Pope Benedict brought his A-game to the United Kingdom, and the results have just been amazing. Virtually every UK news report, including ones from sources typically hostile to the Church, shows that the Brits have been wowed. The enemies of the pope may have ironically done him a real service here, by setting the bar so laughably low by misrepresenting him so absurdly. Up until this point, I think it’s fair to say that most Brits had never heard or read anything from the pope directly, instead relying upon the misrepresented sound bites and outright fabrications in the British press. Instead of the raving lunatic they’d heard about, the British public was treated to a loving and humane man with transparent genius and a real grasp on the issues facing British society. For all but the most closed-minded, the encounter was profound.
I’ll probably post more on the trip later this week, particularly as regards the laity (one British tabloid dubbed Benedict “The People’s Pope” because of his emphatic call for an empowered laity), but here’s the stuff that most stuck with me:
(1) Starting Out on the Right Foot
Benedict wasted no time getting to the heart of things. He was asked during a Q&A on the flight over what the Catholic Church could do to improve its public image. His impromptu response was one that should have every Christian on their feet applauding:
I would say that a Church that seeks to be particularly attractive is already on the wrong path, because the Church does not work for her own ends, she does not work to increase numbers and thus power. The Church is at the service of another: she serves, not for herself, not to be a strong body, rather she serves to make the proclamation of Jesus Christ accessible, the great truths and great forces of love, reconciling love that appeared in this figure and that always comes from the presence of Jesus Christ.
The more I’ve read on the sex abuse scandal, the more I wish that this point was understood by more Catholic bishops. The one thread which ties the worst bishops together, from theological conservatives like Law to theological liberals like Mahony, is a near-obsession with the media, and with doing the popular thing. Admitting that they had a problem with sexual predator priests would have been bad PR. Folks like Benedict get that we need less obsession with PR, and more obsession with Jesus Christ. Get that right, and the rest falls into place.
(2) The Third World Needs to Be Considered “Too Big To Fail’
Pope Benedict’s speech at Westminster was historical. For starters, the location was auspicious. This is where the Church used to do coronations, up until Henry VIII. And it’s where St. Thomas More was condemned to die for obeying God rather than King. The Bishop of Rome wasn’t welcome on British soil for centuries after Henry, but nowhere was this more true than Westminster. And yet, here we find the pope delivering a speech to the assembled British audience, at the request of the government. Benedict didn’t ignore the elephant in the room, either: he, in fact, praised St. Thomas More in his speech, rightly holding him up as a model for civic participation. The best part of the speech, in my opinion, was this passage, which came as a real surprise:
In recent years it has been encouraging to witness the positive signs of a worldwide growth in solidarity towards the poor. But to turn this solidarity into effective action calls for fresh thinking that will improve life conditions in many important areas, such as food production, clean water, job creation, education, support to families, especially migrants, and basic healthcare. Where human lives are concerned, time is always short: yet the world has witnessed the vast resources that governments can draw upon to rescue financial institutions deemed “too big to fail”. Surely the integral human development of the world’s peoples is no less important: here is an enterprise, worthy of the world’s attention, that is truly “too big to fail”.
I had to go back and re-read that part. It’s just great, and nothing I can add could make it any better. Luke 12:34 says, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Our treasure is in the pockets of General Motors, not in the bellies of the starving poor, and Benedict is right to rebuke us for these warped priorities. Just consider what even a fraction of the stimulus could have done for the third-world.
The entire Westminster speech is worth the read, and I linked to the full text above. Just as John Paul II was a savant on the Theology of the Body, Benedict understands the proper relationship between liberal democracy and religion better than perhaps anyone I’ve read. One of the insights he made was that a democracy’s morality can’t simply be the majority rule. Otherwise, if a white majority decides it wants to deprive civil rights from a black minority, who can stop them? No, a healthy democracy must be rooted in a morality distinct from the whims of the masses. The speech explains with an intense clarity why religion in the public square is so vitally important to a healthy society. It’s the sort of speech which I bet left Fr. Richard John Neuhaus smiling.