WASHINGTON — Though crafted for his secularized countrymen, the muscular defense of Catholicism and natural-law principles that defined Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Germany resonates with American Catholics.
During his four-day state visit, Pope Benedict took every opportunity to openly engage a skeptical culture that questions the very existence of objective truth, repudiates Germany’s Christian heritage as irreparably tainted, and discourages the faithful from advancing the mission of the Church.
The acceptance of secularism and an attendant hostility toward religious authority must be re-examined, he warned, before the nation loses its way, courting a reprise of the neo-pagan ideology that fueled the rise of Adolf Hitler.
At first glance, the Pope’s strong language would appear to have little to do with mainstream American culture, which is comparatively more religious — with a vibrant pro-life community — and is not weighed down with the horrific legacy of Nazi war crimes.
But Catholic scholars in the United States say that Americans should ponder the substance of the Pope’s counsel to his countrymen. The Pope emphasized two deeply relevant themes: the necessity of affirming common moral principles to secure a just society and the laity’s central obligation to embrace the mission of the Church and sanctify the culture.
The Pope’s address before the Bundestag, the lower house of the German parliament, is widely viewed as his most striking response to the country’s drift towards secularism, with environmentalism embraced by many of the young as a placeholder for religion.
The Holy Father urged the nation’s legislators not to turn their backs on the faith-based moral values that gave rise to German democracy and secured its rule of law. He asked them to adhere to the true vocation of political leaders by advancing the real good of society.
“Without justice — what else is the state but a great band of robbers? as St. Augustine once said. We Germans know from our own experience that these words are no empty specter,” said the Pope in his address to the Bundestag. “We have seen how power became divorced from right, how power opposed right and crushed it, so that the state became an instrument for destroying right — a highly organized band of robbers, capable of threatening the whole world and driving it to the edge of the abyss.” The reference was to German military aggression and the Nazis’ extermination of European Jews during the Second World War.
“The Pope’s statement was a dagger straight to the conscience of every legislator in Germany and across the world,” said Father Roger Landry, the editor of The Anchor, the newspaper of the Diocese of Fall River, Mass., and a popular retreat leader who has appeared on EWTN. The Register is a service of EWTN.
Many commentators applauded the Holy Father’s statement as a judgment about the tendency of modern political leaders to reduce politics to a competition over votes and money, leading them to focus on the demands of special interests.
“The Pope’s speech at the Bundestag speaks to our political divide here in America,” said Msgr. Stuart Swetland, the Flynn Professor of Christian Ethics at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Md., and the director of pre-theology at the seminary.
“We will have no basis for common ground if we no longer share basic moral assumptions — the ‘self-evident truths’ that were acknowledged at our founding. Today, the whole idea that there could be such truths is being challenged,” said Msgr. Swetland.
In recent years, the U.S. Catholic bishops have expressed a deepening fear of unchecked political power as they confront more aggressive efforts to challenge and constrain the religious freedom of Catholics institutions.
This month, during an exchange following his address at Georgetown University’s Tocqueville Forum, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago stated, “We have the most secularist administration we have ever had in this country, and the danger is real.” Then he added, “But it isn’t really a church-state issue; it is a faith-culture issue. We have to go back to a dialogue beyond politics.”
Msgr. Swetland noted that the interim decision by the Department of Health and Human Services to mandate that contraceptive services be included in all employee health benefits is a consequence, in part, of an increasingly assertive secular ethos: “If there is no moral truth, conscience is merely subjective; there is no reason to respect the institutional conscience” of Catholic hospitals and universities. Further, he linked the Pope’s pointed reference to Germany’s Nazi past to America’s early failure to address the problem of slavery.
Robert Royal, a prolific author and president of the Faith and Reason Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank, noted another parallel development: As a secularized Germany struggles to reinvent its cultural identity, so a kind of “multicultural” regime of tolerance has led Americans to accept a broad range of values without imposing any moral distinctions. “We are not confident about our own values,” he said.
Royal took note of the Pope’s reference to the rise of the ecology movement in Germany in his speech before the parliamentarians.
Pope Benedict suggested that the advent of the ecology movement signaled the younger generation’s legitimate concern for the needs of the natural world. The Pope then proposed that this concern should be matched with a renewed attention to a sustainable “human ecology.”
Most commentators believe the Pope sought to encourage a re-examination of the immutable moral laws that govern human beings, but the jury is out on whether his audience — here or abroad — will accept his challenge.
“Whether this strategy of redefining popular concepts will work remains to be seen. The old approach of going in someone else’s door but coming out your own may be the most practical one available today in the confused understanding of these notions,” observed Jesuit Father James Schall of Georgetown University in a post this week on The Catholic Thing. Father Schall’s most recent book is The Mind That Is Catholic.
But Father Landry, who led a group of teenagers from his parish, St. Anthony of Padua, to World Youth Day in Madrid, applauded the Pope’s approach.
“The Pope is calling us to recognize the similar and greater injustice in the realm of human ecology that young people likewise are now beginning to address, from easy divorce laws to abortion as a choice of convenience. The young in the United States are calling attention to the toxic poison in human ecology that needs to be urgently remedied,” said Father Landry.
While media coverage of the trip primarily focused on the Pope’s speech at the Bundestag, Catholic leaders point to a more important speech explicitly tailored to the concerns of the faithful.
In his address before an audience of German Catholic lay leaders, the Pope acknowledged that the clergy abuse scandals, though painfully real, have distracted the faithful from the central “scandal” that anchors their faith — the suffering and death of Jesus Christ on the cross.
Noting that many reform-minded critics have called for the Church to accommodate a changing cultural context, the Pope said, “Blessed Mother Teresa was once asked what, in her opinion, was the first thing that would have to change in the Church. Her answer was: you and I.”
The Holy Father stressed that the Church’s mission in the world requires that she “constantly set herself apart from her surroundings; she needs, in a certain sense, to become unworldly.” And while Catholic leaders in the United States have rightly sought to reverse political attacks on the religious identity of Catholic institutions, he perceived a silver lining in these ongoing conflicts.
“Secularizing trends — whether by expropriation of Church goods or elimination of privileges or the like — have always meant a profound liberation of the Church from forms of worldliness, for in the process she has set aside her worldly wealth and has once again completely embraced her worldly poverty,” stated the Pope.
Father Landry suggested that the laity in the United States “need to hear this message just as much as their counterparts in Germany.”
Msgr. Swetland was struck by the Pope’s overall message for the trip: “Where there is God, there is hope.”
But Royal feared that American Catholics won’t read the Pope’s speeches in their entirety and instead will turn to the mainstream media’s often primitive translation of his remarkable insights.
That said, Royal expressed the hope that Catholics in the United States will embrace the Pope’s call for a “re-evangelization of the West, including the U.S. His approach is not a shouting out to people to ‘come to Jesus.’ The Pope is detailing the ways the Christian message is absolutely essential to our culture.”
Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.