Monday, December 20, 2010

The Pope and the Dilemma of Postmodern Christianity

Book Review: Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times
by Pope Benedict XVI with Peter Seewald (Ignatius Press, 2010)

Shortly before Thanksgiving the media buzzed with what they thought was "news": "Pope changes view on condoms" they shouted. The "news" had come from excerpts made available to the media from a book-length interview with Pope Benedict XVI conducted by the German journalist Peter Seewald and published in late November. This is actually the third book-length interview that Seewald has conducted with Joseph Ratzinger, the two previous interviews being Salt of the Earth and God and the World.
It says something about those who decide what merits the designation "news" that given an interview which ranges from the Christian approach to Islam to Catholic social ethics and from the nature of the Church's mission to the future of global Christianity they would focus on condoms. Of course, fashionable opinion holds that condoms are the solution to all matters related to sexuality but the Pope, apparently, has a deeper vision of the matter one which begins with moral responsibility. He suggested that a good example of responsibility would be a male prostitute who used a condom and this is where the media stopped reading and started shouting. But Benedict said more, going on to note that "this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility."
The "condom question" illustrates the dilemma faced by postmodern Christianity: Christians (one might need to add in here the modifier "orthodox") approach the question of sexuality (and many other questions) from a whole understanding of what it means to be human while the world now largely approaches the question (and most others ones) simply from a pragmatic standpoint: How to get the most amount of pleasure with the least amount of pain? The condom fixation of the media and their relentless shallowness prevented them from noticing what Benedict said: "This means that the sheer fixation on the condom implies a banalization of sexuality, which, after all, is precisely the dangerous source of the attitude of no longer seeing sexuality as the expression of love, but only a sort of drug that people administer to themselves." To my mind, the real headline should have been related to what Benedict said at the end of his answer to Seewald's question. He said that the real issue involved in the HIV crisis is not the distribution of condoms but what he referred to as "the humanization of sexuality". Those familiar with the Thomist moral tradition will know exactly what this phrase means: the humanization of sexuality means the integration of the sexual urge into the rational and moral life of the human person and this means that sexuality becomes organically connected to love and to responsibility.
All Christians need to note what happened with this incident: Not comprehending the rich account that Catholic Christianity offers of human sexuality, the media and the critics simply sneered. The critics (among whom there were liberal Catholics and Protestants) did not bother to think through this rich account and argue against it but simply sneered. To be a Christian in the postmodern world and to offer a rich account of most anything which leads one to deviate from the established utilitarian doctrine is to run the risk of being sneered at. Unfortunately, some churches take precisely the wrong message from this: They do not wish to be sneered at but aspire to be "relevant" and so adopt the utilitarian doctrine resulting in the loss of any substantial Christianity.
What is simply beyond belief is the fact that a man like Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI) who has now given four book-length interviews and has written a shelf of books all of which reveal a subtle mind both captivated by Christian Truth and suffused with charity can be so consistently portrayed as brooding, heavy-handed authoritarian single-mindedly bent on the suppression of modernity and the subversion of Vatican II. This portrait must be accurately evaluated as a mere prejudice, a view which has no basis in reality.
We get a sense of who Jospeh Ratzinger is when Seewald asks the question that we would all like to ask: Don't you feel a little nervous living in the shadow of the charismatic and populist John Paul II? The answer given to this question is disarming and revealing: "I simply told myself that I am who I am. I don' try to be someone else. What I can give I give, and what I can't give I don't try to give, either. I don't try to make myself into something that I am not." Ratzinger understands something that those who compare him unfavorably with his predecessor for his lack of "star quality" apparently do not fathom: "The Pope must always be prepared for the possibility that the witness he must give will become a scandal, will not be accepted, and that he will then be thrust into the situation of the Witness, the suffering of Christ." Exactly.
Long before he became pope in 2005, Joseph Ratzinger was regarded as being one of the most perceptive and well-informed people in the Church. In this interview, he shows himself to have a sharp view of the current cultural situation. Commenting on the New Atheism and radical secularism he says "Christianity finds itself exposed now to an intolerant pressure that at first ridicules it--as belonging to a perverse, false way of thinking--and then tries to deprive it of breathing space in the name of an ostensible rationality...this is not pure reason itself but rather the restriction of reason to what can be known scientifically--and at the same time the exclusion of all that goes beyond it." The proper response to the pressure of radical secularism (which actually impinges upon all of us) is not to flee into an anti-modern "fundamentalism" (which attempts to re-establish a religious "golden age") but "for us to try to live Christianity and to think as Christians in such a way that it incorporates what is good and right about modernity". Doing this, of course, requires patience, intelligence, wisdom and having roots in Tradition which allows us not to be "swamped" by passing cultural trends. But while the Church's situation is ever-changing one thing remains the same: "While we must be very keenly aware of it, we must also see all the opportunities for being human that exist. So as then, finally, to proclaim the need for change, which cannot happen without an interior conversion." At the heart of the genuine Christian life there will always be found an "interior conversion".
There is much else in this interview which is worthy of note. Benedict has some perceptive observations on the global economic crisis (which he has addressed in the encyclical Charity in Truth), on ecumenism and dialogue with Islam and on the sexual abuse scandal. His answer to Seewald's penultimate question about the role of the Church is deserving of a complete citation: "Man is in any case incapable of mastering history by his own power. Man is clearly in danger, and he is endangering both himself and the world; we could even say we have scientific evidence of this. Man can be saved only when moral energies gather strength in his heart; energies that come only from the encounter with God; energies of resistance. We therefore need him, the Other, who helps us be what we ourselves cannot be; and we need Christ, who gathers us into a communion that we call the Church."


Anonymous Georgia Smith said...

What does the Pope mean by 'the Other'?

I've heard this phrase, 'the other' several times in the writings of people like the Episcopal Presiding Bishop and her predecessor and their cohorts.

Does Benedict mean God, the Father (who has the power to change us) those who differ with or oppose us rousing the 'energies of resistance' in us to move us to action and good works?

December 24, 2010 at 6:55 PM  

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