As Pope Benedict XVI’s presence and words linger with Americans, George Weigel is offering his analysis of last week’s trip in an article for Newsweek. The Pope, Weigel says, not only managed to deftly change the false perceptions of many, but also delivered words of challenging wisdom to Americans.
“From his first moments at Andrews Air Force Base,” Weigel begins, “it was clear that this was no hard-edged theological enforcer, no Rottweiler. Instead of the cartoon Ratzinger, America was introduced to a modest, friendly man, a grandfatherly Bavarian with exquisite manners and a shock of unruly white hair, full of affection and admiration for the United States.”
This changed perception of Benedict XVI was also accompanied by the crumbling of any anti-Catholic prejudice on behalf of the U.S. government, Weigel writes.
“Now, an evangelical Texas Methodist pulled out all the ceremonial stops to welcome the Bishop of Rome on the south lawn of the White House – and the Bishop of Rome, a former American POW, could be seen singing the refrain of the 'Battle Hymn of the Republic' along with the U.S. Army choir.”
The change in the perception of Pope Benedict changed within the Church too, says Weigel. “The transformation of the papal image was complete when Benedict XVI surprised everyone (including many senior churchmen) by meeting privately for conversation and prayer with five Boston-area victims of clergy sexual abuse.”
According to Weigel, this transformative chapter began even before the Pontiff landed on American soil. “On the flight to America, the Pope had forthrightly seized control of this issue, speaking of his own ‘shame’ over the behavior of priests who had abused the young; he later acknowledged the parallel and related disgrace of bishops who had failed in their duty to protect the flock."
"Still, it took that meeting with those who had suffered at the hands of something both they and he loved – the Catholic Church – to drive home the point that Benedict XVI was not just a friendly scholar. By meeting, praying, and, by all accounts, crying with those who had been deeply hurt, Benedict made unmistakably plain what those who had known him already knew: that he is a man with a pastor’s heart and a true priest’s compassion.”
Benedict XVI’s pastoral touch could also be seen when he preached at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. His forthright challenges to his listeners, whether young or old, serve as a “reminder to pastors of all denominations that ‘preaching up,’ rather than ‘preaching down,’ is the way to inspire and nourish,” Weigel asserts.
All of this was accompanied by the pomp and ceremony that surrounds a papal visit, but to only see the glitz would be to miss the substantial ideas the Holy Father proposed, says Weigel.
Most notable for George Weigel are the Pope’s ideas “about the way the world works, ideas about inter-religious dialogue, and ideas about Christian ecumenism.” All three of these categories of thought are united by a common thread: “the Benedictine project of turning noise into conversation through the recovery of moral reason,” he proposes in his Newsweek article.
Human Rights: The World’s Moral Vocabulary
First noting that the “primary purpose of Benedict’s trans-Atlantic pilgrimage was to address the General assembly of the United Nations”, Weigel says that the Pontiff’s goal at the U.N. was to give the world body a means of beginning the process of reform.
This type of reform is the can only take place if the Western problem of a loss of “faith in reason” is addressed. The West has “a very shaky hold on the conviction (fundamental to western civilization from Socrates through the scientific revolution) that human beings can know the truth of things, including the moral truth of things.”
This crisis of faith in reason, writes Weigel, “seems to Benedict not just a grave problem in itself, but a grave political problem: for how can the conversation, debate, and argument that are the lifeblood of any humane politics happen when everyone is speaking a different language, no one can agree on a translator, and the very need for “translation” is regarded by the post-modern avant-garde as impossibly old hat?”
The solution that the Pope pointed to was the language of human rights, which “are based on the natural law inscribed on human hearts and present in different cultures and civilizations.”
The Holy Father, in arguing this point, makes “a claim that can be engaged be non-believers, as well as by believers of all religious traditions that cherish reason,” Weigel notes.
“The Pope also had some important and challenging things to say about turning-noise-into-conversation among religions, and within the fractured Christian household.”
The Pope, among other things, made clear at the meeting with other religions that, “in his mind, tolerance doers not mean avoiding differences in an exchange of pleasantries and banalities; rather, he gently suggested, true dialogue means taking differences seriously and exploring them, within a bond of civility created by mutual respect in the quest for truth,” explains Weigel.
The Catholic author and academic explains that for Benedict XVI, “genuine interreligious dialogue” does not “avoid the hard questions; it begins with the hard questions.”
“It is not difficult to imagine that Benedict had in mind here the dialogue he has been slowly nurturing with Islam: a dialogue focused on religious freedom and the separation of spiritual and political authority in the state. Unlike those veterans of the Catholic-Islamic dialogue who have long preferred to avoid those questions, Benedict insists, quietly but firmly, on beginning with them. Whether his approach helps support those Islamic reformers working to build an Islam that can live with pluralism and political modernity is one of the great questions on which a lot of 21st century history will turn.”
Weigel then turns to the address that Benedict delivered to the ecumenical gathering of Christians, a group that often appears fractured by division.
In this provocative speech, Weigel claims that “Benedict sharply raised the ecumenical ante by asking his fellow Christian leaders to consider whether those divisions did not reflect a ‘relativistic approach’ to Christian doctrine and moral teaching”.
The Pope pointed out that this relativistic approach is strangely parallel to secularist critiques of Christianity: a “relativism” about the truth of Christian faith that is shaped by the assumption that “science alone is ‘objective,’” an assumption that relegates all religious conviction “to the subjective sphere of individual feeling.”
According to Weigel, “Benedict’s personal answer to that question is, undoubtedly, yes.”
“Which suggests that this man who once took a professor’s post at Tubingen precisely to deepen his own theological dialogue with Lutheran colleagues now realizes that the real future of serious ecumenical conversation lies with the Catholic Church’s encounter with those Christian communities (largely, but not exclusively, evangelical) that still believe that the Gospel and the creeds stand in judgment on our theological speculation, rather than vice-versa. The Gospel and the creeds, the Pope suggested, are the boundaries within which real conversation can grow from ecumenical noise.”
Among the observations that strike George Weigel about the Pope’s visit is that, “it was refreshing to be in the presence of an adult – an adult who treated his hosts as adults by paying them the compliment of making serious, sustained arguments.”
In addition, “The American majority was reaffirmed in its conviction that religiously-informed moral argument has a place in public life; the non-believing minority experienced a religious leader who took care to speak in a language non-believers could understand,” he writes.
Indeed, “by showing his pastor’s heart,” says Weigel, “one of the world’s most learned men embodied a truth of which both he and John Paul II were firmly convinced: faith and reason go together.”