The Editors
Image

The enduring impression Pope Benedict XVI left with most Americans following his recent visit to Washington, D.C., and New York was of a pastor ministering to his flock. In repeated gestures, from meeting with the victims of sexual abuse to blessing the disabled and speaking with the survivors of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he showed his desire to heal those who are wounded and broken.

His numerous comments on sexual abuse by members of the clergy demonstrated awareness of the depth of the hurt to victims and their families as well as to the American Catholic Church as a whole. From his confession of shame to reporters during the flight to the United States to his spontaneous acknowledgment of his own human weakness at the Mass at New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, he signaled that like Peter, he is an ordinary Christian who struggles to be a disciple.

Though commentators have often depicted his German heritage as a source of rigidity and heavyhandedness, Benedict’s Bavarian Gemütlichkeit revealed itself with a relaxed smile, and it projected warm joy throughout his public appearances. His natural graciousness enabled him to look those he encountered in the eyes and to listen to them attentively. Though he is known to prefer more traditional liturgical styles himself, he appeared to relish the multilingual, multiethnic liturgical events prepared for him, which are so characteristic of the United States today. His prayer at ground zero was a gem of quiet commemoration, and the visit to the Park East Synagogue on the eve of Passover was a gesture of undiminished goodwill toward the Jewish community.

Just as he came to heal, Pope Benedict also came to unify. His homilies and addresses allowed no gloating by one church faction over another. In addressing the bishops, for instance, he balanced pro-life issues with social justice concerns. “Is it consistent,” he asked, “to profess our beliefs in church on Sunday, and then during the week to promote business practices or medical procedures contrary to those beliefs? Is it consistent for practicing Catholics to ignore or exploit the poor and marginalized, to promote sexual behavior contrary to Catholic moral teaching, or to adopt positions that contradict the right to life of the human being from conception to natural death?” Though Pope Benedict’s critique of American culture—of individualism, secularism, materialism and the cult of untrammeled freedom—was clear, his reproof was consistently gentle: questioning rather than condemning, edifying rather than hectoring.

With his gentle voice and peaceful demeanor, Benedict did not fail to offer a prophetic word to the world. At the United Nations General Assembly, he upheld the necessity of the organization for the defense of human rights and gave new prominence to “the duty to protect,” that is, the responsibility of the international community to intervene when a government either fails to protect its own people or is itself guilty of violating their rights. He made clear that the United Nations serves human solidarity by making the strong responsible for defending the weak.

Pope Benedict also extrapolated a seldom discussed teaching of Pope John XXIII in the encyclical Pacem in Terris—that the legitimacy of governments depends on their respect for and defense of the rights of their people. It is not “intervention,” he argued, that should be interpreted as “a limitation on sovereignty,” but rather “nonintervention” that causes harm out of indifference to the victims of oppression. With international missions foundering in long-lasting conflicts like those in Congo and Sudan, however, the pope’s remarks place the burden on the international community to build the capacity to deal with major humanitarian emergencies.

While Pope Benedict showed appreciation for American culture, especially for the flowering of liberty, and for U.S. Catholics, he also laid bare our temptations and failings. He spoke to young people about the “callousness of heart” that leads to “drug and substance abuse, homelessness, poverty, racism, violence and degradation—especially of girls and women.” He also warned against relativism, “which, in disregarding truth, pursues what is false and wrong,” leading to “addiction, to moral or intellectual confusion, to hurt, to a loss of self-respect, even to despair....”

This portrait is unflattering. Americans may find it hard to look in the mirror Benedict held up to us. We may want to avert our eyes. But the challenge of the visit is to learn from Pope Benedict’s criticism as well as his praise, take it to heart and find new ways to redeem the shadow side of our American character. For, as he reminded us, with our eyes fixed on the saints whose lives enable us to “soar freely along the limitless expanse of the horizon of Christian discipleship,” we too can live the Gospel life in 21st-century America.

Comments

Patrick hughes | 4/28/2008 - 4:38pm
Pope Benedict "spoke to young people about the “callousness of heart” that leads to “drug and substance abuse, homelessness, poverty, racism, violence and degradation—especially of girls and women.” He also warned against relativism, “which, in disregarding truth, pursues what is false and wrong,” leading to “addiction, to moral or intellectual confusion, to hurt, to a loss of self-respect, even to despair....” but let me analyze this "clever" theology.... Is is the 'callousness' of the young that leads to the self-destructive behavior of our youth, racism, and sexual abuse of women? Is narrow egoism the exclusive attitude of the young? Give us a break. It is true that relativism, and the lack of an objective morality leads to confusion etc.. Yes. But who is he accusing of this error? ... the poor, the young, the helpless, the non-people in our society. Is he implying that people like Dick Cheney, who do not have a relativist perspective, who are not confused, who have no loss of self-respect, are therefore on the right course? His Holiness seems to be misinformed for all his reputed wisdom.
abraham | 4/27/2008 - 9:43pm
1. The sermons took some time to digest. The visit is largely symbolic. Unless the errant priests are defrocked and the errant bishops are forcibly retired nothing changes in the best church in the world! Enough of all the coverups. If I was there I would have presented the Holy father with a yellow broom. Spring cleaning must follow. No point just commenting on the filth in the church. Quietly the filth and all the cobwebs from 40 years ago must be cleaned. 2. OK, you have a vigorous press that has exposed the scandal in USA, Canada, UK, Ireland and rest of Europe (e.g. Austria). What about elsewhere - for example in Germany? Are there no sex abuse scandals there? I would be very surprised. What about in Africa, Asia (India, Philippines and Korea)> Are there no scandals there. Pedophilia is not just an American and European phenemenon!
abraham | 4/27/2008 - 9:40pm
1. The sermons took sometime to digest. the visit is largely symbolic. Unless the errant priests are defrocked and the errant bishops are forecibly retired nothing changes in the best church in the world! Enough of all the coverups. If I was there I would have presented the Holy father with a yellow broom. Spring cleaning must follow. No point just commenting on the filth in the church. Quietly the filth and all the cobwebs from 40 years ago must be cleaned. 2. Ok you have a vigorous press that has exposed the scandal in USA, Canada, UK, Ireland and rest of Europe (eg Austria. What about elsewhere - for example in Germany? Are there no sex abuse scandals there? I would be very surprised. What about in Africa, Asia (India, Philippines and Korea)> Are there no scandals there. Homosexuality and paedophilia is not just an American and European phenemenon!
David Pasinski | 4/26/2008 - 10:13pm
One swallow does not a summer make. Wonderful that he met with and wished to address the victims of abuse and his chiding of the bishops is welcome. What conversation may he have over a book of 1000 names with Crfinal Law? Not to be grumpy and I am appreciative of many of his words and gestures and prayer at Ground Zero, but I am not yet ready to concede all aspects of his approach to interfaith dialogue or write off his intellectual and authoritative history. Viva El Papa, but as another remarked, Americans love anyone with the first name of "The."
Albino Lucani | 4/26/2008 - 5:07pm
www.bishop-accounatability.org/abusetracker for daily verifed TRUTH on the ongoing curia cover-up, and why no laity should be donating any monies, until hundreds of guilty & still enabling as well as aiding and abetring, cardinals, bishops, and religioue superiors, are each removed from office, each canonically censored, and each placed under life house arrest, at the very minimum, like overtly guilty Marciel, or alternatively, each irrevocably EXCOMMUNICATED. No Curia Accountability? No Laity Monies! Ciao e saluti laity! But keep those wallets zipped! Albino Lucani (JP I) Reporting From Heaven (Minus My Mortal Remains & 'Roman Prescription' That Dispatched Me To Our Lord & Savior Early)
Gabe | 4/26/2008 - 1:23pm
I would agree that the pope's visit was a good one. Surely his advisors know how to work the media. Although, while watching him speak, my perspective was different from your editors. I watched him read his speeches, often seeming to want to fall asleep himself. The mirror he held up to catholics in te US he also needs to hold up to himself. Although he spoke often about the clergy sexual abuse scandal, he did not speak about what the catholic church would actually DO about it. Would he punish any priest found guilty? Would he demand that they register as sexual offenders? Would he take out of office those bishops who have knowingly transferred sexually predatory priests, or lied about their backgrounds? And by taking them out of office, I do not mean rewarding them with a palatial home in Rome, in charge of large basilicas, with sizeable allowances. Did he say that he was personally sorry for his part in the scandal? Because while he was Cardinal Ratzinger, all the reports that went to Rome went through him - and he did nothing about them. He spoke of HIS personal suffering in the scandal. I would like him to compare his suffering (whatever that may mean)to the daily flashbacks, nightmares, panic attacks, deep depression and suicidal thoughts we victims suffer, and will probably suffer the rest of our lives. He could easily have met with a large group of victims, in convention center or stadium, just like he met with the priests and sisters in St. Patrick's cathedral if he were serious about wanting to reach out to us in compassion. Instead, he met with a very small carefully hand picked few from Boston - again, a very good manipulation of the media, and an action meant to touch hearts while not causing people to question his sincerity. Like I said, if he really were sincere, he would want to meet with as many of us as possible. I hope the American people can see through all the pomp and circumstance and the romanticism surrounding the pope's visit and judge it wisely.
Paul Livingston | 4/25/2008 - 10:53pm
I was so moved that the pope spoke to the victims of clergy sex abuse. The pope teared with one of the victims that was crying. He made definitive statements that abusing clerics would not make it into the seminary. Way to go! I do wonder how we will stop and defend against these bad apples from getting into the seminary from here on out. I was thinking a better approach would be to hold the people accountable that assisted the abusing clerics. The seminary is no place for a man that would harm the hair on the head of a child.
Paul Livingston | 4/25/2008 - 10:50pm
I was so moved that the pope spoke to the victims of clergy sex abuse. The pope teared with one of the victims that was crying. He made definitive statements that abusing clerics would not make it into the seminary. Way to go! I do wonder how we will stop and defend against these bad apples from getting into the seminary from here on out. I was thinking a better approach would be to hold the people accountable that assisted the abusing clerics. The seminary is no place for a man that would harm the hair on the head of a child.
Michelle Black | 4/25/2008 - 8:34pm
Terrific commentary on the Pope's message to Americans. Like a father, he has challenged us to live up to our potential while giving us great hope.

Recently in Editorials