Friday, April 22, 2005

So, Patrick, what do you think of Benedict XVI?

In short, I am hopeful, and I feel the need to pray as well.

In a more expanded form:

1. Many, not all, of the people (Catholics and non-Catholics) who are worried or disappointed about the election of Cardinal Ratzinger are so because they had hoped that the next Pope would change some area of Catholic dogma. Let me tell you a secret: Catholic dogma (as opposed to disciplines*) will not change, regardless of who is Pope. All the Cardinals are such because they believe wholeheartedly that the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit to reveal certain eternal truths about God and humanity. The Church cannot decide these matters as She sees fit.

Concrete example: If the issue of contraception had been tackled under Pope Bl. John XXIII rather than Pope Paul VI, guess what? The teaching would be just the same as Humanae Vitae. The encyclical would have been worded differently; perhaps because of that, and because of John XXIII's better public persona and portrayals, it might have been better received, and we would not see such great dissent in America and Western Europe. But John would have had to reach the same conclusion as Paul, because of the underlying truth of the matter.

But you say, "That can't be right! John XXIII was a progressive, so of course he would have decided it differently than that conservative Pope Paul VI!" Okay, follow me here. Why is John XXIII portrayed as a progressive and Paul VI conservative? Because the act deemed most important of John's papacy (the opening of Vatican II) made American progressives happy, and the act deemed most important of Paul's papacy (Humanae Vitae) made the American conservatives happy (or is it more accurate to say, it made the American progressives angry?). Fidelity to the Church doesn't fit neatly into the current left or right; it combines the preferential option for the poor with the defense of unborn human life, to cite two examples.

Benedict's former position as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in which he corrected Catholic theologians when they taught error, made it abundantly and publicly clear that he believes firmly what the Church believes. The other cardinals believe the Church's dogma as well (as evidenced by their support of Ratzinger), but it has not been as public. Thus some dissenters had hoped that another papabile would have led the Church to forget some of Her inconvenient teachings. This hope would have been disappointed, of course; the accession of Ratzinger to Pope Benedict XVI simply made it clear immediately that the Church will teach what She has always taught.

I think Francis Cardinal George said it well in the post-conclave interview: "There's a certain clarity of teaching that has been associated with [Benedict]. Fine. I think clarity helps us all. If that's a problem, well then the problem isn't with this particular pope or man or his predecessor, the problem is with the Catholic faith itself and then people should ask, well, where am I? If I don't hold the Catholic faith, where does that leave me? It's a personal question."

I hope that those Catholics who have been disappointed for this reason will reconcile with the Church rather than leave it. The one thing I think is more difficult with Benedict following John Paul II is the suddenness of the shock, for those who believed that the Church would conform itself to modernity within their generation. It will not. It cannot do so, any more than it conformed to Roman mores as it grew to encompass Rome.

2. That said, there is a concern that I find reasonable about Benedict. He is a very smart man; he understands the world better than you or I. But I worry that he will not be able to make to world understand him, considering the labels he has been given before doing anything in his pontificate. I hear that he writes brilliantly, as I know John Paul II did; but how few Catholics indeed read anything that JPII had written! The respect of the world for our previous pope was gained not through any words, but through images and stories: forgiving his assassin, placing a prayer in the Wailing Wall, embracing a child, lifting the chalice with hands weary and trembling. Benedict is now known to the world for two things: the incredible homily he gave at the funeral for John Paul II, and the refrains of "reactionary, medieval, repressive" that are everywhere. He has only words to combat words, and few enough of those. The previous Pope had time to win the world's trust; Benedict has no such honeymoon. We Catholics must pick up the slack, must be honest and loving in our defense of the Church. That is why I pray.

3. Why am I happy with the new Pontiff? Because I think that Pope Benedict will be a help to the sad state of liturgy in America. I know that there are many issues you might think more pressing, but the vanishing of faith in the developed world is not unconnected to the state of liturgy; Christ is still present in a badly done Mass, but it is harder for us to know Him there.

So what's the problem, as I see it, with Catholic liturgy in America? At many parishes, the liturgy seems to be an afterthought, stripped down to the least effort that keeps the bishop from intervening. It is not even the situation of the 1970s, wherein people were highly motivated to 'bring the Church alive' through often-silly music and actions hastily cobbled together. The prevalent situation now is apathy (possibly a consequence of the sort of piety that is completely disconnected from the rich tradition). It looks like to many pastors, organizing the parish barbecue or the Young Adult Group is more important than preparing one's best for the Mass.

And the English liturgy, I think, needs a translation that works better as poetry, as subject for meditation. Maybe the Latin text of the Novus Ordo should be rewritten in parts, too (though I'm not enough of a Catholic Nerd to be clear on this, I'm told that the borrowing from Eastern Rite Eucharistic Prayers was mangled). And we should do something about bishops who forbid their priests from saying any Mass in Latin. The vernacular is good in general, and here to stay, but there are those of us who'd like the option of occasionally responding "Et cum spiritu tuo".

Pope Benedict, I hope, will continue the dedication to good liturgy that he has shown in his writings, and correct silliness and apathy alike.

Okay, whoa, this is a long post and I'm tired. If you're mad at me for espousing what the Church teaches, we can discuss it. I'm going to sleep now.

*Note: Dogma is different from disciplines. The Church can decide practical matters of the best course to pursue; it is only in teaching eternal truths that the Magisterium is protected from gross error. Disciplines include matters such as whether priests can marry, whether Mass should be in Latin or the vernacular, when Catholics should abstain from eating meat, etc. These issues are situational, and certain concerns (Latin no longer being the lingua franca of the Christian world, etc.) can make one option suitable for one moment but not for another. Dogmas hold for all time and all situations: that God is a Trinity, that the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Christ, that suicide is objectively wrong, etc. Vatican II changed many disciplines, but not a single dogma.

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