By Fr. George Welzbacher
April 20, 2008
Given the deadline that governs our parish bulletin's submission of text to the printer, I am writing this Pastor's Page in advance of Pope Benedict's arrival in our nation's capital, scheduled for late Tuesday afternoon, April 15th, to be greeted in person at Andrews Air Force Base by the President and the First Lady of the United States- an honor without precedent in our nation's history.
Having offered from the pulpit my own speculations about the message that Pope Benedict may see fit to present to the various constituencies with whom he will meet, I thought you might be interested in hearing what one of America's leading Catholic intellectuals has to say about the problems and concerns that in his view are worthy of papal attention. I am referring to the article written by Michael Novak that appeared in the April 21, 2008 edition issue of The National Review, the journal of conservative thought founded and for many years edited by William F. Buckley, Jr., who recently passed to God's judgment. Requiesat in pace. I reprint Mr. Novak's article here.
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American Benediction (On the Pope's U. S. Visit)
By Michael Novak
When Pope Benedict XVI arrives in America this month, he will find an American Church much in need of his tough love and pastoral care. Nonetheless, his native instinct for modesty and gentleness is likely to be the most visiblefact of his presence.
Some may ask why Benedict XVI chose to come to the White House this year, at the risk of seeming to engage in politics during an election. My guess is that the Vatican has never had a better friend in the White House than George W. Bush-not only in defending the sanctity of human life, but in exposing the reflexive leftism (and "gnosticism"--to which I will return later) of many international organizations, and in stressing the importance of religious liberty in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Second, the Pope especially appreciates the American founders' intellectual solution to the crisis of religious liberty. That solution has bearing today on the immense difficulties of church and state- which much concern Benedict-that are now being experienced in so many other nations around the world.
Third, Benedict XVI appreciates the substratum of natural law-the universal law implanted in the hearts and minds of all persons-that is expressed in the natural-rights tradition of the United States. This way of thinking has, in his mind, immense international potency. It is rooted in natural reason, not particular faiths, and it pertains to human beings as such, not as they are divided into nations or tribes.
There are further reasons, as well. If the Pope is studying briefing papers in advance of his trip, here are a few of the facets he is likely to go over.
The State of the Church.
American Catholicism may [still] be one of the two or three most vital national Catholic Churches in the world. Its network of more than 200 Catholic colleges and universities is unrivaled (Germany has only one), even though, over the last four decades, many have become visibly less "Catholic". [That's for sure!]. The level of practice among lay American Catholics is one of the highest anywhere, and their habits of giving among the most generous.
All the same, American Catholicism has sunk far below the vigor it showed just prior to the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Then, religious orders of sisters, brothers, and priests were bursting at the seams and rushing to build new convents and seminaries of unprecedented size. Now most of these orders are in severe decline, and many of their seminaries have been forced to close or are only fractionally used for their original purposes.
The number of sisters has shrunk from about 180,000 to 63,000. Thousands of priests have abandoned their ministries. The average age of both priests and nuns is far too high, and the number of new vocations (except in the most orthodox and self-disciplined communities) is below replacement level. [Our archdiocese in recentyears is doing noticeably better in this respect.]
Thus, the record of the Catholic Church in America since the Second Vatican Council is not altogether impressive [to put it mildly!]. A notable laxity has crept in, along with a loss of self-confidence in being Catholic. Even at Catholic universities, it is surprising in most places how little graduates know about their faith and its intellectual traditions. Since 1965, secular culture has in many places choked off Catholic culture both in thought and in practice.
For example, the Pew Forum an Religion & Public Life recently released a portrait of American Catholics based on its 2007 "Religious Landscape Survey," which points out that roughly one-third of those who were raised Catholic have left the Church. Looked at another way, it adds, approximately one in ten American adults is a former Catholic....
Pew points out that 41 percent of self-identified adult Catholics in the U.S. today attend Mass each week.[Before the "Great Leap Forward" of the 1960's the rate of Mass attendance in the United States was at least half again as high]. The tone the Pew survey uses here suggests that such a turnout is poor, but it would be impressive by most westem-European standards.[Rather faint consolation, that!] In Paris and London, more Muslims may attend weekly services than do Christians.
Forty-one percent is not poor by the standards of Hollywood, either. Movie critic Michael Medved once took an informal poll and found that nearly everyone he talked to in Hollywood estimated that no more than 3 or 4 percent of Americans go to church on Sundays. The fact is, Medved points out, more Americans are in church every Sunday than have ever formed the audience for a single television event...
Just 30 percent of young Catholic adults ages 18-29 attend Mass each week-[again, the rate for this age cohort used to be much higher]-though a significant chunk of them return to the sacraments with greater regularity as they marry and have children of their own.
Forty-one percent of Catholics in church on Sunday adds up to about 29 million attendees each week, counting the children. Not many communities do that well. Evangelical Christians do better, mainline Protestants rather worse. The sad part is that Catholics are drifting more in the direction of the latter.
And while Pope John Paul II accomplished much toward his goal of raising the quality of American bishops, we still have nothing like the golden age of great early leaders such as Bishops Spalding, Ireland, and Gibbons. [and a cluster of other great bishops of the 19th century]. The two things attentive Catholics grouse about most are the low levels of public (and even internal) leadership among a large number of their bishops, and the poor preparation of most priests to give sermons of solid theological quality, stated in simple terms. Many priests .... no doubt in an effort to be regular Joes, offer far too many details from their personal lives and off-the-cuff allusions to recent movies.
As for the Pope himself, one of the most beautiful things about him is how faithfully he is just himself-not trying to be like his great friend John Paul II (they used to meet once a week for long conversations, often of some theological and philosophical depth). His training was to become a professor, and more than that, an unusually clear thinker, of extraordinary erudition and fearless intellectual judgment.
As a cardinal Ratzinger challenged one of the more famous public intellectuals of Europe, Jurgen Habermas, a self-identified atheist, to a debate on faith and unbelief in modern Europe. To the surprise of almost everyone, Habermas praised the role of Jewish and Christian faith in building up the concepts, habits, and viewpoints that gave rise to modern science and to the Englightenment, while the cardinal praised the role of reason in curbing the toxicity to which careless thinking about religion sometimes gives rise. Public reports suggested that the amity between the two was impressive.
The Pope has always struck those who knew him as an unusually shy and modest man, despite his great learning. He prefers to let hisc larity of tliought speak for itself and presents himself even in casual conversation as a seeker and a constant learner.
Back in the early 1980s, it was reported that four American Catholic and Protestant thinkers sat down with then-Cardinal Ralzinger for an hour of conversation, a kind of tour d'horizon of the situation of Christian faith in Europe, the United States, and the then-Soviet Union. The cardinal is said to have insisted that Communism was dead- no one even in the USSR took it seriously any longer (unlike some in Western universities). The great intellectual threat of the future, he said quietly, the one he was most concerned about, was "gnosticism."
Like Erick Voegelin, the European refugee who lived and wrote in the United States for many years, the cardinal was thought to have meant by this a kind of dreamy utopianism, an attempt to escape from human limitations. [The "Course in Miracles" currently promoted by Oprah Winfrey is a perfect example]. Gnosticism seeks such unrealistic forms of perfection that it necessarily becomes the enemy of the merely human and the merely good. It leads to dissatisfaction, outrage, bitterness, alienation, depressed capitulation to evil, and, often enough, self-destruction. Perhaps the cardinal was even then working toward his more recent thinking about relativism and nihilism, genetic engineering, and political romanticism as the chief enemies of freedom today.
Let me now offer one testimony of my own. About a decade ago in Italy, my wife and I were sitting at dinner in a large family trattoria, occupied mostly by locals and a few tourists. In walked a group of about ten priests in ordinary black cassocks, surrounding a white-haired older priest who also wore a plain cassock. Surprised, I rose to greet him; with a smile he offered a formal embrace and welcomed my wife and me to Rome, then rejoined his party. It was Cardinal Ratzinger on his birthday in mid-April, and his staff at the Holy Office---composed of nationals of many lands-was taking him out to a birthday dinner.
At the funeral of John Paul the Great, in a tremendously affecting and passionate moment, before the largest human audience that has ever gathered in a great city of the world, Cardinal Ratzinger preached an eloquent sermon. It was intellectually powerful, poetic, and obviously marked by his friendship with the departed-not to mention his great admiration and affection for the man. One member of our party leaned over afterwards and said. "We have just heard the next Pope." Most of the others didn't believe him. The odds then seemed very long.
While in Rome for two days, however, I collected more than a dozen testimonials from cardinals in newspaper interviews who suggested that Ratzinger might well be their candidate. Even the Jesuits I talked to in Rome were in favor of him, despite considerable Jesuit resistance to John Paul II. So were key cardinals from Latin America (and most of the Germans).
What swayed many was that Joseph Ratzinger has long been known as a modest, holy, and approachable man, more a priest than a cardinal, yet among the other cardinals probably the sharpest pencil in the box. He was also the most learned, clear- minded and future-oriented in his thinking. Most of all, he really "got" what Pope John Paul II was up to.
Further, I knew from my own experience that nearly everything that the "progressive" media said about Cardinal Ratzinger-he was reactionary, authoritarian, unbending (even the president of a great Catholic university in the U.S. once referred to him in private conversation as der Panzerkardinal)-was not true, but flowed from their own psychic needs. I had first met the young Joseph Ratzinger as a theological consultant (or peritus) at the Second Vatican Council, where he was well-known as one of the younger "progressives."
A MAN FOR HIS AGE
The new Pope-well, not so new now-is patient, persistent, and deeply thoughtful, but also bold. His famous Regensburg address --- about the dialogue in 1391 A.D. between the Christian emperor of Constantinople, Manuel II Paleologus, and an Islamic philosopher who was his friend-pushed a buzzer to awaken a complacent contemporary Europe. The dialogue in question contrasted reason, as dear to God, with violence, which is contrary to God's nature. That remarkable emperor held off the awful sack of his city by the Sultan's hordes during the long years from 1394 until his death in 1425. Yet in 1453, during the reign of his son, Constantinople was in fact overwhelmed, all its churches destroyed or turned into mosques, its Christians killed or forced by the tens of thousands to march off into captivity. Just six decades after that seemingly minor dialogue, in other words, the grandest and most powerful and at that time most advanced city in Christendom was no longer a Christian capital. It was a Muslim capital. Virtually the whole eastern Mediterranean was Muslim.
Ideas have fierce power, especially in pivotal times like ours. Huge and deep issues are at stake, and no one sees that more clearly than this particular Pope. His talk at Regensburg revealed one prong of his strateay: to set up an argument that reason is of God, whereas violence is a sin against God's nature. A second prong is his fresh emphasis on religious liberty. And there he turns to something immediately practical.
Mosques have been going up all over Europe, but now the Pope is seeking reciprocity. He insists on the right of Christians to build churches in Muslim countries, and he requests the cessation of violence against Christian minorities. In Qatar, the Vatican has just opened the nation's first Christian church, and a similar agreement in Saudi Arabia-not uncontested-is in the works. In Saudi Arabia there are almost 900,000 Christian workers, from the Philippines and elsewhere, and in Qatar there are 150,000. They desperately need freedom to practice their religion.
Benedict XVI sees a lot more that can be done to protect Christians in Muslim nations, even as Christian Europe opens itself up to Muslim immigrants. He is kind, modest, and patient, but nobody should underestimate his determination and persistence. He agreed with Pope John Paul II five years ago that a war in Iraq would stir a homet's nest. But now it is his conviction that religious liberty must be respected there, and the protection of Christians guaranteed, with full reciprocity for the freedom that Muslims enjoy in Christian nations.
Yet the most important point of the Pope's American visit is a pastoral stirring of the Catholic faithful in the United States. One should watch carefully the tenor of his talks to a large body of Catholic educators, to bishops and clergy, and, via television, to millions of laypeople and their fellow Americans. The text for the Pope's address to the United Nations should also be given special attention. Some who should know say that it will be a profound recapitulation of the body of ideas about natural law and universal human rights in which the United Nations (under significant Catholic leadership, by the way) was conceived.
It's the right time for Benedict XVI to come to America.