WASHINGTON — When Pope Benedict XVI looks at the Church in America, he doesn’t perceive a Church torn by division.
He sees a Church full of hope, joy and innovative approaches to passing on the faith.
In God and the World, his 2002 book-length interview with German journalist Peter Seewald before he became Pope Benedict, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said, “I believe that it is particularly in the American sphere that people are taking up Catholicism as a whole and trying to relate it anew to the modern world.”
In God and the World and elsewhere, the Pope has singled out specific areas of American apostolic activity for particular praise. In preparation for the Holy Father’s visit this month to the United States, the Register talked to several people active in those areas about their work and how they have been influenced by Benedict’s ideas.
In God and the World, Benedict acknowledged that the Church in America is “characterized by tensions,” and contains groups “who are critical of the Church.”
“But above all else there are quite new and vital religious manifestations, new religious communities are being formed who quite consciously aim at a complete fulfillment of the demands of religious life,” he continued. “They live this out of a great joy in their faith, also particularly intending to read again the Fathers and Thomas Aquinas, and to form their lives on what they read.”
One community that conforms closely to Cardinal Ratzinger’s description is the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. Father Benedict Groeschel, who helped start the group in New York’s impoverished South Bronx in the late 1980s along with seven other Capuchins, said the community today numbers about 115 priests and brothers, as well as 25 sisters who live separately in three convents.
Along with several houses in the New York area, the community now has residences ministering to poor neighborhoods in Albuquerque, N.M., Fort Worth, Texas, and abroad in England, Ireland and Honduras.
It’s a young community.
“The average age is about 32 — and if I dropped out it would go down,” the 74-year-old Father Groeschel said with a laugh.
One key way his friars fit Cardinal Ratzinger’s description of vibrant yet traditional religious communities, Father Groeschel said, is “we observe carefully all the basic traditions of religious life — common life, community prayer and theological orthodoxy.”
He added that some aspects of America’s democratic character are also reflected in the life of his religious community.
“We’re very careful in our community that there is a shared responsibility, so everybody has some voice and everybody who has made final vows takes part in a monthly chapter,” he said. “That’s a departure, not only from other places, but from the United States before the Second Vatican Council.”
Another American trait evident in the community is friendliness and buoyancy, a quality that Father Groeschel said is a welcome antidote to the “holy grouchiness” that he says plagued many religious communities prior to the Council.
The Public Square
Another American initiative the Pope has praised on a number of occasions is the U.S. attitude towards religious freedom and the relationship between church and state.
Father Richard John Neuhaus, editor in chief of First Things and author of The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America, said in an e-mail interview that America is more open than Europe to allowing religion to participate in public life.
“Europeans and the Europeanized intellectuals in America are generally, and often radically, committed to the naked public square — meaning public life divorced from religion and religiously grounded moral argument,” Father Neuhaus said. “Practical politicians in this country, however, recognize the inescapability of religion’s engagement with public questions and try to accommodate, and sometimes exploit, that connection to their advantage.”
Father Neuhaus pointed to organizations like the Washington-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and the Michigan-based Thomas More Law Center as examples of American organizations that are promoting religious rights in public life.
Becket Fund President Kevin Hasson said that the United States has not been perfect in its approach to religion in public life. But the American experience in living out Thomas Jefferson’s insight that “it is a truth that the exercise of religion should be free” provided a subsequent opening, at the time of the Second Vatican Council, “for the Church’s reflection on religious freedom as an exercise in the dynamics of truth and freedom,” he said.
Hasson noted the Becket Fund defends equally the rights of all religions, but it does so on the basis of the Catholic vision of the dignity of the human person. And while his organization is not associated directly with the Vatican, Hasson said, “We probably rhyme a lot of the time with what the Vatican wants to do.”
He also said Benedict’s rejection of relativism is “absolutely key” to defending religious freedom.
“Both as Cardinal Ratzinger and as Pope Benedict XVI, his insistence that religious freedom is based on truth rather than on relativism is of monumental importance,” Hasson said.
Networking for Health
In God and the World, Cardinal Ratzinger said Catholics in America are blazing the trail for the entire Church in dealing with new questions involving medical ethics.
When the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is confronted with such questions, “it is not we who make the decision in the first place,” Cardinal Ratzinger said. “The Americans have this great network of Catholic hospitals. So they have nowadays a great wealth of experts, of specialists, of lived experience in practicing modern medicine.”
Sister Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association, said the United States is unique in its system of Catholic health care.
No other country — even predominantly Catholic ones — has a comparable network of Catholic medical institutions that strive to operate according to both the highest standards of contemporary health care and the moral teachings of the Catholic faith, she said.
And Sister Carol said the CHA makes a concerted effort to collaborate closely with both the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and with the Vatican to ensure that Church teachings are respected when medical professionals must craft policies to address thorny ethical issues like end-of-life care.
To facilitate liaison with the Vatican, the CHA sponsors an annual meeting in Rome. Sister Carol noted that Dominican Father Augustine Di Noia, the former executive director of the U.S. bishops’ doctrine committee who came to Rome in 2002 to serve under Cardinal Ratzinger as undersecretary of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, makes a presentation every year to the association’s gathering.
“We understand how important it is to work together,” Sister Carol said. “That’s part of why we stay so close to the U.S. bishops’ conference here and bring people to Rome, because it’s not an individual business or an individual good work. We represent the Church’s healing ministry.”
Sister Carol said a comment Benedict made last September in Vienna, in a speech about Europe’s abortion culture, is particularly inspiring in defining the Catholic vision of health care. “I realize that the credibility of what we say also depends on what the Church herself is doing to help women in trouble,” the Holy Father said.
Said the nun, “And so here in this country — not wanting to do assisted suicide, not wanting to do abortion, speaking about the dignity of very frail elderly, the dignity of the people with very serious chronic diseases that diminish their external humanity — I think that’s only effective if you can see the Church being right there and deeply involved in their care.”
The United States has its share of theologians who have promoted questionable or even dissenting views with respect to teachings that have been foundational to Christianity for the last 2,000 years.
But in God and the World, Cardinal Ratzinger said it was American theologians who are taking the lead in employing biblical exegesis to counterbalance the “one-sidedness” of the historical-critical theological method that views Christ and his teachings exclusively through historical disciplines like archaeology.
Matthew Levering, associate professor of theology at Ave Maria University in Naples, Fla., said Benedict was referring specifically to the work of American biblical scholars. Such work is based on the pioneering research of Protestant biblical scholar Brevard Childs, who taught at Yale Divinity School for 41 years prior to his death last year.
The basic problem with the historical-critical method, Levering said, is “we’re cut off from Jesus” because our understanding of him is limited to what can be gleaned from historical evidence.
A better approach, according to Benedict and other proponents of biblical exegesis, is to seek a “more nuanced understanding of history” by enhancing the linear perspective of Christian history derived though historical-critical methods with God’s divine perspective, as revealed in the Bible.
“The importance of that comes in understanding things like how it is we can be present in Christ’s passion and so forth, because these realities are not simply realities that are 2,000 years away in linear moments,” said Levering. “These realities are not far from us because we are united to them in the relationship of time to eternity.”
He said that the best summation of this approach to theological history is contained in Benedict’s own writings.
“Everything that I think about Scripture you can find in the foreword to [Pope Benedict’s book] Jesus of Nazareth,” Levering said.
Hope for the Future
Father Groeschel says that one of the great mysteries of the last 20 years in American Catholicism is the unexpected emergence of what he calls the John Paul II generation of young Catholics who love the Church and its teachings.
“I do see a tremendous hope in the United States in the JPII generation,” he said. “They are filled with enthusiasm and faith and belief. That’s what our community is made up of.”
And the current Pope has demonstrated a powerful capacity to communicate with these engaged young Catholics, Father Groeschel noted.
“He’s their man — even more that John Paul, although we call them the John Paul II generation,” Father Groeschel said. “I think that he has a tremendous appeal to them.”
Tom McFeely is based in
Victoria, British Columbia.