Saturday, April 13, 2019

I admire Pope Benedict's letter


Pope Benedict weighed in on the issue of priests attacking children while bishops looked the other way. Much of the response to his remarks has been vitriolic. My thoughts.

First, when children are under attack, clear thought matters, but it is secondary to effective action. Stop the bleepers, and take care of the child. Get it done.

Pope John Paul II put the matter of abusive priests in Cardinal Ratzinger’s hands. It seemed odd at the time. Why should the theologians be put in charge of the enforcement branch of the personnel section? The blunt answer is, I think, that it didn’t really matter what the office was called; what mattered was putting the right person in charge. Find an excuse, and put Ratzinger in charge. Ratzinger wants desperately to converse with the Lord and his people, with intelligence and love. He’s not temperamentally a cop. But put him in charge anyway! So Ratzinger got the job, and he broke the power and influence of the worst offender, Father Maciel, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ. And he started defrocking the frockers, over 800 of them.

Pope Benedict’s recent letter sketches the excuse for putting personnel enforcement in the doctrine department. I found it unconvincing, but don’t really care. What mattered was, give the problem to Ratzinger. He will make things happen. He will not be stymied by the money and power of his bleeping opponents, and he will take abusers out of circulation.

Second, his letter includes a proposition that sounds stupid. He says the abuse is rooted in an omission – the abusers did not know God, and their time in seminaries did not lead them to a knowledge of God. I don’t care how it sounds; St. Paul said the same thing.

I don’t think it’s possible to make the point briefly and effectively; you have to choose one or the other. He chose brevity. But his point was, morality can’t be separated from love. And love of the people around you can’t be separated from a love of God. Emphatically, that doesn’t mean that atheists can’t love people; I think that Pope Benedict would say that a person who sincerely seeks truth or goodness is stumbling toward God, moved by love. So although the point needs prompt clarification, I don’t think it’s controversial. If you have no idea what makes a human truly human – that is, if you don’t see and admire the love of truth and goodness that animates a human being – then you can’t love that person properly.

Brevity and clarity: how to balance them? Read Pope Benedict’s book “Church Fathers.” I’ve been looking at his chapters on St. Gregory of Nazianzus. Gregory was a theologian – in fact he was a capital letter THE theologian. With a bulging forehead and a droopy beard, leaking Greek. But if you just relax a bit, set aside prejudices, and just read his stuff, it becomes clear that Gregory knew God, and loved God. His ideas and his love can’t be separated. And when you sense the depth and power of the love that moved Gregory, you can understand the real power of Pope Benedict’s apparently stupid remark that loving God and screwing minors don’t fit together. How to avoid evil? Start with love – with Love.

Third, Pope Benedict’s ideas about the devastation of the 1960s left some people completely disgusted. But let me return to Gregory of Nazianzus.

Gregory’s greatest work was helping to understand and articulate the Trinity. He’s not doing stupid shamrock games; he believes that the mind of man is designed to know God, and that God invites us to knowledge. And so he untangles immensities. Sixteen centuries later, I’m trying to persuade Catholics and other Christians to join other people of good will to welcome and protect immigrants and refugees. The key idea that I want to convey, if I have to put it in a sentence or two, is:
+++ Hospitality is a ray of light straight from the heart of the Trinity. The stranger who comes into our lives brings an invitation to know God. +++
I’m not trying to do theology. I’m trying to figure out how to stir people into loving action on behalf of our suffering brothers and sisters. But as I stumble forward, I find myself more and more reliant on the work of great men and women like Gregory. I want to say that the host/guest relationship is a clear image of the life of the Trinity, and invitation into that life. But saying that assumes that we can talk about the Trinity. And indeed we can, because God invites us and teaches us – largely through the work of men and women like Gregory and Benedict (and Macrina and Theresa).

Benedict’s remark about the 1960s was similar, it seemed to me. Marriage, like hospitality, is a revelation of the life of the Trinity, and an invitation into that life. And just as Trumpism is a devastating assault on hospitality, just so Planned Parenthood assaulted marriage. Hospitality and marriage should be understood as simple things, part of daily life – but also as multi-layered realities, touching every part of human life. Reducing marriage to sex and reducing sex to a four-letter word rips the guts out of humanity. The four-letter word has a fairly precise meaning, I think: it means sex without meaning.

What teaches people to explore levels of meaning? Desert solitude can help. Reading can help. But for most people, there are three overlapping ways into depths of understanding: prayer, suffering and death, and love and sex. Closing off one route to meaning is a colossal social loss.

I accept Pope Benedict’s remarks about the vast and devastating changes in social attitudes towards sex in a single generation. Of course there has always been uni-dimensional sexual activity: round peg, round hole, fun. But this willful blindness was not embraced as normal before my generation.

I was shocked over and over when I started to understand the depth and wealth of the teaching about hospitality in the Bible. One shock: the story of Mamre includes a connection that isn’t familiar, that the reward for hospitality is fertility. Abraham welcomed three Strangers, and so he is the father of many nations. AND SO. That’s almost completely incomprehensible in a society that does not practice hospitality and does not value fertility.

I accept the ideas in Benedict’s letter. Wholeheartedly.


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