Tuesday, April 19, 2005

My Thoughts on the Election of Pope Benedict XVI and the "Mind of the Church" in 2005

By Dave Armstrong (4-19-05)

Praise God! Cardinal Ratzinger and Cardinal Arinze were the only two "candidates" I really knew all that much about, so I am absolutely delighted by this choice. But of course, that is only my own opinion, which counts for little. I believe in faith that this choice was led by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, similar to the workings of an Ecumenical Council, just as we observe in Acts 15:22, 25, 28 (RSV):

Then it seemed good to the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them . . .

. . . it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to you . . .

For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us . . .
And so here we are with the first German pope since the 11th century; a man who has served faithfully under Pope John Paul the Great, and who will certainly continue his mission. I have a few comments; purely speculative, and of no authority whatsoever, but I throw them out anyway, for whatever they are worth:

I see (with my typically analogical imagination: part of the Chestertonian and Newmanian influence in my thinking) a great parallel to the history of the Church 100 years ago. Church history is often cyclical, and revivals have historically been cyclical events. I've often made a comparison in my mind between Pope John Paul II and Pope Leo XIII. Both were intellectuals and ruled with a similar style. Both were concerned with, for example, labor issues. Pope Leo XIII elevated John Henry Newman, the great English convert, to Cardinal in 1870, whereas Pope John Paul II declared him Venerable (the first step to sainthood). Both men were very attuned to their turbulent times. Leo XIII was a "man of the Vatican I Council"; Pope John Paul II was a "man of Vatican II." Leo XIII served from 1878-1903; John Paul II from 1978 to 2005.

And of course, the holy and great pope who followed Leo XIII was Pope St. Pius X, whose main accomplishment was a strong vanquishing of modernism and theological liberalism. Here, again, is the analogy: Pope John Paul II had many strengths, which have been well-catalogued and extolled in the period of mourning following his death. He had certain emphases (as all popes do) and a particular temperament and personality. His emphasis was on ecumenism and reaching out to all people. He was an evangelist.

Pope Benedict XVI agrees with all that, but clearly his emphasis will likely be more so as a "doctrinal watchdog" and a more stern disciplinarian, since that has been his role in the past 20 years or so. As Pope St. Pius X dealt with the modernists, who were just then trying to make serious inroads into the Church, at a time when Europe and Western Civilization was starting to forsake the Catholic and Christian worldview for the pottage of secularism (with the result being Naziism, Communism, the sexual revolution, the abortion holocaust, and the bloodiest century in history), so Pope Benedict XVI (I imagine) will decisively deal with the postmodernists in the Church, at a time when even the cultural remnants of Christianity are being ditched by Europe and Western Civilization (as he himself has written much about).

Pope John Paul II laid the fundamental groundwork for the defeat of the liberal dissidents and their nefarious goals for the Church; Pope Benedict XVI may very well deliver the death-blow. History shows us that the worst centuries in the Church and the world are followed by centuries of great revival and renewed hope. Stay tuned! We ain't seen nothin' yet!


Disciplinary measures in the Church are a matter of prudence and judgment. Perhaps Pope John Paul II did not do as much as he could have in this regard (some think so). This is also the main criticism of Pope Paul VI. But one man cannot do everything, has to do the best he can under the circumstances, and the Holy Spirit has His own timing for things to unfold, so that the best possible outcome will occur.

John Paul II laid down the boundaries of orthodoxy and explained to the masses exactly what the Church believed. Now may be the time for this orthodoxy to be more strictly enforced on the local level, where, oftentimes, sadly, liberalism runs rampant.

Again, this is all in God's time. I detest and utterly condemn all the so-called "traditionalist" claptrap, running down John Paul II in this regard, and also arrogantly opposing his ecumenical endeavors (as if they could be a better pope than he was). These hyper-critics are not thinking with the mind of the Church; nor do they know what God has in store.

I happen to have had the privilege to personally know one of the great catechists of our time: the late Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J. (who wrote the Foreword of my first book, A Biblical Defense of Catholicism). He was a close advisor to Pope Paul VI and Mother Teresa, and he used to tell us in classes that the reason a full-scale crackdown on the liberals had not occurred was because of the very real possibility of massive schism.

Now, it may be time now to take more decisive action, just as it was in the reign of Pope St. Pius X. The choice of Cardinal Ratzinger would seem to indicate that this was a major factor in the mind of the electing Cardinals. Or it may not yet be time, and a more incremental approach to the problem might be more in order. Only time will tell. But the faithful Catholic lives in full confidence that God knows what he is doing, and that popes know what they are doing, too.

Whatever course Pope Benedict XVI takes in this regard, he will have my full support and obedience as a faithful Catholic and an apologist. I'm simply noting some parallels and possible trajectories of history that might perhaps explain a few things, as to the direction of the Church and of this papacy.

Whatever happens, I also believe that Pope Benedict XVI will probably be one of the most persecuted and even hated men in the world (the most hated since President Ronald Reagan). The liberals and secularists already take a very dim view of the man, because he is strongly orthodox and stands up for the truth. There is a place for this. All the early popes were martyrs. There is also a martyrdom of sorts which comes through slander and lying and severe opposition from the waves and currents of the presently fashionable zeitgeist.

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger is precisely the sort of man, I think, who is willing to suffer in that way, in order to strongly assert doctrinal, theological truth. It is good to be loved by the world, as Pope John Paul II was, if it is for the right reasons. The world saw the goodness and holiness in John Paul II. But it is also good to be willing to be persecuted for His name's sake, and to draw clear lines and boundaries. That is the other motif in the Bible, and we certainly saw it in play among the apostles:

You will be hated by all for my name's sake.
(Lk 21:17)

If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you . . . If they persecuted me, they will persecute you.
(John 15:18-20)

. . . now they have seen and hated both me and my Father. It is to fulfill the word that is written in their law, 'They hated me without a cause.'
(John 15:24-25)

Woe to you, when all men speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.
(Lk 6:26)

Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.
(Matthew 5:11-12)

. . . rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.
(Acts 5:41)

Now, I can anticipate some critics of Pope John Paul II saying to themselves (as I have already observed in some), "see, look how popular John Paul II was! So he didn't fulfill this biblical injunction." But there is really no contradiction here. It's obvious that some good and true things are loved by the world and some good and true things are hated by the world. Ecumenism: reaching out to those of other faiths with a broader message (not to deny Catholic distinctives, but to emphasize common ground) will obviously hold more appeal to those outside of the Catholic faith. It's just human nature. Hence, Blessed Pope John XXIII was such a beloved figure among non-Catholics, just as Pope John Paul II was.

But if a pope's emphasis is on Catholic distinctives and orthodox Catholic theology, in his words and speeches and so forth, in more direct contradiction of the world and non-Catholic Christianity, then he will have to take a great deal more heat, and be accused of being divisive or "triumphalistic" and so forth (which is equally human nature; people don't like disagreement, and they seem to think it is arrogant to ever say that anyone else is wrong).

Note, for example, how Pope Paul VI's famous 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, which reiterated Catholic opposition to contraception, was received. It caused almost a wholesale revolution in the Church (at least in America), from those who had hoped to remake Catholicism into American Episcopalianism (which has excelled at following the spirit of the times and compromising historic Christianity again and again). But Pope Paul VI has turned out to be a virtual prophet. All his dire cultural predictions have come to pass, and then some.

I see this tendency all the time on a much smaller scale, in my own apologetics apostolate. I am passionately committed to both apologetics and ecumenism, and I have written quite a bit of material in the latter vein. Can you guess which one of the two is more popular? Of course, I get a lot more positive feedback when I write ecumenical papers. Then I am perceived as open-minded, fair-minded, more charitable, peace-loving, conciliatory, tolerant, and what-not.

Then when I write a paper asserting some Catholic distinctive, or criticizing, for example, Martin Luther (not Lutherans as people!) or Reformed distinctives or some point of moral difference, then all of a sudden I am accused of being prideful and arrogant and thinking I know everything, and against Church unity, and quite intolerant and intolerable (sometimes by the very same people, who see the two motifs as contradictory, when they are not). It's amazing how one person can change so quickly from a lovable character to an ogre! But this is simply human nature and the "either/or", "dichotomous" mindset which characterizes much of modern thinking. This has crept into the Church and larger Christianity.

I've often noted through the years, how people assume that there is a huge dichotomy or contradiction between apologetics and ecumenism. This is untrue. They are perfectly compatible. One endeavor seeks to defend what one believes; the other seeks common ground with other Christian and even non-Christians, and seeks as much unity as is possible to achieve, without compromising one's own belief-system and principles. But the strong tendency is for "liberals" to despise apologetics (fundamentally misunderstanding it), and for so-called "traditionalists" to despise ecumenism (fundamentally misunderstanding it). Post-Vatican II Catholicism (which is the same Church it ever was; only more developed) fully embraces both.

Both the late great pope and this present one are in full agreement with both endeavors (as they are men of Vatican II). That said: there is a time to emphasize one or the other thing (while not denying the other). As Pope John Paul II was such a superb ambassador of the faith, an evangelist, even a "diplomat," if you will (in the very best sense of that word), so Pope Benedict XVI may very well be the upholder and champion (in a more direct, "disciplinary" way) of theological orthodoxy over against all the currents of error that we have to deal with in the modern world and (sadly) among certain rebellious sectors of the Church.

Pope John Paul II made it a huge emphasis in his papacy to oppose the Culture of Death; perhaps now is the time to particularly oppose the Culture of Relativism, Secularism, and Theological Error? It makes sense to me, but again, I merely speculate. Time will tell if my observations have any foretelling value.

Both things are good: ecumenism and doctrinal orthodoxy and/or apologetics (which seeks to defend same), but (broadly speaking) folks love one and despise the other. They seem to think that one person with one coherent belief-system cannot do both. Well, this is untrue. Pope John Paul II did both; Pope Benedict XVI will continue to do both. But as the former pope emphasized one, and that was his "image," so to speak, so this present pope will likely emphasize the other, and his "image" will have to take a lot of hits, and he will undergo much persecution for doing so.

That will not be because he is somehow more "orthodox" or "conservative" or less ecumenical than Pope John Paul II, but it will be because his emphasis clashes more with the world and other Christian belief-systems than ecumenism does. And he may be more personally assertive or "disciplinarian," as a matter of style, resolve, temperament, or other factors.

It doesn't make him "bad" and John Paul II "good" or vice versa (wrongheaded, sinful stereotypes according to the heterodox / liberal and quasi-schismatic "traditional" fringes of the Church and nutty, goofy, ignorant media analyses by folks who don't have a clue). All this is, is a balance: one good thing being emphasized, and then another good thing being emphasized, at particular periods of time. God is in control. He guided this decision. He knows what He is doing.

Popes Leo XIII and St. Pius X were both great popes. Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI will also, I'm convinced, both be regarded as very great popes, with the hindsight of history and the progress and development of the Church in the years to come. It is the glory of Catholicism that it can contain men of such vastly different temperaments and emphases, such as St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Francis of Assisi, or even of a St. Peter and a St. John among the apostles. It's all good.

May all our prayers be with our new Holy Father, and may we all learn to think in harmony with the Mind of the Church (the only sensible, reliable counter to the Spirit of the Times).

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