The Age of Innocence

Pope Pius XII, modern man, and guilt.

Pope Benedict XVI delivered an address to the Roman Curia last December that contained several arresting passages. He candidly noted, for example, that the sacrament of penance and reconciliation “has largely disappeared from the daily life and habits of Christians.” This, he said, “is a symptom of a loss of truthfulness with regard both to ourselves and to God, a loss that endangers our humanity and diminishes our capacity for peace.”

“Today we must learn once more how to acknowledge guilt, we must shake off the illusion of being innocent,” he said.

This age would hardly qualify as an age of innocence. But somehow the conceit of which the Pope speaks is maintained and appears in the most curious forms, both inside and outside the Church. Contemporary culture takes intense interest in the sins of the past, both real and alleged, while remaining indifferent to the sins of the present. Modern man will acknowledge the guilt of others but not his own.

Look at the severe reaction from some in the media to Pope Benedict’s honoring of Pope Pius XII. Relativists who don’t even believe in heroic virtue are certain that Pope Pius XII didn’t possess it. And while they do nothing to stop the abortion holocaust and even encourage its acceleration, they condemn Pope Pius XII for not “having done more” to stop Hitler’s.

Pius XII, according to their propaganda, is “Hitler’s pope”—even though historians say Hitler wanted to kill him—and the Pontiff failed to save Jewish victims of the Holocaust, even though historians credit him with protecting hundreds of thousands of them. Newspapers that honor the most checkered and negligent modern leaders thought nothing of running pieces about Pius XII with headlines like “Church’s Misguided Honor.”

And yet even as fashionable culture treats Pope Pius XII harshly, it tolerates and even celebrates a Hollywood director, Oliver Stone, who not only collaborates with the tyrants of today, from Castro to Chavez, but even extends his sympathy to the tyrants of the past, including Hitler himself.

“Hitler is an easy scapegoat throughout history,” Stone has said. He is planning a documentary to cast him and other tyrants in a new and favorable light: “I’ve been able to walk in Stalin’s shoes and Hitler’s shoes to understand their point of view. We’re going to educate our minds and liberalize them and broaden them.”

In this claimed age of innocence, everything is permitted except holiness. An elitist culture that extracts confessions and apologies from the Church feels that it has nothing to confess.

But as Pope Benedict emphasized to the Curia, this illusion of innocence leaves many in modern life disenchanted. Reviewing his 2009 travels during the address, he took heart from his visit to the Czech Republic. He had been told that a “majority of agnostics and atheists” populate the country. Yet he found himself “surrounded everywhere by great cordiality and friendliness,” “the important liturgies were celebrated in a joyful atmosphere of faith,” and “in the setting of the university and the world of culture my words were attentively listened to.”

The trip renewed in him the thought that the quest for God, even if only obscurely pursued, still stirs within Western culture, and that the Church should keep a kind of “Court of the Gentiles” open for perplexed searchers:

Here I think naturally of the words which Jesus quoted from the Prophet Isaiah, namely that the Temple must be a house of prayer for all the nations (cf. Isa. 56: 7; Mark 11: 17). Jesus was thinking of the socalled “Court of the Gentiles” which he cleared of extraneous affairs so that it could be a free space for the Gentiles who wished to pray there to the one God, even if they could not take part in the mystery for whose service the inner part of the Temple was reserved. A place of prayer for all the peoples: by this he was thinking of people who know God, so to speak, only from afar; who are dissatisfied with their own gods, rites and myths; who desire the Pure and the Great, even if God remains for them the “unknown God” (cf. Acts 17: 23). They had to pray to the unknown God, yet in this way they were somehow in touch with the true God, albeit amid all kinds of obscurity. I think that today too the Church should open a sort of “Court of the Gentiles” in which people might in some way latch on to God, without knowing him and before gaining access to his mystery, at whose service the inner life of the Church stands. Today, in addition to interreligious dialogue, there should be a dialogue with those to whom religion is something foreign, to whom God is unknown and who nevertheless do not want to be left merely Godless, but rather to draw near to him, albeit as the Unknown.

For all of its confident pronouncements about the past and claims to superior and enlightened living, modern culture reveals in its restlessness that its own “gods, rites, and myths” are failing, and that contrition and confession before the true God is the only path back to peace.


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