Novak (novak) wrote,

Theological Notebook: Benedict Day 3, and the Young Ones

Oh, and I include at the last minute a rather jaded article from The New York Times about European theology students who largely don't believe anything about Christianity express their doubts about Pope Benedict. It rather reads like the kind of story you get when you go looking for people of this sort so as to give you the quotes you already know you want. (This was done to me and some of my friends by a writer from the Chicago Sun-Times once when I was an undergrad: another valuable lesson for me in the power of the press.) Anyway, so I'm not sure what to think about that last item's usefulness: whether it tells us something about Europe, or something about the writer. Oh, and I just found a fine sort of parallel article, if not always encouraging, about American Catholic Youth and the Pope by Peter Steinfels, in his always-interesting "Beliefs" column, so that goes in, too.

Young Europeans Seek a Papal Dialogue

April 23, 2005
By ELAINE SCIOLINO for the New York Times

LOUVAIN-LA-NEUVE, Belgium, April 21 - The medieval theology class at the Catholic University here has a message for Pope Benedict XVI: Listen to us.

The institution is one of the oldest Roman Catholic universities, the place where a 22-year-old student leader, a woman, dared confront Pope John Paul II in 1985 about birth control and liberation theology. John Paul thanked her and kissed her forehead, but did not respond.

A generation later, students are still looking for answers, this time from John Paul II's successor.

"In practice, we do what we want," said Florence Druart, a 33-year-old Belgian student. "We live freely. We follow our consciences. We don't want to hear any more about sin, about the woman who has gone astray, about the man who has been thrown out of the church. Will this pope speak to us in a new language? Or is he just going to bring us his same conservatism?"

For Pavils Jarans, a 24-year-old Latvian student, it is hard to believe that the reserved, intellectual Pope Benedict XVI can succeed in wooing back the faithful to church practice and dogma given that John Paul II - a onetime amateur actor who knew how to work a crowd - failed.

"The image that I have of Pope Benedict is that he's the guard dog of the church, very rigid, very intellectual," he said. "I don't really see how he's going to solve the problems of the church."

These two views underscore the complexity of the challenges facing Pope Benedict XVI. If his first message as pope is any guide, he is determined to convince Catholics of the centrality of faith itself. Yet his worldview is grounded in the ideological struggles of 20th-century Europe and he has yet to show how he intends to reconcile that view with the forward-looking hopes and fears of 21st-century Europeans.

As a cardinal, Pope Benedict XVI spoke at length of the perils of secularization and the crisis of the Catholic Church in Europe, where priests are in short supply, churches are empty and Catholics use their consciences more than dicta from Rome in deciding how to live.

As pope, he comes with some of the personal and professional qualifications to begin the task of rebuilding Europe's church. A product of the European heartland whose youth was scarred by the rise of Nazism and World War II, he speaks French, Italian, Spanish, English and his native German. As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, defender of church doctrine, he, even more than his predecessor, sees Europe's history through the lens of Catholicism.

That is no longer the view of many of Europe's Catholics. A poll this week in La Vie, a Catholic weekly in France, found that 54 percent of practicing Catholics and 49 percent of nonpracticing Catholics approved the choice of Benedict as pope. But 87 percent of those polled said they hoped he would permit artificial contraception, and 82 percent wanted him to let priests marry, 81 percent to tolerate abortion in some circumstances, and 72 percent to ordain women as priests. Only 19 percent wanted him to condemn same-sex couples.

"He knows European history from the inside," said Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, 78, the former archbishop of Paris, in a telephone interview. The cardinal said rejuvenating the church "cannot be done by decree," but must be done at the grass-roots level, over time. "For that," he said, "we must not fight about ideologies, but on the contrary we must be rooted in the faith and use a lot of imagination and creativity. It's not the pope who can do this work. He can only support and promote it."

Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, 54, the archbishop of Lyon, said the pope's age and his personality would inhibit him from taking any dramatic new course. "This is not a man who will take a number of new initiatives," he said in a telephone interview. "Rather, he will focus on deepening the work of John Paul II."

Like John Paul II, the new pope has indicated that he feels it his duty to intervene in European politics, injecting Christianity into public life because of Europe's religious past.

Arguing in an interview with Le Figaro Magazine last summer that it was a "mistake" to omit Europe's Christian roots in the European Union Constitution, he called Europe a "cultural continent, not a geographical one" whose roots are Christian.

He used the same argument to explain why Turkey, with its mostly Muslim population, should not be a member of the European Union.

He has also said that rebuilding Europe after World War II was possible "thanks to political leaders who had strong Christian roots," and that failures to recognize Europe's Christian identity are a reflection of "a hatred of Europe against itself and against its great history."

This puts him at odds with what he has called European "ideological secularism." Such a view, he has said, is a "total profanity."

Europe's rising Islamic population only makes the problem more complex. Pope Benedict has criticized "multiculturalism" as "an abandonment and disavowal of what is our own." At the same time, however, he also has noted the success of Islam in inspiring Muslims, and has said it offers a "valid spiritual foundation for people's lives" that "seems to have escaped from the hands of old Europe," meaning Christian Europe.

So far, Benedict has not made clear his strategy for revitalizing the church in Europe. In his homily before the cardinals opened their conclave, he said Christians in general had been subjected to the "dictatorship of relativism," but in his first message as Pope two days later he called four times for dialogue.

Clerics who lost their posts when Cardinal Ratzinger was the chief enforcer of church doctrine say they have no illusions that he will bring fundamental change to the church.

The Rev. Willigis Jäger, an 80-year-old German Benedictine monk and Zen master, was ordered by Cardinal Ratzinger to stop all public activities in 2001 for stressing mystical experience above doctrinal truth. He says he believes that as pope, Benedict will be incapable of a meaningful dialogue on issues ranging from ecumenism to women's rights in the church, he said in a written response to questions. Because of that, he said, "Europe will search for a spirituality that does not consist of outdated, traditional theological beliefs."

By contrast, some conservative Catholics say a European intellectual like Pope Benedict XVI is just what Europe needs.

"He is a very modern and very cultured person, and he can explain to Europe that reason is not opposed to faith, reason brings people to faith," said Giancarlo Cesana, a leader of Communion and Liberation, a conservative Italian Catholic movement. "It is the quality of the faith, not the quantity that counts for him."

Even many who were surprised that such a conservative was elected said it was only fair to give him a chance to prove himself as a pope who can relate to Europe's needs.

Indeed, in the class at Catholic University here, 4 of the 17 students said they approved his selection as pope; 12 said they had reservations but wanted to give him a chance, and only one was wholeheartedly opposed.

But this is also the place where a poll three years ago found that 83 percent of the students described the church as paralyzed, in crisis or dying. Only 16 percent said they believed in the resurrection of Christ, 12 percent in the Holy Trinity and 11 percent in the virginity of Mary.

Only 3 percent said they believed in the infallibility of the pope.

Hélène Fouquet contributed reporting from Paris for this article, and Jason Horowitz from Rome.

What Does the Selection of the New Pope Portend for American Catholic Youths?

April 23, 2005

In the days after Pope John Paul II died, only his role in helping bring on the collapse of Communism earned more comment than his gift for reaching young people with the challenge of the Gospel.

That testimony, along with the images of youthful backpackers swelling the crowds of mourners in St. Peter's Square, stirred memories of things witnessed firsthand in Denver 12 years ago at World Youth Day, and elsewhere.

But those recollections only made it all the more jarring to be simultaneously poring over a National Study of Youth and Religion, undertaken at the University of North Carolina, and its findings about American Catholic teenagers - findings that raise obvious questions about the way leadership will be exercised in the papacy of Benedict XVI.

Those findings have recently been published in "Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers" (Oxford University Press, 2005), by Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton. With a mixture of good news and bad news that punctures many stereotypes about adolescent religious beliefs and behavior, this extensive study deserves attention for what it reveals across the full range of American religious groups.

But what leapt out during this papal transition was that the researchers had felt compelled to devote a separate chapter to their discovery that Catholic teenagers "stand out among the U.S. Christian teenagers as consistently scoring lower on most measures of religiosity."

On various questions about beliefs, practices, experiences and commitments, the researchers found Catholic youths "scoring 5 to 25 percentage points lower than their conservative, mainline and black Protestant peers." In-depth interviews showed many of these Catholic adolescents "living far outside of official church norms."

Catholic teenagers were far less apt to affirm belief in a personal God, to report having ever undergone a very moving, powerful worship experience, or to say their faith was extremely important in shaping their daily lives or major life decisions.

There has been a lot of impressionistic talk, often verging on boosterism, about a new "John Paul II generation" of deeply committed, conservative young Catholics. So what should be said about this quite different-looking crop of John Paul II teenagers? How did this happen on the watch of the very pope who undeniably exhibited such magnetism among youth?

The obvious answer is that one individual, no matter how charismatic a communicator of his convictions, cannot do it alone. Even the millions touched by World Youth Days are only a small - and often unrepresentative - fraction of young Catholics, who as a whole can be reached only at the grass roots, through parish worship, religious education, youth ministry and, of course, their parents' example.

If this whole infrastructure of religious socialization is creaky, undermanned, short on skills and resources, fearful of ideas and innovation or unresponsive to important demographic, socioeconomic and cultural forces, then even the most dynamic pontiff can enliven only a minority of young Catholics.

Benedict XVI, by all accounts, lacks his predecessor's personal dynamism, but may very well pay more attention to the condition of that Catholic infrastructure. Unfortunately, when speculation began about the consequences of his election for American Catholics, the news media could only trot out the usual checklist of issues: contraception, abortion, homosexuality, sexual abuse crisis, ordination of women and so on.

The assumption always seems to be that adhering to a religious faith is primarily a matter of obeying rules and that in the case of Catholicism, these are made - and might be remade - by the man at the top. What gets lost is the idea that religious faith entails a more fundamental stance toward reality, one embedded in a community, expressed in its prayers and practices (not just its rules) and learned by exposure, both in person and in story, to exemplary individuals.

In this preoccupation with the rules, a lot of important questions went largely unasked. What kind of bishops and archbishops would Benedict XVI be likely to appoint? What might he do about the worldwide priest shortage? Would he find a regularized place in church life for the similarly worldwide upsurge of trained and dedicated lay people now carrying out pastoral work full time? What individual or group models of living the faith will he favor or disfavor?

Some Catholics may be waiting with bated breath for a papal "yes" or "no" on contraception, say, or whether to vote for a politician who supports Roe v. Wade. Most, poll data suggest, are not. What needs to be asked about the standard checklist of issues is how decisive a part they will play in the new pope's oversight of the Catholic infrastructure.

And in Benedict's case, still more decisive than these separate items is apt to be his underlying reading of the times. Many who claim to know have linked his choice of the name Benedict to a vision of the world - or at least of its most economically advanced sectors, in Europe and America - as entering a new Dark Age, when the best the church can do is maintain outposts of belief that, like the early medieval Benedictine monasteries, can preserve pure Christianity amid the ignorance and wreckage of barbarian rule. Much in Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's writings supports this interpretation.

If that bleak vision is indeed his, will the resulting infrastructure nonetheless embrace this new generation of American Catholic youth, who are not simply untouched by official teachings about contraception or homosexuality but often appear unfamiliar with or indifferent to the basic Christian narrative of creation, incarnation and redemption? Or will a Benedict XVI church set its priorities so that most of these teenagers are consigned to the barbarian darkness while the church attends to the minority already saved?

Some people have already written off Benedict XVI, while others are rushing almost to canonize him. Pending a clearer sense of his own vision of the world and of the priorities such a vision suggests, both reactions seem premature.

In a televised interview eight years ago, cited in John Allen's book "Conclave" (Doubleday, 2002), one high-ranking Catholic official gave a rather minimal view of what Catholics should automatically assume about a newly chosen pope. Asked whether "the Holy Spirit plays a role in the election of the pope," the official replied, "I would not say so in the sense that the Holy Spirit picks out the pope, because there are too many contrary instances of popes the Holy Spirit would obviously not have picked."

"The Spirit's role should be understood in a much more elastic sense," the official added. "Probably the only assurance he offers is that the thing cannot be totally ruined."

That official was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI.

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