What Popes Are For

Published February 12, 2013

The Huffington Post

Joseph Ratzinger has been collecting epithets since his days in the Roman Curia — God’s Rottweiler, Panzerkardinal, Papa-Nazi. Such monikers have always said much more about those who bestowed them than they do about man to whom they were applied, but they became part of a popular culture both fascinated and repulsed by the quiet Bavarian scholar.

Then Pope Benedict XVI came out with his first encyclical, titled “God is Love,” and the custodians of received wisdom marveled that the caricature they had created wasn’t real.

With the announcement of his resignation, Pope Benedict has them scratching their heads again. “Pope’s don’t just quit. What’s really behind this?” they wondered. The end of this pontificate, like the beginning, is a sign of contradiction to those who see every human action in the cynical categories of power and willfulness.

Religion, we are told, is an escape — an attempt to explain away the pain and suffering and impossible contradictions of human life. Religion, we are reminded, is full of stuff we tell ourselves to make ourselves feel better. Or worse. Religion is something we tell others in order to control them. It’s not belief in God, per se, that disturbs our sophisticated, post-modern sensibilities. It’s religion; especially of the organized sort. So we’re all spiritual, but fewer and fewer of us are religious.

Our culture’s complicated relationship with organized religion is closely tied to our culture’s complicated relationship with truth. We love our truth, all right, but we treat truth a lot like religion — it’s fine, so long as everyone else keeps their truth to themselves. Tolerance — which our culture values over all other virtues — consists in not imposing your truth on someone else.

The problem with this well-meaning attempt at tolerance is that it is unsustainable. It’s self-cannibalizing. If there is only your truth and my truth, but no Truth, then there is no common ground upon which to meet one another. Either I’m right, or you are, and since there’s no middle ground, the matter is only ever settled when one side wins and the other side loses. A world without truth isn’t a world liberated from conflict; it’s a world without the possibility of reconciliation.

Pope Benedict’s episcopal motto Cooperatores veritatis — “co-operators of the truth” — suggests a very different understanding of reality; one in which both faith and reason owe allegiance to the same reality, that is, to truth. And truth, at least as the Catholic Church understands it, is best demonstrated, not by carefully reasoned arguments (though those are important) and certainly not by violence, but by self-giving love. There is nothing more compelling, nothing more true, than sacrificial love.

(The central truth of Christian faith — God became man in Jesus Christ, through whose suffering and death we are redeemed — can be summed up like this: God got tired of telling us how to do it, so He decided to come down here and show us.)

It also suggests that Pope Benedict XVI understands a pope’s role in the Church as one of leadership, but primarily of service. Among the pope’s many titles — Vicar of Christ, Successor of the Prince of Apostles — is this, The Servant of the Servants of God. He is only a custodian, a shepherd of Someone Else’s flock. The papacy, in other words, was not given him for his sake, but for the sake of the Church’s mission.

These words of Pope Benedict will undoubtedly be foremost in the minds of the 117 Cardinals who will choose his successor: “[I]n today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the barque of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary.”

The Church exists to proclaim the Gospel: That and nothing else is the “relevance” of the Church in the world. This year, Catholics are celebrating a “Year of Faith” — a worldwide rededication to learning, living, and sharing the faith. This means learning, living, and proclaiming precisely what it is that Catholics believe. It means telling the world the truth, no matter the personal cost.

The pope is not a figurehead; he is an apostle. He is not a manager; he is a messenger. By announcing his resignation yesterday, Pope Benedict XVI has signaled that the Church of the 21st century will not be a Church of business as usual. It will not be a church of institutional maintenance, of isolation, or of longing for the past. The Church exists to spread the Gospel. And those who have inherited that mission by their baptism must be willing to sacrifice a great deal to answer that calling.

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