This concern for unity was evidenced in other aspects of his teachings. In his encyclical Caritas in Veritate, he was clear that the social justice teachings of the church and the teachings about sexual morality flowed from a single source and, in his mind, were irrevocably bound together. As I mentioned in my article at The New Republic yesterday, the fact that the pope was as devoted to social justice issues as he was to issues of sexual morality has been somewhat opaque in the U.S. because so many of his loudest supporters in the U.S. tended not to mention his commitment to social justice or minimized the radicalness of the demands he made in that regard. Catholic neo-cons dismissed his call for a conversion of Western lifestyles, his commitment to environmental protection, his denunciation of “unregulated financial capitalism” as a threat to world peace, his abiding lament at growing income inequality, and because these neo-con voices claimed to be authoritative and because the mainstream media does not know any better, Benedict’s rigorous critique of modern consumer, capitalist culture was underplayed. Whenever he spoke against gay marriage, however, the headlines of a reactionary pope could be found everywhere.
The Catholic left, unfortunately, let the Catholic right define the narrative of Benedict’s reign. They, too, neglected the significance of his social teachings to focus on anything he said about sex or gender. More importantly, they failed to really wrestle with his challenge, to see all the issues the church addresses as bound together. Take this morning’s Washington Post. There, George Weigel is quoted as saying, “If you don’t sell full-throttle Catholicism, people are not going to buy it. Everyone knows the whole package is more compelling and interesting than some sort of Catholic hors d’oeuvres that leave you hungry.” This from the man who advised using red and gold pens to mark up Caritas in Veritate, ignoring the parts Weigel thought were not really from the pope’s hand. This from the man who can cite one paragraph, and one paragraph only, from John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus but never once has evidenced his compliance with, nor appreciation for, the call to a conversion of Western lifestyles contained in that same encyclical, nor its restatement of the church’s commitment to the rights of workers, nor those sections that question the very ethical and anthropological foundations of capitalism. I agree with Weigel about the need for “full-throttle Catholicism,” though I find his use of the verb “sell” telling. I just wish Weigel and other Catholic neo-cons actually engaged the full breadth of the church’s teachings instead of trying to distort and minimize those teachings about economic and social justice they disdain.
Each day of Benedict’s papacy, I have felt a great deal of gratitude for the fact that, whether I agreed with him on this policy or that, the church was blessed to have at the pinnacle of its hierarchy the man who is perhaps the most literate, cultured, learned man in public life today. If Calvin Trilling was correct that there is moral obligation to be intelligent, and I think he was, Benedict hit that moral requirement out of the ballpark. His three-volume trilogy on Jesus of Nazareth may be the most accessible yet profound theological reflection of recent years by anyone anywhere. I have a soft spot for popes like John XXIII who were schooled in church history as well as theology, but it has been an undoubted blessing for the church to have Benedict in the Chair of Peter. True, the Chair of Peter is not a faculty chair, and the Roman church must find better ways of dealing with its own theologians. But, there are not many theologians who can hold a candle to Joseph Ratzinger. His trilogy of books on Jesus not only invite one to engage the issues intellectually, but they inspire a more profound love for the Savior.
I confess that on the day of his election in 2005, I was worried. On Feb. 28, he will abdicate the office in which he has surprised many of us. The next day, when we go to Mass and the priest does not mention him in the canon, I will miss the reference to “Benedict, our pope.” I will miss it long after there is a successor. My dread in 2005 was misplaced. I have come not only to love this pope, but to let his teachings challenge and change me. I am a better Catholic today, and a happier person, because of him. In some of his writings, I felt he was speaking directly to me. Benedict walks into whatever time is left to him and into the historical annals as a good man and a fine pope who directed the church in important ways to remember that what really, really matters in the life of faith is not any ambitious program of human accomplishment, but the ongoing need of Catholics to surrender themselves to the will and the mercy of God. The Christocentric focus of the council has been the focus of Raztinger’s entire theological life and the defining characteristic of his papacy. He has sought to impart that vision to the rest of us. Shame on us is we did not notice. Blessings on him for making the attempt.
Don’t miss Winters’s remarks from yesterday’s New Republic. Excerpt:
One of the most dominant themes in Benedict’s teaching, especially in the wake of the economic meltdown of 2008, is a deep suspicion of modern capitalism. In his World Day of Peace Message six weeks ago, Benedict wrote, “It is alarming to see hotbeds of tension and conflict caused by growing instances of inequality between rich and poor, by the prevalence of a selfish and individualistic mindset which also finds expression in an unregulated financial capitalism. In addition to the varied forms of terrorism and international crime, peace is also endangered by those forms of fundamentalism and fanaticism which distort the true nature of religion, which is called to foster fellowship and reconciliation among people.”
Imagine, for a moment, the outcry if President Barack Obama had lumped “unregulated financial capitalism” with “terrorism” and “international crime” in the same paragraph as threats to world peace! But because many of Pope Benedict’s American fans do not share his clear, unequivocal suspicion of markets, these teachings tend to be ignored. (They are also ignored, unfortunately, by many people in America who are suspicious of both the Church and capitalism.) In the wider Catholic universe, which is growing exponentially throughout the developing world, these teachings garner more attention.