If you consult the mainstream media, you’d swear that all Benedict (aka “God’s Rottweiler/The Enforcer/Former Hitler Youth”) did is concoct new rules and then “lash out” or “crack down” on people for not keeping them.

Given this view of the faith, discussions in the press often break down into babble about mortal and venial sin. Little lists are bandied about and we are told, in the words of one magazine: “Mortal sins are those that the sinner knows are serious but nonetheless decides to perform. They include the seven deadly sins as well as countless others, like witchcraft or skipping out on Sunday Mass.”

Venial sins, we discover, don’t tick off our inexplicably irritable God as much, but if they pile up, he might lose his always-hair-trigger temper and damn us anyway.

Happily, you can “wipe the slate clean” by confession.

What is missing from all this? Any concept of life in Christ as relationship.

Catholic life is, according to the mainstream media, rules written on a card and stuck to the refrigerator. Break rules on Card A and the Divine Administrator drops your personnel file in the “Go to Hell” tray for processing.

Break rules on Card B and the Divine Administrator marks down the infraction. Earn enough infractions and the Sin Monitor Task Force transfers your personnel file to the “Go to Hell” tray.

However, if you do the religious equivalent of filling out a waiver by going to confession, the Divine Administrator will, for inscrutable reasons, shred your record and let you start your personnel file over.

The goal of the Christian life, in this scenario, is to die with your personnel file spotless (except maybe for a couple of infractions you can work off in purgatory). Then God has to let you into heaven, which is this beautiful park where your favorite dead people have been standing around waiting for you to arrive.

Way to go! You did all the stuff you needed in order to pass and now you graduate to the ultimate happy retirement and go fishing!

What’s missing? The notion of a life of virtue spent trying to cultivate a relationship with God never enters the picture. It’s just a question of keeping and breaking rules — with rewards entirely external to us. And nobody (in the mainstream media) really knows why one rule is more important than another.

Indeed, some of the rules appear to have nothing whatever do with anything, if you judge by the portrayal of the mainstream media.

A mortal sin to miss Mass? That one must have been stuck in by the Church to try to control people. When Benedict comes to America he’s probably going to crack down on people for stuff like that!

There’s no conception that Benedict’s real interest is in fostering relationship with Jesus Christ. That’s why, when he writes an encyclical like Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love), the mainstream media are dumbfounded.

What’s the Chief Bureaucrat of an organization devoted solely to the promulgation and enforcement of irrational rules doing talking about love? They then translate this enlightenment of their Stygian ignorance about the faith into the breathless announcement that Benedict has “grown.”

In the same way, hell seems, in the mind of the mainstream media, to have nothing to do with relationship.

I constantly meet people who think of hell as an absurdly sadistic overreaction by a touchy God who gets irrationally angry when people don’t keep his arbitrary rules.

There is not the slightest grasp that hell is the “definitive self-exclusion” of a soul from the society of God who has done everything, including being tortured to death, to bring them close to him.

Hell is not some arbitrary punishment that God sticks on us like postage stamps because we got too many infractions in the file or forgot to get a waiver. It is the human heart making the final choice to be bricked round in the furnace of itself — alone.

In short, people don’t seem to grasp that heaven is simply the fruit of a life that pursues relationship with God on his terms and hell is simply the fruit of a life that pursues its own course on its own terms.

Mortal and venial sins are useful distinctions, to be sure. But if you turn them into another way of trying to be saved by law, you are stone deaf to the most elementary teaching of the Gospel: that only Christ, not law, can save us.

Benedict is acutely aware of that, which is why he constantly refers us not to some mythical list of salvific rules and regulations, but to Christ. That’s going to be the real message he brings to our shores.

God willing, even our journalists will start to figure that out while he’s here.


Mark Shea is senior content

editor for CatholicExchange.com.