As promised, I'm going to just jot down a commentary on some of what our Holy Father said during his wildly successful visit to the U.S. There's a lot of stuff, and very important too, that he said, so it'd be a bit too much for me right now to address it all. As my reflections of late have been towards the university, education, life as a young Catholic growing up in contemporary culture, I want to focus particular attention on his address to us youth and to Catholic educators. Today, though, da yoot. :D
By way of introduction, these respond to His Holiness' address on 19 Apr. I'll cite by paragraph number. As always, many thanks to Fr. Z. for having posted the text of this speech, with his own very helpful and insightful commentary.
General observation: Pope Benedict exceeds expectations. Not only those of the nay-sayers, but also of his admirers. I think it is fair to say that he outdid himself in this visit. In his speech, there is no sense of being out-of-touch with young people, there isn't any feeling of preachiness or finger-wagging. He connects, he makes his arguments with grace and clarity and careful consideration, but for all that what he writes is not dry, dead, or too lofty for his audience. He has a certain expectation of the people listening to them, and doesn't talk to them. This is extremely wise. Trying to behave too much like us only makes us think one has never been, nor is now, very much like us.
Para. 2: Pope Benedict speaks of our lives becoming a "journey of hope", with our goal to walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. This is subtly brilliant; how many times do young people find that they lack direction in their lives? And even when they know what path they want to take, isn't it so difficult to find and bring meaning to this? We do things, but they become routine and joyless, devoid of higher purpose. After all this education and preparation, we go out into the world and do our jobs and make our money (for some, but Deo volente not for me) and then what? We can't take it with us. But His Holiness shows us the way through all these brambles: life is about walking in the Way, that is, Jesus Christ. The sense and feeling of a journey are understood in the light of the highest principle.
Para. 3 and 4: And we are provided with examples. We are given people to follow who have walked the same road. Diversity is mentioned here, but in its true sense. It is divorced from a political agenda and all the trappings and hidden bids for power that characterize "diversity" today. These are people who really did come from widely different backgrounds, and not because they were selected by a government process to make sure that everyone feels like their faction gets represented, but in demonstration of the fact that God calls all men and women to follow Him. I am also struck by the fact that, of all the institutions in the world, the Church truly is the most diverse, without ever having to enforce such an agenda. There's a lesson in that.
Para. 5: This lets us see some of the very keen understanding I think His Holiness has of American and American Catholicism. It has been my experience that practically (praxis, deed/act), the Church in America, and really the wider Christian community in America are exemplary. As a whole, we are generous, involved, and highly active. The notion of service is one that is really vibrant in the Church in this country. If you were to ask a Confirmation class, what they remember most about their experience throughout the process, my sense is that most would mention something relating to their service or work with people. This is altogether commendable and in line with the exhortations to charity, mercy, and our obligations to our brethren and all mankind.
The problems, however, come in the philosophical or theological component. Americans don't have a problem with the externals, as I've noted above. We have a very keen sense of the outward duties of a Christian. The ad extra part is, in a sense, easy, or at least natural, to us. It's the ad intra that's difficult. So many times we hear from teens today: "What does it matter whether or not I believe in the Trinity, or the Virgin Birth? I'm living like Christians are told to. In fact, I'm living better than some of the higher-ups at Rome who don't ever take the time to help the less fortunate and live like princes." What we seem to have lost is the sense of "knowing God" as He has revealed Himself to us. The truths about Him which the Church teaches, the truths which the Church teaches about herself, aren't simply arbitrary or the accretion of centuries. So what Pope Benedict presents are models of Christian living who are very much centered in the traditions, beliefs, and teachings of the Church.
As a bit of a digression here, I'd like to take yet another go at the notion of achristian morality or goodness, i.e. the ability of people to be good without belief in Christ. This is a particularly popular notion in our country, and I suspect it has been one that has raised its ugly head plenty of times throughout the history of the Church. This goes back, in fact, to the Epistle to Romans.
Yup, that's right, it's the big Protestant canard of salvation through works. I think we need to do more to dispel this notion. But because good non-Christians can be paragons of virtue, more so than some Christians, this is a tough sell, and probably always will be. My own particular strategy is two-fold: 1) we need people to disprove this. We need saints like Mother Theresa who completely outstrip people's expectations for charitable actions. Whenever there has been such a challenge to the Church before by a popularly heretical notion, saints have risen to the occasion. More to the point, they have been very orthodox saints (even if their particular methods have been unorthodox qua atypical and unconventional). Look at St. Francis and St. Dominic and the orders they formed, and in response to which problems. This is a point which has been driven home for me in reading Hinnbusch's History of the Dominican Order. A new monastic order would be interesting, but perhaps not practical or possible. A lay movement would probably gain much support, but is more difficult to manage. Reinvigorating the existing orders is an excellent and necessary first step. So that's one. 2) In a certain sense, we need to address the people who make the argument that you don't need to be a Christian to be a good human being. We need to ask where this goodness comes from, or what it is oriented to, if not God. And, in the case of certain vocal anti-Christians, I think we need to point out the statement's hypocrisy. This was something which occurred to me when Bill Maher recently made a tremendous podex of himself by stating that you don't need to believe in Christ to be good. Well, that's fine- but of course, right after that, he went and spread lies, terrible insults, and really inflammatory and disparaging statements. Are these the marks of a good man? In so many cases, when people assert their own sufficient self-goodness, they are assuming something which may not be evident because it might not exist, or at least not to the extent they believe. This doesn't mean going after really good people. This means tackling the loudmouths and the hypocrites. It also means demanding that people put their money where their mouths are.
Back to Papa Ratzi:
Para. 6: His Holiness establishes his "street cred". (I'm sorry, I couldn't resist using this Obamism. The irony is, of course, that B16 has always had it, whereas Obamessiah has had to manufacture it for himself) Our Holy Father knows what it is like to live under a brutal and terrifying regime which dredged up some of the worst of humanity. Fortunately, Nazi Germany is still considered such a potent example of evil by most people that this point is made quite striking.
Para. 7: He bolsters American resolve. He reminds us a little of what makes us unique as a nation and also how God has blessed us. This ties into his message of hope.
Para. 8: A great reference to the Easter season, the Paschal mystery, and the Exsultet. Hope again seen in transcendent and radiant terms.
What follows are what I shall call the Two Chains. Pope Benedict introduces two means by which we young people can become enslaved.
Chain 1: The Chain of the Heart. There are forces in our society which work to crush our spirit by denying and ridiculing our God-given dignity as human beings. Drug addiction, sexual depravity and the objectification of women, are all expressions of this. There are other ways in which this is seen. The great mechanization of the modern age is probably the most signal example. Men are increasingly becoming commodified. We are seen as having worthy only insofar as we are "productive" members of society, and so the old, the ill, the physically imperfect all have to fear for their lives. It has not come this far yet, Gott sei Dank, but it will, if unchecked. Make no mistake: the utilitarianism which infects so much of business, commerce, industry, and every day life is one of the most corrosive developments in human history.
Chain 2: The Chain of the Mind- this is the dictatorship of relativism, a recurrent motif in the thought of Benedict XVI. The idea that truth is relative to a culture, or country, or time, or an individual is not only untrue, it is ultimately destructive. We are afforded no clarity by such a notion. We are, in fact, paralyzed by it. Could we have fought the Nazis with such a notion? Taking relativism to its logical conclusion, there can be no objection to what the Nazis did. They did, after all, as was right by them; was not their version of truth simply different from ours? Who are we to say what is right and what is wrong? Aren't those simply expressions of our peculiar circumstances, and so devoid of universal value? Such a philosophy writ large cannot but put the wicked in power. And here again is an important point His Holiness draws out: relativism does not occur in a vacuum. It is, in fact, an agenda. It is something propagated by people who will use the resulting moral confusion and cacophony to seize power.
So this is where I must break off for the moment, but there is more to come!