“What will 2008 be known for?” we asked in February. We said it wouldn’t be known for the baseball scandals or the rise of Barack Obama. It will be known as “the year of Pope Benedict XVI.”
A year later, that sounds counterintuitive. It did then, too. “After all,” we said, “the Holy Father is just going to visit and make some remarks. And besides, he’s mostly of interest to Catholics — while these other events are of interest to all.”
But the editorial went on to spell out our logic:
“As inspiring as even we find Barack Obama’s story and speeches, the future is not his. History has seen the rise and fall of many ideologies of exploitation. The abortion industry is ascendant now, and Obama is a close ally of the abortion industry. But in years to come, his adamant opposition to the right to life for unborn babies, up to and including the last stages of pregnancy, will be seen as shameful rather than inspirational. Obama’s embrace of the abortion industry is so extreme, he even voted against a bill that would protect babies accidentally born alive during abortions.”
If history has taught us anything, it is that the truth outlives the intellectual fads and abuses that rise and fall. Defending truth, in season and out of season, is what Pope Benedict has devoted his life to, and the truth endures.
Here are three promises of Barack Obama’s that only Benedict, not Obama, will keep.
Barack Obama spoke a lot about unity in the months leading up to the election. Audiences thrilled to his talk of being a new kind of politician, above the corruption and partisanship of old. But from the appointments he has made in the new administration, it’s clear that he is interested not in unity for all so much as for the Washington leadership of one particular party. And however hard the media tries to keep him aloof from it, the incident with Gov. Rod Blagojevich and his Senate seat points to his origins in the political system of Chicago, where he won his first political victories by eliminating opposing candidates on technicalities.
Pope Benedict XVI, on the other hand, presides over real unity. Despite disagreements among his flock, and despite Catholics’ tendency to turn on their own, the Church is actually growing more united, not less. We saw this in the unprecedented effort on behalf of bishops to speak up for life in the lead up to the election. We see it in the growing number of Catholic colleges faithful to the Holy Father. And we saw it this year in the outpouring of support for Pope Benedict XVI in America and Australia. Significantly, that support wasn’t for a man promising to help their finances but for one who challenged their souls.
Benedict stands for unity because he stands for its only source: Christ.
Hope was another favorite theme of Obama’s. He even made it the title of one of his memoirs: The Audacity of Hope. When he began campaigning, his hopes were music to the ears of one wing of his party. But now, those early supporters feel betrayed as his positions shift. The only policy position on which he seems to be unwilling to compromise is abortion.
Pope Benedict spoke a lot about hope this year, too. The theme of his visit to the United States was “Christ Our Hope.” He wrote an encyclical on hope — drawing attention to the fact that we are not the source of our hope: Spe Salvi, “Saved in Hope.” He even commented on political hope in his April 16 address at the White House, saying that hope is impossible where virtues wane: “In a world without truth, freedom loses its foundation, and a democracy without values can lose its very soul.”
Hope can’t come through politics, but only through a rebirth in faith. So he declared a Jubilee of the Church in America, repeated the call for the New Evangelization and declared that God is preparing a “new springtime of the faith.” In Australia, where young people from all over the world flocked to his side, he proved that even hope this audacious is possible.
Finally, change was a key theme of Obama’s. “Change we can believe in” was his catch phrase. The New York Times cited change they didn’t believe in when they took note of five Obama flip-flops last summer and dubbed him “The New and Not Improved Barack Obama.” The Times worries that he doesn’t seem to want as much change for the country as he used to. The one policy principle Obama seems unwilling to compromise is his opposition to the right to life. In this sense, he is like Bill Clinton, who parted ways with his party’s base on free trade, welfare reform and other issues but never crossed them on abortion. Abortion support is their one nonnegotiable issue.
Pope Benedict, on the other hand, asks for real change. Hard change. Personal change. At Washington Nationals Park, he called Americans to repentance. “How much we need [God’s] gifts!” he said. “And how close at hand they are, particularly in the sacrament of penance! The liberating power of this sacrament, in which our honest confession of sin is met by God’s merciful word of pardon and peace, needs to be rediscovered and reappropriated by every Catholic. To a great extent, the renewal of the Church in America and throughout the world depends on the renewal of the practice of penance.” He brought that same message to Australia — and tens of thousands of young people took him up on the invitation.
Pope Benedict XVI is greater than Barack Obama, and his legacy will be better remembered by history, because he isn’t just an intelligent man. He is Peter. He is Christ’s vicar on earth. It is his identification with Jesus Christ that makes him so attractive. Christ has attracted whole civilizations to his side for 2,000 years. And he is far from finished.