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I had the good fortune to be in Washington and New York to see Pope Benedict XVI this past week. I feel blessed. The name Benedict in Latin means “blessed.” I kept thinking of the gospel passage which echoes the psalm, “Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini,” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” (Lk 13:35). And blessed are we!
One of the interesting things about Pope Benedict is the way he constantly shifts attention away from himself and onto our Lord. When well-intentioned but liturgically questionable shouts of “Viva il Papa!” would occasionally interrupt the flow of the Mass at Yankee Stadium, the pope would graciously and gently continue with the liturgy. The focus is, and must be, on Jesus Christ our saving Lord. It’s not about the pope: It’s about Jesus. The same is true of his preaching, which is thoroughly biblical and focused on God.
With Pope Benedict, one never loses sight of the fact that he comes in the name of the Lord. One wonders if the Protestant Reformation would’ve happened under such evangelical leadership. For that matter, because one of his constant themes is the importance of reason and freedom in human affairs, you wonder if the Enlightenment would’ve taken on the anti-Catholic character that it did if a man like Benedict had been pope. Of course, God’s ways are not our ways, and he is Lord of history. So everything had (has) a purpose. In a sense, Pope Benedict has absorbed the positive lessons that the Reformation and the Enlightenment brought, and has done so in full fidelity to the dogmatic and moral teachings of the Catholic Church throughout history.
Far from being God’s rottweiler, this soft-spoken, gentle German shepherd called us to be true to our best heritage as Catholics and as Americans, the saints and everyday heroes that have preceded us. He showed a deep and nuanced appreciation of American history and culture. Encouraging rather than hectoring, he frankly acknowledged the personal devastation wrought by the Church sex-abuse scandal. By his honesty, he personally gives the lie to the anti-Catholic slur that confronted Cardinal Newman, that truth has never been a virtue with the Roman clergy. Newman answered it by writing his spiritual autobiography, “Apologia pro Vita Sua.” Pope Benedict answers it by the gentle but firm integrity of his life.
In “Apologia,” Cardinal Newman writes that as a young man he was tempted to prefer intellectual excellence to moral excellence: “Knowledge is one thing, virtue is another. . . Philosophy, however enlightened, however profound, gives no command over the passions, no influential motives, no vivifying principles.” Similarly, Pope Benedict told educators, “While we have sought diligently to engage the intellect of our young, perhaps we have neglected the will. Subsequently we observe, with distress, the notion of freedom being distorted. Freedom is not an opting out. It is an opting in.” He continually stressed the importance of the objective moral order of justice and the virtues.
Nor was it all just a matter of talk. He did not just talk about healing, he met personally with some victims of sex abuse--a healing move that took some personal courage. All too often, this has been viewed as a legal problem, to be addressed by bureaucratic measures. Pope Benedict realizes that it is a pastoral and moral problem.
He made a similar point at the United Nations. He told the General Assembly that “Experience shows that legality often prevails over justice when the insistence upon rights makes them appear as the exclusive result of legislative enactments or normative decisions taken by the various agencies of those in power. When presented purely in terms of legality, rights risk becoming weak propositions divorced from the ethical and rational dimension which is their foundation and goal.” Pope Benedict blesses us with his emphasis on the importance of the moral and rational dimensions of human life. Life is not just about me, or money, or sex, or power. It’s about truth. And finally it’s about love, which is about others. And that love has a name, which is God: “Deus caritas est.”
Dwight Duncan is a professor at Southern New England School of Law. He holds degrees in both civil and canon law.