Sunday, 20 April 2008

The Pope's US messages

One of the interesting things about this papal visit to the US is the way the Pope is respositioning the apologetic for some key areas of Church teaching.

Pope John Paul II's 'big thing' was always the culture of life vs the culture of death. A perfectly good and important message given the predominant sins in our society.

But the message always seemed to come a bit in isolation from everything else (and I have to admit I find his theology of the body at best unconvincing; in some of its representations by others, positively dangerous). Instead of being based on the natural law, he explicitly says in Veritatis Splendor that our thinking on these issues should reflect gratefulness for the gift of life from God. Nothing wrong with the idea of being grateful, but in my observation, it doesn't last that long.

Pope Benedict's first encyclical started a shift on this, arguing that our principal motivation should be charity. It represents a shift back to a much more traditional formulation, and to my mind at least, a much more convincing one.

His big message in Spe Salvi seemed to be to focus on eternal life first. Our Lord tells us, after all, to fear those who can kill the soul more than those who can kill the body. So if we start from our worship of God, and our desire for the happiness in being with him, everything else will flow (as Fr Z puts it, 'Save the liturgy, save the world'). He reiterates his message about the crucial importance of focusing on salvation in his Q&A session with the American bishops (April 16).

In his US trip, the Pope has really developed the theme of the importance of the natural law. And interestingly, not just the inclination to self-preservation and procreation, but also the inclinations to live in society, and to seek the truth of God. Take a look at his UN speech, for example, as spruiked by FR Z:

I think the Pope's omission of explicit references to abortion etc in this speech is quite deliberate. Everyone knows the Church's position on these issues now. That's not to say it shouldn't be reiterated regularly - as the Pope did in his final homily at Yankee Stadium.

The real challenge, though, is to find a better way of convincing both nominal catholics and secular society of the objective basis of those positions. In his speech to bishops at Washington's National Shrine (16 April) he said:

"Clearly, the Church’s influence on public debate takes place on many different levels. In the United States, as elsewhere, there is much current and proposed legislation that gives cause for concern from the point of view of morality, and the Catholic community, under your guidance, needs to offer a clear and united witness on such matters. Even more important, though, is the gradual opening of the minds and hearts of the wider community to moral truth. Here much remains to be done. Crucial in this regard is the role of the lay faithful to act as a “leaven” in society."

And I think the Pope is telling us that it is the internal coherence of all of the natural law operating together that can potentially help do that.

And that being a Catholic is about more than just life issues, notwithstanding their central importance.

The Pope also clearly understands that the Church's credibility on life issues has been undermined by the failure accept responsiblity for the abuse scandal and address it head on - up until now. There are, after all, ten commandments, not one.

His speeches and sermons make fascinating reading.

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