Speaking to the US bishops on April 16, Pope Benedict XVI made the arresting comment that an “almost complete eclipse of an eschatological sense” marks “many of our traditionally Christian societies.” America, he didn’t need to add, is one of them, but the very warmth of the welcome the Holy Father received in the US and the intensity of attention during his visit suggested a growing exhaustion with the eclipse of religion under secularism and a hunger for God’s revelation of man’s ultimate purpose.
Burdened by the yoke of an ideology that treats God as irrelevant to the ordering of society—an ideology which has at once destabilized public life, eroded the foundations of culture, and corrupted US Catholicism—Americans were ready for the Holy Father’s theme of “Christ Our Hope,” open to his arguments about the harmony of reason and revelation, and moved by his humility and piety.
Media pundits, stunned by this reaction, speculated on the papacy’s enduring significance. They offered various superficial reasons for it without arriving at the real one: it remains Christ’s way of staying present throughout history.
Into the darkness of godless voids—whether comforting the victims of priestly abuse near the beginning of the trip or kneeling in prayer at the pit of Ground Zero near the end of it—Christ’s vicar brought forth his light. In a false age, Pope Benedict offers truth; to the weary and enslaved, he represents grace. As the eye naturally turns to light, so people of good will turn toward holiness.
Often dismissed as a mere academic, the Holy Father showed characteristic honesty and courage in confronting pastorally the concrete effects of the crises he addressed intellectually. He delivered a talk one day to the bishops on the importance of fidelity to the doctrines and discipline of the Church, then the next day comforted those victims who suffered at the hands of a dissenting and lax clerical culture. He gave a speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations on the dangers of amoral power ideology, then two days later visited the “Ground Zero” site of its most extreme manifestation.
Some reporters regarded his treatment of the relationship between faith and reason—the theme of the Catholic “vision of reality” to which he repeatedly returned—as nothing more than feckless theological abstraction. But what they failed to see was that the crises he came to address, both the one inside the Church and the one outside of it, resulted from ideological novelties they indulge, relativistic theories that shattered the relationship between faith and reason and drove Jesus Christ and his Church to the margins of society.
The profound and the pastoral are intrinsically linked, and the Pope’s call for a renewal of an “intellectual culture” that rests on a sound and comprehensive account of nature, man, and God, an account in which revelation reinforces and purifies reason while building upon it, is central to “charity.” As the grim chapters of history illustrate, false philosophy and theology have real, not abstract, consequences; errors about man’s ultimate destiny, while they may at first seem like harmless differences of “opinion,” show up immediately and destructively in politics and culture.
Deliberating on the good of man without consulting the God who determined it—in other words, the mode of public life that has held sway for decades—produces not human utopias but civilizational chaos, spiritual torpor and poisonous conceits: a concept of “freedom” that enslaves, “rights” that devour each other, and a rhetoric of “human dignity” that degrades.
Reporters and commentators, of course, focused little on the import of the Holy Father’s speeches, directing most of their attention to his reaction to the abuse scandal, even as they showed no interest in the skeptical, secularized Catholicism that advanced it. Doubts about the seriousness of sin—doubts stimulated by uncertainty about the existence of God and the natural moral law—created the deepest conditions for it. Hence, the Pope’s speech to Catholic educators, in which he exhorted them to recover the Catholic intellectual tradition in its integrity, was not separate from his call for a “holier” episcopate and priesthood in light of the scandal, but was very much connected to it.
As Pope Benedict departed from America, he left many riches behind: he leaves American Catholics with sermons and speeches to ponder and an example of holiness to follow; he leaves American bishops with a calm exercise of authority to emulate; to the American public he leaves an invitation to consider Christ as the answer to hopelessness, and to their leaders he leaves an opportunity for wiser public discourse.
Let us hope that his historic visit marks a turning point in the life of the Church in America—a moment for American Catholics to undertake a “new Pentecost,” as he put it, and transform the scandals of recent years into an occasion for “purification.”
George Neumayr is editor of Catholic World Report.
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