By Fr. George Welzbacher
October 24, 2010
Of bad news we have had quite enough for a while. Some good news, therefore, should be especially welcome. And good news indeed we have-for the Church Universal and in particular for the Church in the British Isles. I am referring of course to the triumphant success, against all the predictions of the media, of Pope Benedict's recent Apostolic Visit to the United Kingdom. Here is the account given by an intelligent observer, John O'Sullivan, writing in the latest issue of The National Review.
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Benedict in Britain By John O'Sullivan* * * * *
National Review, October 18, 2010
Papal visits now follow a well-established course. BEFORE the pope arrives, the host country's MEDIA are FULL of reports asserting with prophetic sadness that, though the pontiff is PERSONALLY popular and may on that account be well received, the Catholic faithful nonetheless REJECT his opinions on a range of issues from abortion to women priests. Then the pope arrives and is greeted by MUCH larger crowds than expected. He delivers some powerful sermons to which only a few dissident theologians object. Finally, he returns to Rome amid ecumenical APPLAUSE leaving behind a sense that SOME souls have been uplifted and challenged toward goodness.
This pattern was established in the papacy of John Paul II. Because he was a rare prelate with an instinctive ability to exploit modem media to preach the Gospel, John Paul's successful pilgrimages could be subtly marginalized as an expression of celebrity as much as of religion. But their deeper impact suddenly became clear when the pope lay dying. Vast numbers of pilgrims, not all of them Catholics, camped out in St. Peter's Square to pray and sing hymns. Some had specific reasons for being there. One Jewish Chicagoan told the cameras that he wanted to thank John Paul for healing the breach between Jews and the Catholic Church. But most people in the square seemed to have been drawn there by an admiring respect for the pope's evident HOLINESS. They loved him for it. Maybe that love was the first step toward holiness.
Pope Benedict XVI has a very different personality from that of his predecessor. He is shy, scholarly, more the theologian than the showman. His most notable encyclical to date was on the subject of love, but he does not evoke love with the easy, confident charm of John Paul II. Any impact he makes will depend on what he says rather than how he says it.
Heretofore he has sought to plant his message of Christian love in the soil of sound doctrine. In particular he has made truth, reason, and faith-and the relationship between them-hallmarks of his theology. For that reason, HE HAS FIRMLY REJECTED A RELATIVISM THAT DENIES OBJECTIVE TRUTH. And since relativism is increasingly the intellectual ORTHODOXY underpinning Western Europe's NEW POST- CHRISTIAN societies, including Britain, Pope Benedict's visit to the country in September was likely to be a challenge....
In short, Pope Benedict's state visit BEGAN with very LOW expectations. And yet there were LARGE turnouts of enthusiastic faithful and sympathetic NON-faithful and, when the pope departed, he left behind a feeling that hearts and minds had been TRANSFORMED in some significant, albeit complicated ways. Here are a number of related impressions:
One. Benedict's first event in Britain was his meeting in Scotland with the Queen. There was considerable poignancy in this friendly, respectful exchange between two octogenarians who had both played minor military roles as adolescents in World War II and who both defend traditional Christianity without embarrassment (though with different degrees of sophistication). But its main significance was the pope's generous praise for the Protestant tradition in British history. He linked British leadership in ending the international slave trade, for instance, to the evangelical efforts of William Wilberforce and David Livingstone. He cited Florence Nightingale as someone who, "inspired by faith .... set new standards in health care, that were subsequently copied everywhere."
These names are the nearest thing to sainthood in Britain's Protestant calendar. Benedict mentioned them, moreover, as following in a line of succession from such pre-Reformation Catholic saints as Edward the Confessor and Margaret of Scotland. In other words, he was asserting a fundamental CHRISTIAN CONTINUITY in British life that OVERSHADOWS the Reformation and that (as he argued it) accounts for the humane and democratic achievements of British history. It would be going too far to argue, as did Andrew Brown of the Guardian, that Benedict ABOLISHED Protestantism in Britain; but he did seek to remove the last traces of internecine ideological WARFARE between Catholicism and British Protestantism. And he did so, apparently, with success. Scotland's first minister, Alex Salmond of the not-very-Catholic Scottish National party, said that "there would not BE a Scotland if it had not been for the Roman Catholic Church."
Two. Benedict chose as the central religious event of his visit a Mass in Birmingham celebrating the beatification of Cardinal Newman. This was most important because Newman is the most brilliant English Catholic since the Reformation (and perhaps before it). He did a great deal to make Catholicism nationally respectable, and he began a tradition of intellectual and artistic conversions that continued up to the 1960s. Newman's beatification was only one gesture of regard (though the most religiously significant) of many that Benedict directed towards England during his visit. Especially powerful (and personal) was his praise on Battle of Britain Sunday for the young men of the Royal Air Force who courageously laid down their lives in 1940 resisting, as he said, the "evil ideology" that had oppressed him among millions of others. The British have not been used lately to being praised by outsiders; indeed, they have largely forgotten all but the shameful episodes in their own history. So these words had an impact.
Three. The single most important event of the visit was Benedict's address in Westminister Hall. If he had said nothing of import, the event would still have been powerfully memorable, the successor to Saint Peter addressing a selection of Britain's elite, including three former prime ministers, on the spot where Thomas More had been convicted of treason for being "the King's good servant, and God's first." BUT HIS ADDRESS WAS WONDERFULLY RICH IN CONTENT. Having reconciled with Protestantism, asserted the Catholic role in British history, and praised the British for their historical achievements, he now addressed their current lapse into RELATIVISM. Reason and religion needed each other, he argued, if they were not to become ideology and fundamentalism respectively. Religion was thus "a vital contributor to the national conversation." He was disturbed by its "increasing marginalization." There were "those who argue-paradoxically with the intention of eliminating discrimination--that Christians in public roles should be REQUIRED at times to act against their conscience." [As do so act, though quite on their own initiative, far too many of America's Catholic politicians who, WHILE PROCLAIMING THEIR PERSONAL OPPOSITION TO ABORTION, without blinking an eye CAST THEIR VOTE TO PROMOTE IT.] There was a failure to appreciate "the legitimate role of religion in the public square."
One might have expected that his elite audience would receive his argument with cool disapproval. In fact, they greeted it with SUSTAINED APPLAUSE; it had struck a serious chord. Outside Wesiminister Hall, moreover, HALF A MILLION PEOPLE IN ALL attended his Masses, sermons, and speeches. The protesters managed to assemble a mere 10,000 people in Hyde Park to indicate their disapproval.
Suddenly, the protesters themselves looked marginalized. Though possessing vital strongholds in the media and the academy, they seemed narrowly metropolitan compared with the large, diverse crowds that attended the pope's Masses-and superficial compared with the audience in Westminister Hall. When Prime Minister David Cameron (who had helped to make the visit a success by getting the government enthusiastically behind it) saw Benedict off at the airport, he said that the pope had made Brits "sit up and think."
Might large social trends turn around? Will relativism fall out of favor? Will the rights of conscience be successfully asserted against an implacable egalitarianism? No one will know these things for a long time. But the visit reminded me of an earlier reversal. Not long after Princess Diana's showbiz funeral had given the impression that Britain was sinking into a bath of sentimentality, the Queen Mother's funeral, with its traditional solemnity and religious language, rallied the British to an appreciation of their older and more substantial identity. Pope Benedict sought the same result in religious terms. Whether or not he ultimately succeeds, he has established that there IS a large audience for truth and reason-perhaps a larger one than for their cheaply appealing opposites.
And on the local scene the Church received some measured support from the Star Tribune with respect to Archbishop Nienstedt's DVD opposing the legalization of "gay marriage". The Star Tribune's position is reminiscent of that of Voltaire, who famously declared: "I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." May I share with you this recent essay from the editorial page of Minnesota's leading paper.* * * * *
Free Speech and the Catholic Church* * * * *
Editorial from the Star Tribune of Friday 10/08/10
The old advice "Don't discuss religion or politics" has been discarded since it was announced that Catholic bishops were mailing a DVD opposing same-sex marriage to 400,000 Minnesotans. Supporters have been vocal in appreciation for their church's full-throated articulation of its values. Detractors have been just as emphatic denouncing what they see as misplaced priorities and improper politicking.
Talk-show phone lines are burning up, and the controversy has generated more letters to the editor than any news since another mixture of religion, politics and gay rights, just weeks ago: Target Corp.'s donation to a group supporting Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer.
Passions arise because this is an issue that speaks to people's core values-sacred, secular or both. While even Emmers insists that this year's gubernatorial campaign is about fiscal, not social, issues, the possible redefinition of marriage looms as a profound danger-or opportunity-for many Minnesotans.
This editorial board has clearly and consistently opposed the kind of state constitutional amendment - defining marriage as being between one man and one woman-that Archbishop John Nienstedt is calling for. We reaffirm that opposition today.
But while we strongly differ with the church's position, our support for freedom of speech and religion remains unshaken. So we also disagree with those who have called for the Catholic Church to lose its tax-exempt status due to the political nature of its DVD. Religious organizations are given this status because of what they do in the community, not because of what's said from the pulpit. Like other denominations, the Catholic Church is the equivalent of the Red Cross in the eyes of the Internal Revenue Service.
The church's tax-exempt status could be threatened if it directly endorsed candidates. But instead it's endorsing a POLICY outcome that's entirely consistent with its theology, in the same way Catholics have campaigned for decades to outlaw abortion.
Advocacy is nothing new to the Catholic Church or many other religious groups. Clerics have historically been at the forefront of politics in debates over (among other things) slavery, child labor, prohibition, obscenity in books and films, civil rights, Roe vs. Wade, the war in Vietnam and the war in Iraq. Many of today critics may have been quite comfortable, even pleased, in 2005 when Nienstedt's predecessor, Harry Flynn, wrote and testified publicly against Gov. Tim Pawlenty's no-new-taxes policy. "The taxes we pay," the archbishop declared, "allow us to meet our moral responsibility toward our fellow citizens, our brothers and sisters in the family of God, who need our help to live in accordance with their God-given dignity."
Nienstedt may be getting more pushback than Flynn did, including from a significant number of Catholics. Attitudes about same-sex relationships are evolving. An October 6 Pew Poll reports that 42 percent of Americans are in favor of allowing same-sex marriage, up sharply from even last year, when the same poll said 37 percent were in favor. And on this issue, the generation gap becomes a gulf, with 53 percent of those in the so-called "Generation X" (born between 1965 and 1980) in favor, compared with 29 percent in the so-called "Silent Generation' (born between 1928 and 1945). [The public school system's long-standing campaign to win approval for the homosexual life-style has been strikingly successful].
If these trends continue, future generations may see opposition to same-sex marriage the way today's Americans see segregation.
The DVD also comes amid a national conversation about the messages society sends to young people struggling with their sexuality. Too often the message is rejection and the result is tragedy, as in the devastating death of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi, who took his own life after being "outed" by his roommate via social media, and in the suicides of some who have been bullied at school.
The perceived insensitivity of the DVD in such a climate may cost Catholics some parishioners. Others will be inspired to see their church sailing into the headwinds of unsettling social change. As always, each individual must decide what conscience dictates.
But a free society should respect the Catholic Church's RIGHT to advocate for its principles.