From “Die Welt Online”
By Martin Mosebach
April 18, 2010
Five years ago Joseph Ratzinger was elected the head of the Catholic Church. The Church, rocked by the scandal of sexual abuse, is experiencing now the greatest crisis in her history. Has Benedict failed? The author Martin Mosebach maintains the opposite: The Pope, he writes, is the right man in the right place. Only Benedict’s consistent struggle against the relativism of modern society can rescue the Church from certain downfall.
Pope Benedict XVI has described the hours before the election that raised him to the throne of Peter with these words: “I saw the guillotine approaching.” Nobody knew better than he what would await the new Pope. Nobody but he had a more precise assessment of the four decades that had passed since the end of the Vatican II.
This council holds an exceptional position among the councils of Church history. In the past a council decided a theological dispute which had built up and introduced a phase of consolidation. Vatican II, however, which in its constitutions had largely confirmed the traditional teaching of the Church, initiated a period of theological controversy, of uncertainty, loss of substance and manifest rupture in Tradition.
It wanted to introduce an “opening to the world” but, after forty years, one has to admit that the Church is able to make clear less than ever before her most essential concerns. She has lost the power to advocate her own mission despite transforming herself into the secular domain with the greatest assiduity. Theological chaos had as a consequence that in many countries religious instruction worthy of the name no longer existed. In Germany, Catholic Christianity became an unknown religion also among, of all people, Catholics. Many spoke of a revolution in the Church. Her internal and external appearance had changed so radically that one could hardly speak any more of “development” and “evolution,” those favorite concepts of ecclesiology.
These negative results, however, were hardly able to discourage Benedict XVI. Although he contemplates the course of events with a marked sense for the history of the times, the Church, for him, cannot be grasped using historical sociological or political yardsticks. Benedict believes in the Church as expressed in the Creed. He believes in her direction by the Holy Ghost and in her ability to rise again from a fall. The idea that the Church has experienced a revolution is, for him, a deception even if it is an illusion grown dear to many. There can be no revolution, because the Church of Jesus Christ is committed to the Tradition that she has received. Where there can be no revolution reaction is also impossible.
Benedict as Pope treads a path between revolution and reaction because he holds this way to be that of the Church. This way becomes especially clear in his book on Jesus, which links the discoveries of modern critical readings with the conviction that the martyrs of early Christianity did not die for a philological chimera. In his search for reconciliation with Orthodoxy and among politically split Chinese Catholics he has taken risks impossible for a conservative. A change in the atmosphere means a great deal in the spiritual desiccation of the contemporary Church.
Why do none of these “critical” minds experience any unease when they demand that the Church has to submit unconditionally to the present and its transitory societal ideas? Why should it be only secular civil society that may dictate its criteria to everyone – and also to the Church? In hindsight, from the perspective of ecclesiastical history, the Church has always been in a bad state where it accommodated herself abjectly to the times. The Pope waits to preserve the Church from the continuation of this dangerous condition in the interest of her own future.
Pius X, the canonized patron of the Gregorian chant and the traditional liturgy, was once implored by some zealous pious people to insert the name of St. Joseph, the spouse of the Virgin Mary, into the canon of the Mass among the long number of saints mentioned since time immemorial. “I can’t do it,” was the answer of the Pope. “After all, I’m just the Pope.”
There is no better word to characterize Benedict’s self-understanding of his office. In his view he is “only the Pope.” Already as cardinal, he issued definitions of the dogma of infallibility which are far removed from naïve triumphalism and papal omnipotence: the infallibility assured to the papal doctrinal decisions means nothing other than the subjection of the Pope to Tradition.
When the Pope selected the name Benedict upon his election, what probably pleased him, other than the historical associations connected with the name, was the high number, so that he became the sixteenth Benedict, one in a series of many. Being Pope does not mean for him reinventing the Church and the papacy, but receiving in humility from the hand of all his predecessors that which he must hand over intact to his successor. The Pope is for him neither the accomplisher of extraordinary deeds nor a political figure classified by the categories of preservation of power and gamesmanship. The higher the goals of the papacy are set, the gentler must the Pope act. His view is directed not to the next election but towards the distant future.
What is not understood today can become a stable foundation for the future. Benedict understands his actions as those of a gardener, who does everything to produce fruits that he and his contemporaries shall not enjoy. In the present age, characterized by deep uncertainty and excess, a Pope, who does not let a press alienated from the Church dictate his priorities and doesn’t lose sight of his long-term priorities, provokes outrage that at times turns to hatred. “To be only the Pope,” inseparably bound to a law he did not create – that is an insufferable scandal for a society which wants to understand every value as fundamentally subject to revision.
The moral scandal that, after the discovery of a series of cases of child abuse in the USA, in now shaking the Church especially in Germany and Ireland, is probably the most significant event occupying the Pope on the fifth anniversary of his election.
In the passionate discussion about the phenomenon it should have become clear to everyone that sexual abuse of children in a crime that is widespread in the whole of present-day society and is by no means especially characteristic of the clergy of the Catholic Church. Nevertheless, the Pope probably takes these acts of individual priests as an evil symptom of the condition of the Church, which after the Second Vatican Council was caught up in the “Movement of ’68.” In so doing she in large measure threw overboard that identity that had been preserved until then through all upheavals.
The New Testament itself proclaimed the protection of children against sexual abuse in a world that had no inhibitions against erotic relationships with children. Protection of children is a genuinely Christian message. A priest who offends against it has therefore not just broken his vows but has also failed in his faith. For the Catholic Church the scandal of child abuse is the sorrowful high point of the post-Conciliar developments. It is the most shameful fruit of the ideology of “aggiornamento” which dominated the last forty years.
Although the Council confirmed once again the traditional theology of the priesthood, little of it remained in the following decades. Priests were urged to abandon clerical garb; the duty to say the mass and read the breviary daily was abolished, the sacredness of the priesthood was denied.
It was forgotten that the evangelical counsels demand, besides chastity, just as pointedly poverty and obedience. The Catholic priesthood is in its essence a profoundly non-bourgeois institution, which is drastically contrary to the civil society values of autonomy and self-realization. This contradiction was, however, perceived as intolerable not only by the society but also by the clergy – especially their higher ranks. Every counter-movement was hopeless, as long as the Church of the aggiornamento (represented in Germany by the long-term president of the Conference of Bishops, Cardinal Lehmann, and by the bureaucrats of the Central Committee of German Catholics) could still bask in the sun of societal approval. Now, after the intellectual and moral gloss of the experiment of aggiornamento has collapsed into embarrassment, it may be possible once more to recall the foundations of the image of the Catholic priest and it to return to traditional principles.
The Pope suffers from the wounds inflicted on the Church by the abusers, and certainly even more so from the venomous attacks on his person which journalistic hangers-on connect with this scandal. But he can be even more hopeful that his invitation to renew the Catholic priesthood will be heard by the upcoming generation of priests. One good sign was the declaration of loyalty which the former secretary of State, Cardinal Sodano, pronounced in an unusual setting – Easter Sunday Mass. In it, he assured the Pope of the loyalty of the clergy. For a long time Sodano, a man of the “post-Conciliar process,” had been an antagonist of Cardinal Ratzinger. Now the point in time has arrived where the old antagonisms are buried; this too gives the Pope hope for his next steps.
It is useless to accuse public opinion of a lack of understanding for the peculiarities of the Catholic Church (although that’s obvious), without admitting that it was the great lack of direction of broad segments of the Church herself which in the decades after Vatican II didn’t want to give an account of the Church’s own priorities. It is hardly fair to expect from laymen, who often enough don’t ever want to be Christians, more knowledge of the nature of the Catholic Church than she herself gave to them. Thus, the crisis of the post-Conciliar liturgy was seen as a marginal problem of merely aesthetic significance even by those who recognized the irruption into the liturgy of banality and forgetfulness of tradition.
The real significance of the liturgy for the Church had been largely forgotten even by Catholics. Moreover, it should have given the unbiased observer pause for thought that the Church had adhered to the Traditional faith of the liturgy for thousands of years until the intervention of Paul VI. The profound, often catastrophic, historical upheavals since late antiquity had been insufficient reason to change the liturgy. Its vital celebration lets one experience even today the character of the founding years of Christianity.
This loyalty to Tradition is rooted in the knowledge that in the doctrine of Christ content cannot be separated from form. The old formula “lex orandi, lex credendi” meant nothing other than that the entire plenitude of the Catholic faith in its paradoxical complexity becomes a perceptible event in the liturgical celebration laid down from her origins. In the religion of divine incarnation there can be, as a matter of principle, no externals. The physical execution of the liturgical acts is understood as pregnant with truth, as satiated with truth. Modifications, let alone new creations in the liturgical sphere will always have as a consequence interventions in the substance of doctrine shelf. That is no theoretical assertion, but has been proved a thousand times over by post-Conciliar experience. In the present-day Church the core concepts like sacrament and priesthood have been obscured often past recognition.
Pope Benedict has been conscious for a long time of this central danger for the Church. The Church is after all not a political party which can throw ideological ballast overboard when it no longer serves the purpose of preservation of power. Her goal is universality, but not at the price of giving up her truth. If this truth is no longer capable of obtaining a majority, then so much the worse for the majority. At the same time the Pope views his mission as calming the theological disorders of the last decades. Therefore he seeks to avoid a sharp change in course. Benedict’s strong historical sense recognizes in the harmful developments which he has diagnosed, not just the personal guilt and failure of the individual parties but also the powerful influence of a mentality typical of this age that cannot be overcome by commands. The wounds that the disorders within the Church have torn open can only be healed gradually. “Patience” is one of most important words of the Pope. He accepts being misunderstood by both friends and foes, and trusts in the gradual development of his thoughts in the future.
A decisive role in saving the liturgy of the Church fell to the Priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X, a rebellious group of priests gathered around archbishop Lefebvre of France. The bishops of this fraternity had been ordained against the will of Pope John Paul II and were in a state of excommunication. Pope Benedict now abolished the outlawing of the inherited liturgy and declared that the Church never had it in her power to prohibit it.
To the task of rescuing the Traditional liturgy also belongs reconciliation with the five hundred members of the FSSPX. They had accepted great disadvantages in their struggle for the preservation of the liturgy which the Pope now had declared justified. They had developed in the isolation of exile, it must be admitted, in theologically and politically dubious directions. Conscious of the responsibility of the Church for every one of the priests of the FSSPX, the Pope dared a decision of unique courage, provoking without hesitation the incomprehension of public opinion totally alienated from Catholic Tradition. In priestly generosity, he ended the dangerous state of excommunication and trusted in a rapprochement in the spirit of patient and respectful labor of persuasion and an open theological discussion.
The scandal connected with these events concealed for the media the historical dimension of the papal decision. One of the bishops freed from excommunication, the Englishman Williamson – feared in his own order as a vain eccentric- appeared in television as a denier of the murders of Jews in World War II. Because the Vatican press spokesman did not think it necessary to inform public opinion of the spiritual character of excommunication and its lifting, the impression arose that the Pope had wanted to rehabilitate the political madness of this bishop. As everyone knows, the opposite is true. But even if the “breakdown”- as the Pope called the failure of the spokesman- had not happened, wouldn’t one have to have reckoned with the fact that the theological lack of education also of Catholic journalists after four post-Conciliar decades would have prevented the intention of Benedict from being understood? Could Benedict have let a central concern of his pontificate be held hostage by one man whose views he abhorred? The first fruit of the papal decision what that the FSSPX finally succeeded in expelling Williamson from its governing body.
The discussion regarding union with the FSSPX is proceeding calmly and with the spiritual seriousness appropriate to the treatment of theological problems. It appears that the hope for reconciliation with the FSSPX for the future is not unjustified. At the same time we can already identify among young priests at many places in the Catholic world a new sense for the meaning of the liturgy and its connection will the great sacramental tradition of the Church. These are changes that don’t make any headlines: a gradual change of attitude at first hardly perceptible from outside. The way this is happening is dear to the heart of the Pope: as a noiseless transformation of minds, as organic development.
An ancient formula calls in official documents every Pope – regardless of whether he is in the greatest distress or if the historical hour has been favorable to him – as “feliciter regnans: happily reigning.” It could appear that this formula, as applied to Benedict XVI, might have an ironic or even bitter aftertaste.
Is a man really happy or fortunate who unleashes false interpretations with every one of his utterances? Who, as the first Pope since Peter to undertake to read the New Testament with the eyes of a Jew yet is consistently confronted by the accusation that he is an anti-Semite? He who in his Regensburg address initiated the first really profound and extremely fruitful dialogue with Islam and instead is accused of destroying the relationship with Islam? He who has condemned the abuse of children by priests with such severity , as if he had forgotten Christian sympathy with the sinner, is accused of covering up for the evil doers?
The opposite of happiness or good fortune is bad luck. Does Pope Benedict really have bad luck? Can his aides succeed in “selling” the Pope more effectively, as the expression goes, which insinuates that with the right, cunning means one can find a buyer for anything? In the individual case this impression can arise. But when one takes all circumstances into consideration, one recognizes quickly: no, bad luck is the wrong word.
Naturally the memory is present of the public relations success of his predecessor John Paul II, who had conquered all hearts. He led the Church to a presence in the world comparable only to the deeds of the medieval Popes. But it is no secret that behind the dazzling facade the internal condition of the Church for a long time had been endangered to the highest degree. The spiritual undermining had reached threatening dimensions. But is it very cynical to suppose that such a Church was not unwelcome to many of her enemies? A Church that was in the process of losing her religious significance, her otherness, her sacrality? One could get along well with such a Church – the old but still relevant slogan of Voltaire, “Ecrasez l’infame!” could well be set aside for a while.
With Benedict, one feels returning the almost forgotten claim of the Church to truth. It becomes clear that the Pope is serious in his battle against relativism. He wants most of all to win over the Catholics to be Catholic once more. An influential segment of public opinion takes that as a declaration of war and answers: this Pope may not gain one inch of ground. If he were a politician, Benedict would have to be nervous. But the strength of the gentle and cautious man, who rejects the use of the tools of power for himself, is exactly the fact that he is no politician.
He has recognized his mission, he is the only one who can fulfill it, and he is in the right position: isn’t that good fortune – happiness? Therefore, Benedict XVI is, in the full meaning of the words, a “Pope happily reigning.”
Translation by kind permission of Martin Mosebach
The Society will be sponsoring a return visit of Martin Mosebach this fall. The dates will be announced.