In his address to lay Catholics in Freiburg, Pope Benedict XVI dwelt on the subject of relativism's corrosive effects on western society. He reminded those who are active in the Church - many of whom were young lay volunteers - that the subliminal relativism currently pervading the west is: -
"...exert[ing] more and more influence on human relationships and on society. This is reflected, among other things, in the inconstancy and fragmentation of many people’s lives and in an exaggerated individualism. Many no longer seem capable of any form of self-denial or of making a sacrifice for others.” (emphasis mine)This is a theme that the Holy Father often returns to. As we know, he also made references to the dictatorship of relativism during his visit to the UK last year. But he seemed to go further when speaking to lay Catholics in Freiburg, as he pointedly appeared to make a connection between the subliminal relativism that pervades society with the lack of real faith within the local Catholic Church. He also seemed to fire a shot across the bow of the Bishops' Conference of Germany when he suggested that bureaucratic obsessions within the Church were hampering the Spirit and causing a "crisis of faith": -
“The Church in Germany is superbly organized. But behind the structures, is there also a corresponding spiritual strength, the strength of faith in a living God? We must honestly admit that we have more than enough by way of structure but not enough by way of Spirit. I would add: the real crisis facing the Church in the western world is a crisis of faith. If we do not find a way of genuinely renewing our faith, all structural reform will remain ineffective.” (emphasis mine)It seems to me that Pope Benedict XVI is profoundly concerned by the fact that the Church in the west is acting more like a corporate organisation than the Body of Christ. Our Bishops' Conferences have adopted management-speak and psycho-babble, but at the cost of sometimes forgetting the language of faith, hope and love. They have been taken in by the (false) opportunities to be creative that supposedly come with relativistic thought, and occasionally seem to have taken on the values of secularism at the expense of the Gospel's urgent call to save souls - which often means preaching harsh realities to a sinful world.
Christian unity and inter-faith relations were key themes during the Pope's visit to Germany, and his address to Germany’s Eastern and Oriental Orthodox leaders needs to be compared with the speeches he made to the nation's Protestants and to those people of faith who do not accept Christ (such as Muslims and Jews). He definitely views the Catholic Church's relationship with each of these communities in very different ways.
First of all, Pope Benedict XVI expressed a deep personal warmth towards the Eastern Churches, even to the point that he sounded more like a man who was falling in love with the Orthodox Church than the one who is still Patriarch of the West (even if Papa Ratzinger chooses not to use this title): -
“Since the time when I was a professor in Bonn and especially while I was Archbishop of Munich and Freising, I have come to know and love Orthodoxy more and more through my personal friendships with representatives of the Orthodox Churches.”The Pope's words to Orthodox bishops were far more enthusiastic than the ones he delivered to various Lutheran leaders - many of whom had been expecting the Pope to restore them to communion with the Church without being in communion with him! In fact, the Holy Father addressed this Protestant pie-in-the-sky thinking when he plainly said this to the Lutheran pastors and bishops gathered at Martin Luther's old monastery: -
“Prior to the Pope’s visit there was some talk of an ‘ecumenical gift’ which was expected from this visit. There is no need for me to specify the gifts mentioned in this context. Here I would only say that this reflects a political misreading of faith and of ecumenism ... the faith of Christians does not rest on such a weighing of benefits and drawbacks. A self-made faith is worthless. Faith is not something we work out intellectually or negotiate between us. It is the foundation for our lives. Unity grows not by the weighing of benefits and drawbacks but only by entering ever more deeply into the faith in our thoughts and in our lives.” (emphasis mine)
“Equally important [as practical and pastoral ecumenism] is the ongoing work to clarify theological differences, because the resolution of these questions is indispensable for restoration of the full unity that we hope and pray for. Above all it is on the question of primacy that our continuing efforts towards a correct understanding must be focused.” (emphasis mine)Although Pope Benedict XVI called on Protestant leaders to stand with the Catholic Church in proclaiming the existence of God to our secular western societies, he seemed to refrain from asking them to join in the specific work of defending the family. Maybe this is because he knows that so many Lutherans, Anglicans and others have embraced the secular manifesto at the expense of the truly liberating Gospel of Jesus Christ? Some Protestant communities are more concerned with so-called gay rights or the ordination of women than real Christian unity or the promotion of the family. When talking with the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox bishops, though, the Pope knew that a great deal of them would willingly stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Catholic Church in defending the family and opposing the insanity of relativism: -
“Knowing too the value of marriage and the family, we as Christians attach great importance to defending the integrity and the uniqueness of marriage between one man and one woman from any kind of misinterpretation. Here the common engagement of Christians, including many Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Christians, makes a valuable contribution to building up a society equipped for the future, in which the human person is given the respect which is his due.”Although not speaking in terms of ecumenism, Pope Benedict XVI also addressed similar words to Muslim leaders, when he said: -
“…it seems to me that there can be fruitful collaboration between Christians and Muslims. In the process, we help to build a society that differs in many respects from what we brought with us from the past. As believers, setting out from our respective convictions, we can offer an important witness in many key areas of life in society. I am thinking, for example, of the protection of the family based on marriage, respect for life in every phase of its natural course or the promotion of greater social justice.” (emphasis mine)It really has come to something when a German Roman Pontiff seems to have more in common with Muslims - in terms of defending the traditional family - than he has with some of his nation's followers of Martin Luther! To be fair to the Lutherans, though, the Pope did emphasise that all mainstream Christians - Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox - have many things in common. As he said to the Lutheran leaders, those things that unite us are far more important than the sometimes trivial things that continue to divide us: -
“…the first and most important thing for ecumenism is that we keep in view just how much we have in common, not losing sight of it amid the pressure towards secularization – everything that makes us Christian in the first place and continues to be our gift and our task.” (emphasis mine)This is why, as the Universal Shepherd of all Christians, Pope Benedict XVI seemed to plead with the Lutheran Churches (as well others, such as parts of the Catholic Church in the west) not to water down the faith, in some counter-productive attempt to make it palatable to modern man. As he said to the Lutheran leaders: -
"Are we to yield to the pressure of secularization, and become modern by watering down the faith? Naturally faith today has to be thought out afresh, and above all lived afresh, so that it is suited to the present day. Yet it is not by watering the faith down, but by living it today in its fullness that we achieve this. This is a key ecumenical task." (emphasis mine)The Holy Father also recognised - in quite a prophetic and open way - that all the traditional Christian Churches and communities now face difficult challenges ahead, as new and sometimes dangerous or bizarre forms of Christianity seem to be threatening mainstream Christian denominations. Our response to these sects and new churches, according to Pope Benedict XVI, can be another opportunity for real ecumenical bridge-building: -
“The geography of Christianity has changed dramatically in recent times, and is in the process of changing further. Faced with a new form of Christianity, which is spreading with overpowering missionary dynamism, sometimes in frightening ways, the mainstream Christian denominations often seem at a loss. This is a form of Christianity with little institutional depth, little rationality and even less dogmatic content, and with little stability. This worldwide phenomenon poses a question to us all: what is this new form of Christianity saying to us, for better and for worse?” (emphasis mine)Needless to say, the Pope had some warm words for the Jewish leaders that he met during his state visit to Germany. Rather than concentrating on what Catholics and Jews have to offer one another, Pope Benedict XVI seemed genuinely humble in reiterating the Church's Jewish roots. But he also used this speech to highlight the fact that there can be "no rupture in salvation history" - a nod, possibly, to those of us, like himself, who are proponents of the "hermeneutic of continuity" within the Church?
“…it seems to me that we Christians must also become increasingly aware of our own inner affinity with Judaism, to which you made reference. For Christians, there can be no rupture in salvation history. Salvation comes from the Jews (cf. Jn 4:22). When Jesus’ conflict with the Judaism of his time is superficially interpreted as a breach with the Old Covenant, it tends to be reduced to the idea of a liberation that mistakenly views the Torah merely as a slavish enactment of rituals and outward observances. Yet in actual fact, the Sermon on the Mount does not abolish the Mosaic Law, but reveals its hidden possibilities and allows more radical demands to emerge. It points us towards the deepest source of human action, the heart, where choices are made between what is pure and what is impure, where faith, hope and love blossom forth.” (emphasis mine)My favourite quote from Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Germany comes not from his official speeches, but from his homily at Sunday's Mass in Freiburg (which, liturgically speaking, was a vast improvement on the Berlin Mass!). During this homily, the Pope referred to agnostics in a rather surprising and refreshing way - even if it is at the expense of pew-hoggers like me! His words are actually particularly challenging and disturbing for some of us, which might explain why I like them? This is what Pope Benedict XVI said during his final Mass in Germany: -
“The Lord concludes his parable with harsh words: 'Truly, the tax collectors and the harlots go into the Kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the harlots believed him, and even when you saw it, you did not afterward repent and believe him' (Mt 21:32). Translated into the language of our time, this statement might sound something like this: agnostics, who are constantly exercised by the question of God, those who long for a pure heart but suffer on account of our sin, are closer to the Kingdom of God than believers whose life of faith is 'routine' and who regard the Church merely as an institution, without letting their hearts be touched by faith.” (emphasis mine)It is always a joy to encounter Pope Benedict XVI's thoughts, which never seem to shy away from the truth and from the things that remain important for our lives. His words spoken in Germany will require a great deal of reflection on the part of those who are active not only in the Catholic Church but also in many other faith communities - both in that nation and further afield. Even agnostics and those who feel rejected by the Church will be able to draw some comfort from the Holy Father's reflections, whilst we Christians will be rightly challenged. So, let us all pray that God grants Pope Benedict many more years on this earth, for the more he writes and speaks, the more we ourselves as well as our future generations will be nourished and blessed by his words.
[All the Pope's speeches, addresses and homilies from his time in Germany can be found on the Catholic Herald website. Another good speech, which I haven't had time to read properly, seems to be the one delivered after a concert at Freiburg - see this Rome Reports video]