Pope Benedict XVI. Flickr

What Is At Stake is the Nature of the Church

Pope Benedict XVI has often been attacked by the mass media through mischaracterization and a sensationalizing of his comments. In what way are we to follow the Pope and what is his role in the world?
Stefano Alberto

Why do the mass media continually and increasingly attack the person of the Pope? Why this systematic reduction of his teaching to sensational, off the mark headlines that arouse bitter reactions and controversies throughout the world? The latest one is well known, about his declarations on the solutions for the plague of AIDS. Many journalistic comments on Benedict XVI’s extraordinary Letter to the Bishops clattered on the keys of the Pope’s solitude, the growing incomprehension of his message, deemed too doctrinal and not pastoral enough, and his isolation in the Curia, among the faithful, and in world public opinion. There’s no lack of those who doggedly remark about repeated “incidents” of communication (beginning with his discourse in Regensburg), or who insist on “the myth of my solitude,” as Benedict XVI smilingly said during his conversation with journalists on the flight to Cameroon for his first apostolic trip to Africa. He said this with the same serenity with which he pronounced other words–which now we can see as prophetic–in his homily at the beginning of his pontificate in Saint Peter’s Square (April 24, 2005), when he remarked twice about “being alone”–first, remembering John Paul II (“Those who believe are never alone, not in life and not even in death”), and second, referring to himself, united with the company of the saints in heaven and with the prayer, the hope, and the charity of all the faithful: “I am not alone. I do not have to carry alone what in reality I could never carry alone.” In that circumstance, Benedict XVI affirmed that “my true plan for governing is that of not doing my will, not pursuing my ideas, but listening, with the whole Church, to the Word and the will of the Lord and letting myself be guided by Him, so He Himself is guiding the Church in this hour of our history.” These statements help us understand the profound meaning and importance for the whole Church of his recent Letter, which, without reticence about difficulties and errors, divisions, even hatred, expresses all of Benedict XVI’s passion for Christ and for humanity, the living awareness of his unique service to the Church and the world, and the intensity of his Magisterium.

It goes well beyond the precise explanations and clarifications of the gesture of mercy with which he removed the excommunication, imposed at the very moment of the illegitimate ordination of the four Lefebrian bishops, with all the painful controversies and confusion that ensued. Many have already noted that this text represents a unicum in Church history, and not just recent history, because of its style (close to that of the Pauline letters and the early Christian Fathers, it has been observed) and because of its decisive magisterial content. The Pope himself wanted to clarify, first of all to the Episcopal College, which he heads, that the problems faced are of an “essentially doctrinal” nature, and concern “above all the acceptance of the Second Vatican Council and the Post-Conciliar Magisterium of the Popes.” At the center lies the delicate process of reception of Vatican II, still in process (even though there are those who fantasize about the need for a “Vatican III”), and the relationship between the Council and the Tradition of the Church. These are not just issues limited to the bishops or the close circle of specialists and “insiders,” because what is at stake is the very nature of the Church and her mission toward contemporary man.

The Pope himself reminded listeners of this with grief: “In our times, when in vast zones of the earth the faith is in danger of going out like a flame with no more nourishment, the priority above all others is to make God present in this world and to open for humanity access to God.” The Pope grasps with dramatic lucidity the signs of a time in which “God disappears from the horizon of humanity” and “humanity suffers a lack of orientation, the destructive effects of which are increasingly manifest.” The members of the Pius X Fraternity are reminded of the fact that nobody can expect to “freeze the magisterial authority of the Church” to the times before the Council. But he also reminds those he calls, not without subtle irony, “great defenders of the Council,” that “Vatican II bears within the entire doctrinal history of the Church” and that faithfulness to the Council implicates “the faith professed over the centuries” without “cutting the roots by which the tree lives.”

There are those who want to see in these sober and effective expressions a kind of change, even a major shift, from the indications the Pope gave in his important speech to the Curia in 2005. On that occasion, the Pope spoke of the need for a hermeneutics of continuity and reform regarding the Council, instead of the one dominant in vast sectors of the Church today, which interprets the “updating” of Vatican II, its “opening to the world,” as a discontinuity from the preceding tradition, almost a new beginning of the Church in modernity. Such a reading immediately risks reducing the power of the papal Letter, without grasping the true issue, which is the overcoming of the latent division in the Church between the content and the method of the Christian announcement. If one rationalistically reduces the content of Christianity to mere doctrine or moral precepts, continually interpretable according to inevitably partial criteria (traditionalism, progressivism, spiritualism…), the method of her announcement ends up being dictated not by the fact itself of the event of Christ, always present in the life of the Church, but by its various consequences, according to the priorities dictated by the historical moment and, ultimately, by the powers that be. How does God make Himself present today? How does He speak to humanity? How does He manifest His “love pushed to the extreme,” which we so badly need? This is the priority for Benedict XVI, engaging himself in the first person and re-proposing with serene firmness the perennial newness of the Christian event and the conditions of its original permanence, in times when the faith and the sense of belonging to the Church are weakening. In his arduous work for the faith, the hope, and the love of the entire Church, Benedict XVI is well aware of the mission entrusted by the Lord Himself to Peter and his successors: “Simon, Simon … strengthen your brothers” (Lk 22:32).

A passage in his speech of March 16th to the Congregation for the Clergy illuminates this awareness: “In the mystery of the Incarnation of the Word, that is, of the fact that God became man like us, lies both the content and the method of Christian proclamation. ” We could also point to the incipit of his first encyclical, quoted in the Letter to the Bishops: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (Deus Caritas Est, no. 1). With his witness of faith and merciful love, with his yearning call for the unity of believers, principal sign of the credibility of the Christian announcement (and thus the priority for ecumenism and the need for inter-religious dialogue), the Pope, faithful to the charism of Peter, re-presents through his person the very method of the announcement: “It is He, Christ, who guides the Church.” Benedict XVI’s great freedom to accept with love the burden and the arduous engagement of his unique, but not solitary, mission, regardless of the “hostility poised to attack,” is the true guarantor of the freedom and the hope of every believer as they follow Christ, and of every man or woman sincerely striving in the daily toil of their journey toward destiny. His is the true alternative to “a badly interpreted freedom,” always ready to “bite and devour,” inside and outside the Church.