted in riots across the Islamic world…

That is a misrepresentation of the facts, a short and snappy summary of a deeper and intellectually challenging episode in Benedict’s pontificate. He did not ‘inadvertently insult Muslims.’ His deeply theological and scholarly address at Regensburg was treated by the media as most things are, when they plucked one line out of a longer engagement of ideas.

The scholar-pope himself stands as much an exponent of the German intellectual tradition as a critic. In the final analysis, it was not Christianity or the Church really that was harmed by the edgy, skeptical, and even – at times – hostile German guild. Rather, it was reason itself that suffered when scholarship excluded from its purview the investigation of the highest order truth claims about God.

Benedict did not echo the well-worn traditionalist critique by arguing that Christian scholarship had failed because the scholars slew too many sacred cows or had the wrong attitude when slaying them. On the contrary, the scholars stopped asking questions at all concerning the rationality of faith – relegating it to the realm of subjective opinion. This was paradoxically subversive of the central conceit of the Enlightenment itself, to say nothing of faith, which is intrinsically joined to reason.

But what has all this to do with Islam? His point was this: Though Christian scholars might have taken a long sabbatical from fundamental questions of truth, Christianity has always opened its sources and truth claims to friendly criticism from within and even to hostile criticism from without. Unfriendly external criticism is one of Providence’s main tools to help the Church forge more precise understandings of revealed things. But there is no tradition of either kind of criticism in Islam, and indeed no basic recognition among Muslims that Islam and its sacred text are suitable objects for such rational analysis. Such recognition is the sine qua non of real dialogue with Islam.

Top Vatican watcher and journalist Sandro Magister was one of the few who pointed out the fruit of the Regensburg experience, the scholars who did engage.

One month after his lecture at the University of Regensburg, Benedict XVI received an “open letter” signed by 38 Muslim personalities from various countries and of different outlooks, which discusses point by point the views on Islam expressed by the pope in that lecture.

The authors of the letter welcome and appreciate without reservation the clarifications made by Benedict XVI after the wave of protests that issued from the Muslim world a few days after the lecture in Regensburg, and in particular the speech that the pope addressed to ambassadors from Muslim countries on September 25, and also the reference made by cardinal secretary of state Tarcisio Bertone, in a note issued on September 16, to the conciliar document “Nostra Aetate.”…

The authors of the letter appreciate Benedict XVI’s desire for dialogue and take very seriously his theses. “Applaud” pope’s “efforts to oppose the dominance of positivism and materialism in human life,” while contest him on other points, adding their reasons for their opposition.

In this sense, the letter signed by the 38…goes towards what the pope meant to accomplish with his audacious lecture in Regensburg: to encourage, within the Muslim world as well, public reflection that would separate faith from violence and link it to reason instead. Because, in the pope’s view, it is precisely the “reasonableness” of the faith that is the natural terrain of encounter between Christianity and the various other religions and cultures.

And on it goes, well worth reading. It’s worth bringing up again with more time and reflection, but seeing that snip on the front page of the New York Times irresponsibly thrown in there without context or apparent background knowledge required some attention.

On that same day, the Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed Opinion piece by Andrew Nagorski opens with a rather stunning statement from the former rome bureau chief for Newsweek:

Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy has not been known for stellar moments, yet he is ending it with a stellar action.

This would be a startling opening statement from anyone penning an analysis on Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy who garnered space on the WSJ op-ed page. But a former Rome bureau chief for Newsweek? I read that opening sentence to a highly-respected American priest theologian whose opinion is often sought in media, and his response was respectful amazement. ‘Whoever wrote that obviously didn’t know or pay attention to Pope Benedict,’ he said.

Not known for stellar moments?

How about releasing his firs encyclical Deus Caritas Est? Or Spe Salvi? Any thoughts about the exquisite trilogy on Jesus of Nazareth, finishing with the ‘Infant Narratives,’ a treasure in three volumes?

Anybody in the media remember Benedict’s Apostolic Journey to America in April 2008 and his addresses at every venue here? The address to the United Nations General Assembly alone is an elegant reminder of what that body’s original purpose was in drafting and serving the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The visit and prayer at Ground Zero. And what really threw the press was his unannounced and private meeting – which Benedict called – with victims of clergy abuse. The meeting out of which victims tearfully spoke of the healing they felt after meeting with the profoundly apologetic and pastoral pontiff.

His Apostolic visit to Britain, an open hostile landscape if press coverage covered it all  in advance, yet one that wound up as a highly successful and joyful occasion. His Apostolic journey to Australia, World Youth Days, the tremendous outpouring of zeal and outburts of joy at seeing and hearing him and the love fest that greeted him.

Remember any of that, anyone assigned to cover him while those stellar moments were taking place in real time?

Enough. For now. I’m not even going to get into CNN and HuffPo and all the other outlets who have been hammering His Holiness. They don’t deserve the attention.

But he does. And in the coming weeks, I’ll be among those who work to bring it, as fully and truthfully as possible. I know those media outlets are struggling with diminished resources and manpower. But they’re also struggling with diminished journalistic values and powers of reason. I’m just one person. But I’m on it.

Pope Benedict’s retirement fatigue

The man himself is clearly a tired and overly wrought servant who recognizes and admits his failing health and strength. The global coverage of his historic announcement to step down has unleashed an exhausting barrage of analysis, mostly from those who know not of what they speak.

It’s been a long day of gathering and reporting news, and there will be many more days and weeks of it to come. For now, take a look at how Elizabeth Scalia put things together here.

…on consideration, this almost seems typical of Benedict, particularly if his health is failing. He would have hated a long drawn out affair with pilgrims waiting within the basilica courtyard for his death. If John Paul went out like the sustained note of a grand organ, fading into silence, Benedict simply senses his tiredness and the hour, closes up his piano, and bids us adieu. Ratzinger, in the end, is still Ratzinger: he does his work, kisses it all up to the Holy Spirit and moves on, not particularly concerned about the peripheral yakking of man or media.

Well put. I have a profound respect for both John Paul II and Benedict XVI. I’ve read both extensively and appreciate them as brilliant pieces of one magnificent concert. I have much to say, but I’m first a listener. With a filter. 

I’ll be devoting time and attention to this important transition in the Catholic Church at this moment in history, in the days and weeks to come. For now, I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to be in the presence of both popes and follow their global journeys to reach the ends of the earth with the timeless and universal truths about human dignity and the sanctity of life and the interconnectedness of everything. I received their blessing personally, and the world did globally.

Whether people they blessed know it or not.

The Mideast story hardly covered

Behind the headlines coming out of Egypt and other countries in political and social upheaval in the Middle East, the story is about human life and striving and destiny, maybe more than it ever was before social communications media empowered these peoples’ revolutions.

Fundamentally, the human right that grounds whatever social or political construct that comes out of it all is the one thing media are hardly mentioning…..religious freedom. Pope Benedict has been talking about it for a long time.

Christians in Iraq, Egypt and Nigeria have been killed in churches, in Pakistan a blasphemy law has become an “excuse to cause injustice and violence”, in China they are experiencing a “moment of difficulty and trial,” in the West they are object of a “growing marginalization” which evens demands the rejection of any “reference to religious and moral convictions.” The list of violations and attacks on religious freedom delivered today by Benedict XI to the representatives of 180 countries and international organizations that have diplomatic relations with the Holy See, touches hundreds of millions of people around the world.

The religious dimension is an undeniable and irrepressible feature of man’s being and acting, the measure of the fulfilment of his destiny and of the building up of the community to which he belongs.  Consequently, when the individual himself or those around him neglect or deny this fundamental dimension, imbalances and conflicts arise at all levels, both personal and interpersonal…

This primary and basic truth is the reason why, in this year’s Message for World Day of Peace, I identified religious freedom as the fundamental path to peace.  Peace is built and preserved only when human beings can freely seek and serve God in their hearts, in their lives and in their relationships with others.

Asia News reports that Egyptian Imams and intellectuals get that, and are working on a program of renewing Islam. It’s the unreported revolution.

A score of intellectuals and theologians of Al Azhar have issued a text of enormous importance, entitled “Document for the renewal of religious discourse.” The text was “posted” on the Internet…on the website of the weekly magazine Yawm al-Sâbi’'(“The Seventh Day”). The importance of the document also derives from its signatories, all noted scholars and profoundly committed Muslims.

The outcome of this revolution is as uncertain as the political one. Pope Benedict is watching, and praying, joined by Christians of the Middle East.

The devastation of sin in the Church

One year ago to the day, Archbishop Jerome Listecki delivered a homily about the nature of sin at his installation Mass as the new shepherd of Milwaukee who inherited the wreckage of its abuse scandal. Today, he went before the people, the press and the world to declare the natural progression of its consequences…..bankruptcy.

This was probably inevitable. But still startling.

…Listecki said the action was brought on “because priest-perpetrators sexually abused minors, going against everything the Church and the priesthood represents.”

As a result, he said, “there are financial claims pending against the archdiocese that exceed our means.”

This recalls for me a couple of things, right offhand…

When I hosted ‘The Right Questions’ radio show several years ago, my producer and I were so taken by something that was happening in an archdiocese in the far reaches of Canada, we invited the newly appointed archbishop on the show to talk about his remarkable approach. He had been appointed to head this archdiocese that was devastated by an abuse scandal, the wretched consequences of one bad priest. The archbishop took his post and announced a year of reparation for the entire archdiocese, ‘the year of the Cross’, and a program of prayer and pilgrimage, austerity and atonement, to end on the feast of the Triumph of the Holy Cross. He was very humble, addressing the full weight of the crime and total need for just reparation. We revisited that conversation a year later, and heard remarkable accounts of rebuilding, restoration and conversion that went on throughout that year. They are stronger now, as a result.

The other thing….or another thing, among others that are occurring to me for another post on another day….is the poignant insight of a French scholar in an interview with Le Figaro.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that crimes committed by a priest are ultimately more serious than those committed by a phys-ed teacher, for example. And that is what justifies the media anger/outcry we have witnessed. The paradox is this: if we particularly attack Church members when they are corrupt it’s because we have a sense of the special purity of their mission.

From this point of view, the standing of the Church is even more affected where we believe in the holiness of the Church, because it is then that it becomes serious beyond comparison. Thus Benedict XVI, who understands the mystery of the priesthood, finds these crimes much more terrible than the non-Christian media can even conceive. That is why he has wanted it out in the daylight.

Yes, one of the strongest voices for resolution and reparation in all this has long been Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI.

Peace 2011

‘Can’t we all just get along?’

Pope Benedict’s message for this World Day of Peace is about the necessity of religious freedom, and the absolute human right to either choose or reject a faith, seek or deny God.

The message, which also refers to the Holy Land, goes on to say that“Christians are the religious group which suffers most from persecution on account of its faith”. It laments the fact that religious freedom continues to be threatened by an intolerant secularism that is opposed to every expression of religion, by fundamentalism, secularism’s mirror image, by the politicisation of religion and the imposition of state religions, and by the “illusion that moral relativism provides the key for peaceful coexistence [when in fact it] is actually the origin of divisions and the denial of the dignity of human beings.”

In fact, for Benedict XVI religious freedom, like other human rights, neither depends on the recognition of the state nor is it a concession by the state because it pre-exists the state, and is based on the natural dignity of the person.

It is a “path to peace” since the recognition of the inalienable human right to seek or deny God and adapt one’s behaviour to the truth gives a community the ethical basis on which it can search a positive and full development that is respectful of mankind. Religion’s “public dimension” stems from that, so does the positive contribution it can make to social, economic and political life.

Late in 2010, I was already focusing more of my own attention and efforts on the cause of religious freedom in the world, as the foundation of ‘the new humanism’ Benedict has long talked about. It’s one of the two big humanitarian issues I’m committing myself to in the year ahead. So I was really glad to see this message for January 1, 2011. And hopefully, all the days that follow.

‘Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.’