Confronting Modern Culture; Asserting the Gospel | by Dr. James Hitchcock
The election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as pope, although often
predicted, came as a surprise, particularly because of the speed with which
the cardinals reached their decision. Conventional wisdom considered him
"controversial", which was thought sufficient to prevent his election.
The address that Cardinal Ratzinger gave to the cardinals at the
beginning of the Conclave, if it was a campaign speech, was a highly unusual
one, in that it offered no concessions, did not hint at compromise, merely
proclaimed in effect, "If you see the situation facing the church in the way
I do, then perhaps I am suitable to be pope." He did not seek, and certainly
did not want, the papacy under any other terms.
In a religiously ignorant culture, a condition that affects most
church-members as well as the unchurched, it is almost impossible to get
beyond the "bottom lines": will the new pope agree to ordain women, rescind
Humanae Vitae, accept homosexuality?, etc. Without quite formulating it in
that way, the new pope╣s critics in effect demand that he simply conform
the church to modern culture, that he acquiesce in the programs of various
dissident constituencies, and that, to the degree that he fails to do this,
is actually unfaithful to his duties.
Cardinal Ratzinger, one of the most important Catholic theologians of
the late twentieth century, was intellectually the best qualified man to be
pope, and he defines his role in a way exactly opposite to that of his
critics: a confrontation with modern culture in order to assert the primacy
of the Gospel in all aspects of human affairs. Such a confrontation need not
be abrasive, although it may often have to be, but it does recognize that
the values of the world are in many ways in fundamental conflict with the
Gospel and that the world always needs redemption.
In general, modern intellectuals conceive their role in the world as that of
being antithetical to enduring truths. They are predominantly men of the
left, in the broadest sense of that term. This is true of many Christian
intellectuals as well, and some of the harshest criticisms of the new pope
come from professional theologians who regard him as a kind of traitor, a
member of the theologians╣ guild who broke ranks.
But if intellectuals are habitual dissidents, and if it can be said that
often they are incapable of governing in practical situations, it is also
true that the needs of the time require that the leader of the church be a
kind of intellectual. While practical men can recognize specific disorders
when they encounter them, only an intellectual can see the whole cultural
pattern, the way in which the disorders of modern civilization are
emanations of deeply rooted and systemic patterns.
Some of those who oppose Benedict XVI can see this very well and have simply
thrown in their lot with modernity in all its manifestations. Most, however, reject his judgments
about modern civilization because they have not thought about it nearly as
deeply as he has. For forty years it has been customary in the media to
equate "thinking Catholics" with dissenters, and the new pope annoys his
critics in part because they cannot dismiss him as intellectually deficient.
Not only he is more learned and intelligent than practically all of his
critics, he also understands modernity better than they do.
I met the new pope about thirty years ago, before he was a bishop, at
an editorial meeting in Munich of the international journal Communio. I
recall a modest and friendly man, for all his formidable intellect.
Communio was founded by the Swiss theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar,
probably the single most important Catholic theologian of the twentieth
century, and it is significant that now two popes in succession have
been men who in some sense could be considered Balthasar's intellectual
colleagues, even in important ways his disciples.
Dr. James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University,
writes and lectures on contemporary Church matters. His column appears in
the diocesan press. He is the author of several books, including The
Recovery of the Sacred, What is Secular Humanism?, and Years of Crisis:
Collected Essays, 1970-1983.
Princeton University Press just published his two-volume history of the
Supreme Court, The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life:
The Odyssey of the Religion Clauses (Vol. 1) and
From "Higher Law" to "Sectarian Scruples"
(Vol. 2). He is also a regular contributor to many Catholic periodicals,
This article originally appeared in April 2005 on the Women
for Faith & Family website. It is reprinted by permission of the author.
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