The joy of the gospel, says Pope Benedict, lies in the authentic truth about God
Last week, I wrote about the questions Cardinal Francis George, supposedly “America’s Ratzinger” would like to ask the Holy Father, beginning with whether he fully grasps that, in some quarters, he’s created the impression that Catholic doctrine is up for grabs. I ended with a question of my own: if “America’s Ratzinger” doesn’t really have an understanding of “what are we doing here?”, what is going through the mind of Pope Benedict himself?
I think we may have part of an answer, in a little noticed but lengthy letter — an epistle, really — from Pope Benedict to the Pontifical Urbaniana University (an institution dedicated to the evangelisation of peoples) on the occasion of the dedication of its great hall to Benedict XVI.
The ceremony took place on October 21, and included the reading of a message from Pope Benedict himself. Oddly, the message did not appear on the website of the university itself, and L’Osservatore Romano gave only a summary report of it. The complete text was made public on October 23 by the Austrian Catholic news agency Kath.Net, and an English translation of it can be found here under the interesting headline “The ‘Evangelii Gaudium’ of Pope Emeritus Benedict”.
It can be seen almost as an implicit criticism of Pope Francis’s doctrine-lite attitude to his teaching ministry, to precisely the fact that “he’s created the impression that Catholic doctrine is up for grabs”. Let me be clear: I don’t think that Pope Benedict set out to criticise his successor. He would never do that: as Pope Francis has said of his predecessor, “he is discreet, humble, he doesn’t want to get in the way”.
But really, the very fact of the existence of a corpus of writings like that of Pope Benedict, as pope, as cardinal prefect, and before that as academic theologian, is an implicit standing reminder to Pope Francis that smiling and personal attractiveness aren’t enough to sustain a papal ministry, that doctrine can’t be “up for grabs”, and that it’s part of his function to make sure that everyone knows that.
The real question is whether the two really do have intrinsically different attitudes to the Catholic Church’s possession of the absolute and objective truth about human existence, a truth which Benedict profoundly believes is essential to “the joy of the gospel” and its proclamation, but which Pope Francis gives the impression of thinking that it can be a barrier between the Church and other religions, not to mention non-believers and that “proselytism” is a falsification of authentic Christian mission, which should be “by attraction”. And certainly, a lot of people (not me), especially non-believers, do seem to think that Francis is a much more attractive figure than Pope Benedict: though you have to ask whether as a result they are any closer to embracing the Christian gospel.
Pope Benedict, if he is to say anything characteristic of his own thinking, is going to convey his love of Catholic truth and his deep instinct that this truth has to be passed on. The only way this is not going to emerge is if he now says nothing at all, as a matter of principle: but Pope Francis has said he doesn’t want him to do that and that he wants to know his views: “It feels like having grandpa at home,” he says “because of his wisdom. It does me good to listen to him. And it also encourages me a great deal.” Well, grandfathers can be clear-minded and even quite tough, as well as encouraging. And they can have a disconcerting way of carrying on saying what they have always thought.
That’s what Pope Benedict does in his message to the Urbaniana University, in which, as he says, “young people from practically all the countries of the world are preparing for the service of the Gospel in today’s world”:
Even today, I see before me in my mind’s eye a community made up of so many young people who show us in a living way the stupendous reality of the Catholic Church.
“Catholic”: this definition of the Church, which belongs to the profession of the faith since the most ancient times, bears within itself something of Pentecost.… The last words that Jesus spoke to his disciples were: “Make disciples of all peoples” (Mt 28:19). And at the moment of Pentecost, the Apostles spoke in all languages, thus manifesting, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the full breadth of their faith….
The Risen Lord charged his Apostles, and through them the disciples of all times, to bear his word to the ends of the earth and to make men his disciples … But … is mission really still relevant? Would it not be more appropriate for the religions to encounter each other in dialogue and serve together the cause of peace in the world? The counter-question is: can dialogue replace mission? Today many, in effect, are of the opinion that the religions must respect each other and, in dialogue among themselves, become a common force for peace. It is presupposed that the authentic truth about God, in the final analysis, is unattainable and that at most the ineffable can be made present with a variety of symbols….
And nonetheless this is lethal to faith [my emphasis]. In fact, faith loses its binding character and its seriousness if everything is reduced to symbols that are ultimately interchangeable, capable of pointing only from far away to the inaccessible mystery of the divine…
Today there is another aspect that we see ever more clearly: while in the countries of its grand history Christianity has in many ways grown weary … new dimensions of the faith are manifesting themselves and bringing joy…
In our time the voices of those who want to convince us that religion as such is outdated are growing ever louder … So it is up to us who believe to fling open ever anew the doors that, beyond mere technology and pure pragmatism, lead to the full greatness of our existence, to the encounter with the living God….
Joy demands to be communicated. Love demands to be communicated. The truth demands to be communicated… We proclaim Jesus Christ not in order to procure as many members as possible for our community, and much less for the sake of power. We speak of him because we feel the need to transmit the joy that has been given to us.
The document is simply signed “Benedict XVI” (none of that “emeritus” nonsense) and here is his “Evangelii Gaudium”. The joy of the gospel lies in “the stupendous reality of the Catholic Church”, in “the authentic truth about God” which it is her mission to protect and to proclaim.
Pope Francis says it does him good to listen to Pope Benedict because of his wisdom, that he learns from his predecessor. With deep respect for a Pope who I still believe has the potential to achieve one of the great pontificates, may I humbly suggest that he should learn from him now?