"The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these too are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts.... This community realizes that it is truly and intimately linked with mankind and its history."

Those are the dramatic opening words of Gaudium et spes, the Second Vatican Council’s epochal Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. Perhaps more than any other conciliar document, Gaudium et spes gave voice to a new openness to the world, and to the church’s decision to take down the misbegotten barricades erected against so-called modern error. It also happens to be the conciliar document about which Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, has long expressed the most serious misgivings, judging it to be excessively optimistic about what the world beyond the church has to offer.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Benedict’s papacy has seen a turning inward, a strong desire to restore traditional markers of Catholic identity, and a willingness to emphasize the differences, rather than the commonalities, between Catholicism and secular rationalism, Protestantism, and other religions. Or as the Economist recently wrote, "Whatever history says about Pope Benedict XVI, it will not blame him for worrying too much about the feelings of people outside the global community of 1.1 billion or so people which he leads."

Much has already been written about the pope’s efforts to repair Catholic-Jewish relations after the Holocaust denial of Richard Williamson, one of the schismatic Lefebvrite bishops whose excommunication Benedict lifted last month. The pope’s willingness to reach out to the Lefebvrites despite their brazen anti-Semitism, like his ill-advised remarks about Islam at Regensburg, seems characteristic of a determination to place internal church concerns (some of them quite legitimate) before solidarity with the "griefs and anxieties" of others. It was the council’s great hope that in embracing all that is "genuinely human" the church would pay greater respect to the concerns of people outside its doors. Benedict, it appears, is more doubtful about that proposition than his postconciliar predecessors.

Some within the church admire Benedict for not "worrying too much" about the feelings of non-Catholics. Hostility toward, and ignorance about, Catholicism, not the pope’s sometimes flinty voice, are the real problems, they argue. A pope’s responsibility is to preach and defend Catholic truth, especially when that truth clashes with the fashionable but mistaken moral assumptions of the age. That is certainly one of the pope’s responsibilities. Hostility and ignorance are real enough. But in the aftermath of the sexual-abuse crisis, Catholics know that the worst damage done to the church is self-inflicted.

Hard on the heels of the Lefebvrite debacle came news that Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, the late scandal-plagued founder of the Legion of Christ, had fathered at least one child. Credible accusations of the sexual abuse of young men had long followed Maciel, who was a favorite of Pope John Paul II. The pope saw the Legion as a model of religious renewal and a dependable source of priestly vocations (see Jason Berry and Gerald Renner’s Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II). Shortly after John Paul’s death, Benedict suspended Maciel from public ministry, an act that finally gave pause to the Legion’s high-profile conservative U.S. Catholic apologists. The Legion’s rigorous discipline and traditionalism had impressed admirers, but its rule included a vow never to criticize the "father founder," and to report those who did. Here, once again, loyalty to an institution blinded many Catholics to the grave flaws of religious leaders.

The catechetical and pastoral challenges facing the pope and the bishops are daunting. And that makes it all the more troubling that Rome is preoccupied with insular concerns. Increasingly, American Catholics have the impression that bishops listen to one another and to the Vatican, but rarely to those in the pews. (Cardinal Bernard Law, for instance, is still involved in making decisions about who is appointed bishop in the United States.) Yet most Catholics do not live in the Vatican, or in a seminary or rectory. Most do not pine for the Tridentine Mass. For better and worse, Catholics remain "intimately linked with mankind and its history," and bishops—including the bishop of Rome—urgently need to be seen sharing the griefs and anxieties of the men and women of this age, not just being concerned for the good opinion of their peers.

Published in the 2009-02-27 issue: 
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Thomas Merton at Commonweal

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