One of the central themes of Pope Benedict’s pontificate has been that Truth - with a capital "T" – makes claims upon us, that our Western culture has relativized the Truth to meet its decadent desires, and that the Church must be engaged in the task of returning Truth to its central place in the culture lest that culture spin out of control. There is no doubt the Pope is onto something. Liberty has given way to license, even in our laws. People demand the Church change to accommodate them without ever engaging the contrary possibility that perhaps they should change to accommodate the Church. And, in a culture awash in commercialism and sophomoric trash, the central animating claims of Truth get lost.
This is not merely a theoretical concern, although Pope Benedict is comfortable as a theoretician. He is also now a pastor and he seems to understand that if the claims of the Gospel are lost, then his flock will be lost. He is looking to feed his sheep, and the gift he has to bring is a gift of learning, prodigious and prayerful learning. Anyone who has read his book "Jesus of Nazareth" will recognize what a gift this Pope has, and how badly our culture needs that gift.
Even a Pope needs to stretch. One of the consequences of Benedict’s background in theology and philosophy is that his concern for intellectual precision sometimes blinds him to the consequences of his statements. In the case of lifting the excommunication of the bishops of the Society of St. Pius X, he understood clearly that this was a first step, not a last one, that the bishops would need to accept the decrees of Vatican II and that such acceptance would include Nostra Aetate, and that the greater his own influence over the group, the more likely they are to be rid of some of their crazier beliefs. Pope Benedict did not, alas, foresee the consequences of his decision, or if he foresaw them, he decided to let the chips fall where they may. The decision itself was correct. Why worry about the consequences?
Through history there have been teaching popes, diplomatic popes, managerial popes. All have something to bring to the Chair of Peter. Benedict, like his predecessor, is clearly a teaching Pope but he needs to remember that whatever else it is, the Chair of Peter is not a faculty chair. There are consequences to everything he says and it is important to consider those consequences in forming one’s decisions. Examining consequences is not to deny the idea that truth claims exist irrespective of their consequences. It is not a first step down the relativist slippery slope. It is, instead, a sign of pastoral solicitude, a recognition that Truth must be applied in concrete situations and that considering those situations is not the same thing as situational ethics.
Benedict has a cast of mind that is brilliant, faithful, and engaging. But, he also seems inalert at times to the fallout from what he says and does. I am sure the papal apartment, for all its beauty, is a gilded cage where it is difficult to get constructive criticism. He is getting plenty of criticism now, even from some prelates such as Cardinal Schonborn who studied under him. He needs a kitchen cabinet he can speak to before he renders controversial decisions. Not because the Truth will be different to each of his advisors, but their life experiences will be different and that will – yikes, the dreaded word – relativize the way they think the Truth should be applied in a given situation.
I would never want to get into a debate with Pope Benedict, not because he is Pope but because he is smarter than me and I know I would lose. But, I could have warned him that these crazies in the Society of St. Pius X will cause him nothing but grief and that a bishop who denies the Holocaust is such an enormous scandal that everything else about the case will be lost in the public discussion. Modernity is a great Areopagus and we must be ingenious about how we preach there. And, in humility, we must recall that Paul did not do so well at the Areopagus, he sort of bombed. And yet, the Gospel flourished.