The Pointed Pope

What the media means by “bland.”

One reliable barometer of Pope Benedict’s effectiveness is the carping of left-wing newspapers, particularly British ones: the more pointed his remarks, the more they tend to caricature him as “bland” and dour.

Typical of this approach is the January story in The Times (UK): “Crowds shrink for ‘bland’ Benedict, the pope who only says no.”

Why did the paper feel the need to run this story? Not because he is bland, but because he had given a sharp speech in December before the Roman Curia (a speech which generated headlines across the world) that touched on a topic displeasing to its editors: the “destruction of God’s work” which accompanies the ideology behind same-sex marriage.

What annoys the editors is that Pope Benedict is not bland. They would prefer him to be ideologically insipid, to make safe remarks while the world’s elite dominates the discussion. But a pope whose speeches are pointed enough to generate headlines on The Drudge Report, as did that one, discombobulates them. Were he as bland as they claimed, they wouldn’t bother to run disparaging stories about him.

Contained within their own story in fact was information that contradicted the impression they hoped to leave with the headline: the story allowed that Benedict is “still drawing bigger crowds than John Paul at a comparable point in his pontificate” (the paper attributes this information to John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter).

It would appear then that the real story is not that the crowds are small, but that they remain so large; not that his willingness to say no makes him unpopular, but that it gives his speeches pungency and relevance.

If anything, his doctrinal candor, in a time of empty celebrity and substanceless mass-media patter, makes him indispensable to ordinary people. Amidst the crises afflicting the world today, from financial to moral, most world leaders can only offer a bewildered public confused banalities. But Pope Benedict has something of weight to say to them.

His words, during the financial cataclysm at the end of 2008, certainly commanded people’s attention. ‘‘He who builds only on visible and tangible things like success, career, and money builds the house of his life on sand,’’ he said. ‘‘We are now seeing, in the collapse of major banks, that money vanishes, it is nothing. All these things that appear to be real are in fact secondary. Only God’s words are a solid reality.’’

As did those supposedly offending words to the Curia in December which apply to the moral crisis: “Rain forests deserve indeed to be protected, but no less so does man, as a creature having an innate ‘message’ which does not contradict our freedom, but is instead its very premise.”

Far from the bland academic of the Times’ caricature, Pope Benedict has a gift for potent, debate-changing phrases and formulations that strike a chord with the common man, and his speech to the Curia, with its arresting reference to the need for a “human ecology” and its description of sin as self-destructive, displayed it.

The Times’ editors cast Pope Benedict as dour and defensive. But it’s that he is on offense which bothers them the most.

Why, Pope Benedict disarmingly asked the world’s elite in that speech, do you favor purity in nature but impurity in human nature? Why do you protect rain forests but not babies? Why is the order of creation to be respected outside man but violated as it applies to him? Why do you call for greater discipline and “responsibility” for the sake of nature’s future while deepening a culture of hedonism and moral irresponsibility that imperils man’s?

It would never occur to the world’s elite, as it frets over this or that form of violence and pursues endless discussions about “peace,” that sin itself is violent: it violates human nature, and thus without the lessening of sin any pursuit of world peace is illusory.

From his drawing on phrases like the “dictatorship of relativism” and “human ecology,” Pope Benedict is shaking up the world’s debates imaginatively. This pontificate has been anything but bland.

Indeed, what makes this pontificate exciting is the Pope’s upending of conventional wisdom, his indifference to the assumed parameters of debates. For example, in another speech displeasing to the media around the New Year, he noted that population control is not a solution to poverty but a cause of it. “Among the most developed nations, those with higher birth-rates enjoy better opportunities for development. In other words, population is proving to be an asset, not a factor that contributes to poverty,” he said.

If these are “bland” speeches, let us hope that 2009 brings many more of them.

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