The Pope They Missed

On the morning Pope Benedict announced his resignation, I was at a Catholic Charities program for people struggling with mental illness, addiction and homelessness. This example of faith in action is an overlooked part of Benedict’s legacy. In two of his three encyclicals, Benedict taught clearly and eloquently on the duty to care for the poor and vulnerable, declared “justice is the primary way of charity” and placed these obligations at the core of Catholic life: “Love for widows and orphans, prisoners, and the sick and needy of every kind is as essential to her [the church] as the ministry of the sacraments and preaching of the Gospel” (“Deus Caritas Est,” No. 15).

Later I watched news coverage of the announcement, which focused properly on its unprecedented nature, legitimately on the sexual abuse scandals and then predictably on Benedict’s teaching on abortion, same-sex marriage and a male, celibate priesthood. The pope and church were presented as out-of-touch opponents of the sexual revolution. It escapes some that opposing the destruction of unborn children and a redefinition of marriage does not make Benedict a conservative pope, but a Catholic pope. Sometimes I wonder who is more obsessed with sexual issues, the Catholic Church or American television.

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Benedict’s greatest disconnection from U.S. elites may not be about sex, but social and economic life: His advocacy for the life and dignity of the poorest and most vulnerable, his warnings to avoid military force in international disputes, his groundbreaking call for sacrifice to care for God’s creation and his warnings about “a selfish and individualistic mindset which finds expression in an unregulated financial capitalism.” These themes do not fit into poll-tested political messages about the middle class, the “makers, not the takers” and the avoidance of hard choices and sacrifice.

Washington sees events through its own narrow categories. It is both intrigued and appalled by a quick, secret election without declared candidates, polls or political consultants. At the White House in 2008, Benedict offered a different view:

The preservation of freedom calls for the cultivation of virtue, self-discipline, sacrifice for the common good and a sense of responsibility towards the less fortunate. It also demands the courage to engage in civic life and to bring one’s deepest beliefs and values to reasoned public debate.

Benedict consistently called for defending the lives and dignity of all. He insisted that “charity must animate the entire lives of the lay faithful and...their political activity, lived as social charity” (D.C.E.) and that “the market...must not become the place where the strong subdue the weak” (“Caritas in Veritate”). He taught that the church’s role in public life is inescapable, demanding and limited:

It is not the church’s responsibility to make this teaching prevail in political life.

Rather, the church wishes to help form consciences in political life and to stimulate greater insight into the authentic requirements of justice as well as greater readiness to act accordingly, even when this might involve conflict with situations of personal interest (D.C.E., No. 28).

For secular Wash-ington, Benedict was the pope of no. For those who listened, Benedict is more the pope of and, connecting charity and truth, faith and reason, protection of life and the pursuit of justice, religious freedom and peacemaking, responsibilities and limitations of government and markets, care for creation and care for “the least of these.” For Benedict, there is “one teaching,” both moral and social.

The stories of resurrection I heard at Catholic Charities left me grateful to be a part of a faith community that does such lifesaving work. I wish I were part of a political community that sees our church and its retiring leader through more than issues of human sexuality. Our ecclesial, political and journalistic institutions all need to better reflect the “Caritas...love” that is at the heart of Benedict’s leadership, and now of his legacy.

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Anne Chapman
4 years 9 months ago
Catholic Charities does do the work of Jesus. But, many (including the church's bishops) seem to forget that more than 2/3 of Catholic Charities' budget in most cities is funded by the taxpayers - in essence, the church acts as a government contractor. The bishops are fighting the mandate that would give employees of Catholic Charities - most of whom are hired for their experience and expertise and not their religion - access to medical contraception. The church's bishops also spent millions of dollars during the recent election season fighting gay marriage initiatives. How often do the bishops get up on their soap boxes and spend millions in campaigns to end capital punishment or to reform the banking regulatory system? How often do they threaten to deny the eucharist to politicians who vote to reduce government programs that benefit the poor? But apparently the BIGGEST sin in the pope's mind isn't the capitalist system or military interventions or failing to feed the hungry and visit the prisoner. The BIGGEST sin in his mind, judging by his words and especially by his actions, is in failing to support his personal theology that has defined women as subservient in both the church and in marriage. Those theologians who even suggest that women should not be denied a sacrament due to their gender are disciplined or silenced - a bishop was removed and a priest excommunicated for this terrible, terrible sin. Is it really surprising that the church is seen through a prism that suggests its primary concern is with gender (specifically keeping women subservient) and with the sex lives of others? That is where the hierarchy spends the money and their media capital. Very often it seems that they give only lip service to other causes. The same can be said of the pope.
David Smith
4 years 9 months ago
Thank you, John.

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