February 20, 2006
Hoping in Pope Benedict XVI
-- Martin E. Marty
You don't need Sightings to find cartoons in Denmark or hunting accidents in Texas, so let's turn this week to a subject too small to make the front pages, namely Roman Catholicism. It's on my mind in part because a subscriber forwarded me a critique from a friend to whom he had forwarded a recent Sightings. The friend dismissed that column by saying, "Of course Marty would write that way, because he's such a firm Roman Catholic," or something to that effect. I pushed the "delete" button at once, concerned about identity theft, and snuggled back under my firm Lutheran roof. But for a moment, I dreamed ....
This dream: What if not too far into the new millennium a pope would come along and issue something important about a positive theme? What if such a piece were de-polarizing, meaning that it would appeal not just to one faction or another? What if the face such a figure presented were not scowling, and the voice going with it not crabby or scolding? What if what he wrote aspired to present something of the Christian gospel, Good News? The public image of Catholics, evangelicals, and plenty of others shows them to be rather brutally seeking power or defensively holding on to it. Must it always be so?
I pinched myself to read this headline in the February 10th issue of the National Catholic Reporter: "Encyclical Finds Favor in Unexpected Quarters"—the Reporter itself being an unexpected favorer of the encyclical, the pastoral letter from Pope Benedict XVI. Deus Caritas Est, "God Is Love," is the first encyclical from the former cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who bore the tough image of an inquisitor. Most Catholics with whom the Reporter folks hang out (and non-firm non-Catholics like M.E.M.) nursed grievances and bruises from the then-cardinal in his earlier role. Of course, they have to keep their guards up. "God Is Love" is only one document, one action, and there will be many others, maybe of other kinds.
For the moment, though, John L. Allen, Jr., a reporter with a reputation for fairness who was not "expected" to see the new pope in such a friendly light, could cite critics like Paul Collins, an over-examined and edged-out "victim" of Ratzinger; Andrew Sullivan, who criticizes Catholic critics of gay priests; Hans Kueng, old friend-turned-foe-turning-friend; and a half-dozen others marked as liberal who are now applauding this first shot out of the encyclical cannon.
"Just what Catholicism needs, really" (Collins); "a beautifully written document (Sullivan); "solid theological substance" (Kueng); and from a spokesperson for a liberal Catholic group: this could be a "human face for Christianity and for the Catholic church." Of course, all these praisers saluted with fingers crossed. For the moment, however, they simply enjoyed the fact that Benedict XVI chose to write about and seek to exemplify Christianity's central but so often overlooked themes: divine Love and the way it relates to human loves.
Deus Caritas Est takes off from and is critical of a modern classic Lutheran treatment of Agape and Eros, though the pope tries to bridge to other such interpretations of the two loves. So there is homework to be done. For the moment, however, most critics have parked their grudges at the door, and they consider with hope that Benedict XVI has set a promising tone for what will follow.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.