How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Pope Benedict

On the day Pope Benedict XVI was elected, I remember very clearly getting a phone call from a friend giving me the news.  She was very excited about the development, and she knew that I would be disappointed.  I was of the view that a new direction was needed after the "lost years" of John Paul II's pontificate when he was sick.  I thought that many of John Paul's selections of American bishops were very poor--pure institutional men, who did not have the pastoral or personal skills to respond to the sex abuse crisis or the other challenges facing the Church.  I thought we had become locked into a tired fight over the meaning of Vatican II, one that had come to drown out every other concern.

I still believe all of that.  However, I assumed the election of Josef Ratzinger was a sign that we were going to continue in the status quo for the foreseeable future, and that Pope Benedict would govern just like Pope John Paul did.  In that, I was wrong.

My problem, I think, is that I viewed Catholicism in binary terms.  I thought there were only two poles--liberals who wanted Catholicism just like it was in the 70s, and conservatives who followed the lead of John Paul.  Since Josef Ratzinger was certainly no liberal, he must be a John Paul II-style conservative, I reasoned.

It has become clear that Pope Benedict represents a third dimension, which is best (if not perfectly) described as traditionalism.  The key to Benedict's traditionalism, I think, is that he is focused on the Church as an institution, and how it relates to other institutions (in particular to the state, but also to institutions of culture).  This is in contrast to John Paul, who self-described his understanding of faith as "personalist."

John Paul II Catholicism, particularly as it manifested itself in the United States, was Revival Catholicism.  It had energy and enthusiasm to spare, but ultimately it was about what the individual thought and felt about the faith.  You were supposed to be "fired up" about Catholicism, you were supposed to dive into all of the writings and speeches of John Paul.  But it was very much about you, and where you were with regard to the faith.  If you didn't get caught up in the enthusiasm, then you were out.

Modern life is the cult of You.  What are you going to do, what are you going to buy, how are you going to market yourself to others.  You.  What I love about Catholicism, more than anything else, is that it allows me to break free of this Cult of You by reminding me that this faith is not mine.  I did nothing to earn it, nor do I own it--I have been given custody of it for a while from those who came before me, and I will pass it on to others when my time is over.  Just as it is not mine, nor is it anyone else's--not John Paul's, nor Benedict's.  I do not care for it as I should, but neither does anyone else, and yet it continues. 

I do not belong to the Catholic Church because it reflects my own awesomeness; I belong to the Church because I realize that I am not awesome, and thus I need the Church.  Also, and this is important, is it not enjoyable to spend time with those who do believe the Church reflects their pre-existing awesomeness.  Because Revival Catholicism has, in my experience, a strong tendency to self-satisfaction and Phariseeism, just as its close cousin evangelical Protestantism does.  Without really being conscious of it, I think the crypto-Protestant quality of that style of Catholicism turned me off.

I have come to believe that Benedict understands all of this in a way that I don't think John Paul ever did.  While Benedict certainly is not given ground on the big ticket issues, he has turned down the temperature on everything.  It seems to me that he has focused on strengthening the institutional Church, and is allowing people to breathe and find their own spot.  Once the institution is strong, it can meet people where they are, even if where they are is not necessarily where you would hope they would be.  Because those people are Catholics, too.  Those people need the Church, too.

Two concrete examples come to mind. I read an interview (which I now can't find) where Benedict was asked about that old bugaboo, the "Christmas and Easter Catholic." Benedict's answer was something along the lines of "well, better that they come on Christmas and Easter than not come at all," and said something about the need to welcome them when they come, since they too are members of the Church. Related to that, I saw a directive recently issued to the Argentinian bishops which instructed priests not to deny anyone who comes to have their child baptized, regardless of the level of practice of the parents. After all, baptism confers grace--why punish the child for the failings of the parents?  That's the vision of the Church that has nourished me--the Church that is around me, but not about me.

I have a couple things that still bother me.  I still think there is an disproportionate emphasis on sexual issues, in a way that drowns out other concerns.  And I wish he had done more to respond to the sex abuse crisis (I wish everyone had done more).  But I think Pope Benedict has put things on a more stable footing, and for the stuff that I am unsure about, such as the slow return to pre-Vatican II liturgical practices, I am very willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.  After all, he is the Pope, and I am not.

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