“For many people today, practical atheism is the normal rule of life,” Pope Benedict says. “Maybe there is something or someone, they think, who once set the world in motion eons ago, but he does not matter to us at all. If this attitude becomes a general existential position, then freedom no longer has any standards, then everything is possible and permissible.”
As he sees it, God has been displaced in a society that now puts all its confidence in the capacities of human reason and science and technology. “Today man thinks that he himself can do everything that he once awaited from God alone,” he states.
The Pope calls for a “major examination of conscience” of modern assumptions about the uses of knowledge, power, and freedom, and about the meaning of progress.
“This is the question: What is good? Where should knowledge lead power? …” he asks. “Is it progress if I can destroy? Is it progress if I myself can make, select, and dispose of human beings?”
He rejects what he calls a “fundamental concept of the modern era: freedom, which is understood as the freedom to do anything.” This understanding of freedom leads to the dangerous belief that “whatever one can do, one must also be allowed to do,” he says.
He also warns of the rise of a “new intolerance” in secular society that rejects traditional religious symbols and teachings as incompatible with modern freedoms. He notes that Christians and Church institutions are increasingly being pushed to the margins of society.
“When, for example, in the name of non-discrimination, people try to force the Catholic Church to change her position on homosexuality or the ordination of women, then that means that she is no longer allowed to live out her own identity … In the name of tolerance, tolerance is being abolished; this is the real threat we face.”
In the face of growing secularization, Pope Benedict poses hard questions for Catholics.
“To what extent do people belong to the Church in the first place?” he asks. “On the one hand, they want to belong to her and do not want to lose this foundation. On the other hand, they are of course also shaped and formed interiorly by the modern way of thinking.”
The Pope sees believers today as afflicted by “a sort of schizophrenia, a divided existence.” Faith in God is reduced to “a sort of archaic stratum” that has less and less meaning in a society where people are encouraged to live as if God is not relevant.
Benedict XVI also questions the indifference of many Christians to the social and political implications of their faith.
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“Really,” he says, “one often wonders how it happens that Christians who personally are believers do not have the strength to put their faith into action in a way that is politically effective.”
Pope Benedict reserves his most withering criticisms for some aspects of the institutional Church.
“The bureaucracy is spent and tired,” he says of some Church institutions in Europe and the West.
Of some Catholics who work for the Church, he adds: “It is sad that there are what you might call professional Catholics who make a living on their Catholicism, but in whom the spring of faith flows only faintly, in a few scattered drops.”
Yet the Pope remains bullish on the Church. He stresses the growth in the number of priests and seminarians worldwide. And he sees new vitality in the various movements in the Church, especially among the young, and especially outside of Europe.
“Christianity is perhaps acquiring another face and, also, another cultural form,” he says. “It does not hold the command post in world opinion; others rule there. But it is a vital force without which even the other things would not continue. … Thanks to what I myself am able to see and experience, I am quite optimistic that Christianity is on the verge of a new dynamic.”