Benedict’s Gifts and ‘Gaffes’

The media is a double-edged sword: It can lift you up, and it can knock you down. Last year, headlines and commentators expressed surprise at the gifts the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI had brought to the Church. Now, their praise has been replaced by finger-pointing at the “gaffes” of the same Holy Father.

The problem: There’s not that much difference between those gifts and those gaffes. Consider:

A gift: Pope Benedict’s theme of friendship with Jesus.

In his homily before the papal conclave, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger introduced a theme that he would return to again after becoming Pope Benedict XVI.

He called Catholics to “friendship with Jesus,” invoking the Roman phrase that identified friends as those with the same likes and same dislikes.

In his inaugural Mass as Pope, the Holy Father returned to the same theme, saying, “If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation.”

He expanded on that theme in many ways afterward — in his first encyclical, 2006’s Deus Cartias Est (God Is Love) and in his book Jesus of Nazareth, which he wrote, he said,  “to help foster the growth of a living relationship” with Jesus Christ.

A so-called gaffe: In his remarks to the bishops of Latin America meeting in Aparecida, Brazil, Pope Benedict said, “The Utopia of going back to breathe life into the pre-Columbian religions, separating them from Christ and from the universal Church, would not be a step forward. Indeed, it would be a step back. In reality, it would be a retreat towards a stage in history anchored in the past.”

Later, the Holy Father was quick to acknowledge the injustices that took place during the colonization of Latin America.

But his original remark was of a piece with the important theme of his pontificate: Friendship with Jesus isn’t an imposition on a life that would have been freer without it — it is a liberation for those who would be diminished without it. Everyone is bettered by that friendship — Indians included.

A gift: Pope Benedict’s insistence that God is love.

Hand in hand with his concept of friendship with Jesus is Pope Benedict’s emphasis on God as love. In his first encyclical, he had startling things to say. He calls God’s love for his people not just agape love but eros. In other words, he says God loves us with an almost romantic longing.

The Holy Father even writes: “God’s passionate love for his people — for humanity — is at the same time a forgiving love. It is so great that it turns God against himself, his love against his justice.”

He has returned to the theme again and again in homilies. In March 2006, he said: “God loves us in a way that we might call ‘obstinate’ and enfolds us in his inexhaustible tenderness.”

A so-called gaffe: On Sept. 12, 2006, the Holy Father gave a lecture about faith and reason — and the need to reject violence — at the University of Regensburg, Germany. In it, he quoted a 14th century emperor’s words about the incompatibility of faith and violence. But he also quoted the emperor’s harsh words about Muhammad, the founder of Islam — calling them “astonishingly brusque.”

Some Muslims reacted, ironically, with violence — but Pope Benedict was doing nothing more in his Regensburg address than expressing in concrete terms the consequences of the truth that God is love — renouncing violence in the name of God.

A gift: Benedict’s emphasis on the Eucharist.

All of these lessons are summed up in another constant theme of the Pope: The Eucharist. In his first message after becoming Pope, Benedict said: “I ask everyone in the coming months to intensify love and devotion for Jesus in the Eucharist,” he said, “and to express courageously and clearly faith in the Real Presence of the Lord, especially by the solemnity and the correctness of the celebrations.”

It’s another theme he returned to several times, most importantly in the recent post-synodal apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis (The Sacrament of Charity).

A so-called gaffe: In a Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith document, the Vatican reiterated the fact that only those Churches that retain the Real Presence of Christ are authentic.

The document was simply a reiteration of the key truth that Christ is truly present in the Eucharist. The Vatican is saying that Churches are Christians gathered with Christ — not gatherings of those who reject the Eucharist.

Pope Benedict’s pontificate hasn’t been a series of gifts and gaffes at all, but a consistent application of key themes of the Christian life.