Thursday, April 21, 2005

MH - The One Who Will Not Give Up

There's been a good deal of speculation as to what will emerge as the theme of Benedict XVI's papacy. Based on an excellent essay by Daniel Moloney on NRO, I'd like to offer the suggestion that Benedict's theme, stated or unstated, will be "Do Not Give Up," or more accurately, "God and His Church Will Not Give Up on You."

Moloney's essay analyzes the influence on young Joseph Ratzinger's spiritual development of growing up in Nazi Germany. Moloney sharply disagrees with those who downplay it's effect, or suggest that the student protests of 1968 played a far greater role. In Moloney's mind, the '68 protests merely reinforced an observation that Ratzinger had first formed much earlier: the root of decline can be found in the loss of a "sense of sin":
In a radio address in 1940, Pius XII claimed that “the sin of the century is the loss of the sense of sin.” This diagnosis has been repeated and emphasized by all the popes of the late 20th century, none more forcefully than John Paul II. The sense of sin, argued John Paul II in his 1984 apostolic exhortation Reconciliation and Penance, is related to the sense of God; likewise, the secular humanist attempt to develop a morality and way of life that makes no reference to God will also force man to lose his sense of sin.

Ratzinger expressed his dream to enter the priesthood the year after Pius's speech. He was a collaborator with John Paul II on Reconciliation and Penance. It seems clear that this was the defining moment in the future pope's way of thinking, and that all subsequent events would be viewed through the lens that was ground by these events. Moloney comments:
What Pius XII diagnosed as the sin of the 20th century — the loss of a sense of personal guilt and sin — Benedict XVI thinks helped make great evil seem so ordinary. This is the theological solution to Hannah Arendt’s puzzle about how such boring bureaucrats as Himmler and Eichmann could bring about the Holocaust. The Nazis taught, repeatedly and in numerous different ways, that there is no God, no sin, and no personal guilt. Relentless propaganda made it easy for people to avoid feeling guilty, and, since everyone was complicit, nobody was made to answer for his sins.

In this regard, the consumerism and relativism of the West can be just as dangerous as the totalitarianism of the East: It’s just as easy to forget about God while dancing to an iPod as while marching in a Hitler Youth rally. There’s a difference, to be sure, but hardly anyone would contest the observation that in elite Western society, as in totalitarian Germany, the moral vocabulary has been purged of the idea of sin. And if there’s no sense of sin, then there’s no need for a Redeemer, or for the Church.

I think that, for the new pope, the 1968 protests in Europe and the sharp decline in those partaking of the sacrament of confession in the Church after Vatican II made it clear that the sense of sin was breaking down among Western liberal Christians just as it had for Western liberal Germans between the wars. If there’s going to be a theological key to this papacy, I would locate it here.

And this brings me to my hypothesis, which is born in Moloney's closing paragraph, as he offers conjecture on why the Cardinals chose Ratzinger:
In so quickly rallying around the man who, more than any other in the Church, is identified with a developed and public critique of Western European mores, the College of Cardinals were sending a message: The Church is not giving up on the modern West. It seems fair to read this message too in the name taken by the new pope: that of St. Benedict, the patron saint of Europe, the founder of Western monasticism, whose followers preserved classical culture through the Dark Ages after the decadence and fall of Rome.

In retrospect, this is hardly a surprise. Benedict's message echoes that of Christ Himself, Who promised never to desert His Church, Who makes Himself available to us at all times in the Blessed Sacrament, Who urges us time and time again to come to Him in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. No matter what our sins, no matter how often we commit them, His message to us remains the same: When others would give up on you, I never will. I am here for you, come to Me. I will never give up on you.

This, then, whould seem to be Benedict's message to the West; indeed, to everyone. See the Church? We are not giving up on you. As disciples of Christ, this message includes us in a special way, for just as Christ assures us miserable sinners that He will not give up on us, it is part of our calling that we not give up on our mission of spreading His gospel to our brothers and sisters. We look around and perhaps see degradation all around us; sin and despair, poverty and indifference. We see the eyes of the dying Terri Schiavo, the dumpster with the fetuses of aborted babies. No matter how it is expressed, it can be discouraging. Why bother? we think. What difference does it make? What difference do we make?

Here, it would seem, is yet another layer to this theme, for this kind of despair leads not only to a cessation of our Christian witness, it can also lead to a personal spiritual poverty. And it is here, when it seems most bleak, that Christ comes to us again, making His most personal appeal to us: "Don't give up on Me."

This is the rallying cry I think will be coming from Benedict, from his example. Don't give up. Continue to serve as a witness to the faith by living a Christian life. Continue to evangelize, continue to minister to the poor in spirit, continue to perform the corporal works of mercy. Continue to strive for personal holiness in your own life. You never know the lives you touch, the examples you set, the differences you make. It is what makes each and every life special and unique, worth living; it emphasizes the beauty and sanctity, the indivduality of life.

Is it a surprise that we see this echoed in the Our Father? "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us." Do not give up on them, Christ is telling us, do not give up on Me, do not give up on yourself, as I do not give up on you.

What could be a better compliment to John Paul's "Be Not Afraid" than Benedict's assurance that "Christ and His Church Will Not Give Up on You"?

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