And so it goes: the gaze of society deflected, as usual, by the modern establishment’s failure—or refusal—to acknowledge what should be called and reckoned with as religious truth. As the Human Life Review’s Jim McFadden used to sigh, verbally, in signing off from yet another commentary on the march of secularism, Oremus.
Which petition, meaning “Let us pray,” seems all the more relevant to assessments of Pope Benedict’s stewardship of the Catholic Church. This is because Benedict’s restoration of a Latin option for Mass celebration seemed to progressives or secularists just one more instance of dogged devotion to dogma for its own sake, comparable to his embrace of the all-male priesthood and “traditional” (oh, fearsome word!) understandings of marriage. The guy just didn’t get what was going on in the modern world! He wouldn’t relax the grip of Old Times and Ancient Ways! Probably watched John Wayne movies late at night and cheered every cavalry charge!
Well, hooey! And kindly pardon any understatement which that dismissal confers. The death of a very great theologian, an exceedingly generous Christian spirit, a very, very courageous, compassionate, and, yes, far-sighted leader of an ancient institution battered by the excesses of his time—that death affords the chance of laying on a little perspective to the obituaries. For instance, the judgment as relayed by the Times of a South African public health campaigner that Benedict’s disapproval of condom use to prevent AIDS showed that “religious dogma is more important to him than the lives of Africans.”
Bow-wow—the “dogma” word again: showing its ferocious teeth; governing all dispositions of faith in the church. Or at any rate until words such as “dogma” and “doctrine” undergo CT scans for scientific viewing of any realities they supposedly conceal.
A doctrine is intended, with all the possible missteps any human formulation necessarily entails, to present religious truth. Truth (whose content Pontius Pilate inquired concerning) is a word with which modern intellectuals like to play, as in their constant attempts to establish how variant meanings and new “understandings” crop up constantly in the real world and require modification of old viewpoints. We’re not to be harnessed tightly, the reasoning goes, to beliefs that have worn out their welcome: the beliefs to which Benedict XVI, as widely misunderstood today, constantly taught; notions, ideas dripping with cobwebs, dried and brittle to the touch.
In reality, the doctrines on which Benedict insisted are pulsing with life: reflections of the mind of God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth, which is rather tall authority if you think about it. Upon the embrace of authentic Truth, as the Church, not just Benedict, told the story, depended nothing less than the salvation of souls; whereas the rejection of Truth exposed the inventive and negligent to the lake of fire. Unless, to be sure, TV and modern university education have in concert shown the non-existence of such fantasies as fiery water. As of Judgment itself.
Wearily, Benedict went about the often thank-less task of asserting that Christianity had important things to say: profoundly worth the saying and the hearing. He knew they did, never mind the indifference, or worse, he so often encountered.
Pope Benedict XVI and the modern world were seemingly a poor fit. On the other hand, the modern world’s need of such a leader and thinker was, and remains, profound—bottomless, even an Anglican such as myself, might say. He came, he saw, he witnessed. What more could His Maker have asked?
“So he crossed over,” as Bunyan—that robust old Protestant—wrote, “and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.”