Taking a step back from the pomp and circumstance surrounding his visit to the U.S., Pope Benedict XVI descended last night into the tiny Crypt Church at the Basilica of the National Shrine in Washington, D.C. There he addressed over 300 U.S. Catholic bishops. As he sat in front of an altar dedicated to Our Lady of the Catacombs, a bespectacled Benedict XVI spoke of the challenges posed by secularism.
Regarding matters of public policy, he said that "there is much current and proposed legislation that gives cause for concern from the point of view of morality, and the Catholic community, under your guidance, needs to offer a clear and united witness on such matters." At various points throughout the speech, he encouraged the bishops to "continue to welcome immigrants," spoke out against the "scandal given by Catholics who promote an alleged right to abortion," and asked the bishops to "proclaim boldly the arguments from faith and reason in favor of the institution of marriage."
A notable issue left unmentioned was the Iraq war. Months before the 2002 invasion, then-Cardinal Ratzinger said of the war that it "seems to me...that the damage would be greater than the values one hopes to save." However, he wrote in a 2004 memo to the archbishop of Washington: "There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion, even among Catholics, about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not, however, with regard to abortion and euthanasia."
The role of religion in public life was a central theme of Benedict XVI's remarks. "Here in America, unlike many places in Europe, the secular mentality has not been intrinsically opposed to religion," he said. "Perhaps America's brand of secularism poses a particular problem: It allows for professing belief in God and respects the public role of religion and the churches, but at the same time it can subtly reduce religious belief to a lowest common denominator. Faith can become a passive acceptance that certain things 'out there' are true, but without practical relevance for everyday life...To the extent that religion becomes a purely private affair, it loses its very soul."
The pope cited this subtle secularization as a primary cause of Catholics leaving the Church. "It is becoming more and more difficult in our Western societies to speak in a meaningful way of salvation. Yet salvation -- deliverance from the reality of evil, and the gift of new life and freedom in Christ -- is at the heart of the Gospel," he said. This problem is compounded by "the almost complete eclipse of an eschatological sense in many of our traditionally Christian societies." He also said that due to materialism and excessive individualism, "it is easy to make the mistake of thinking we can obtain by our own efforts the fulfillment of our deepest needs."
The pope didn't shy away from problems within the Church. He said that "sexual abuse of minors" was "evil" and one of the "countersigns of the Gospel of life." He acknowledged that dealing with this issue in the Catholic Church was "sometimes very badly handled." Later, he asked, "Do people today find it difficult to encounter God in our Churches? Has our preaching lost its salt? Might it be that many people have forgotten, or never really learned, how to pray in and with the Church?"
Benedict XVI stressed that faith and reason are necessary to rejuvenate the Catholic Church: "What is needed, I am convinced, is a greater sense of the intrinsic relationship between the Gospel and the natural law on the one hand, and, on the other, the pursuit of authentic human good, as embodied in civil law and in personal moral decisions." Though the pope certainly believes right thinking is a prerequisite to right living, he hastened to remind the bishops that "time spent in prayer is never wasted, however urgent the duties that press upon us from every side."
These were all familiar messages from Pope Benedict XVI, but perhaps what he said was as important as where he said it. For a trip punctuated by meetings at the U.N. and the White House, masses before thousands at ballparks, and throngs of admirers lining the streets to catch a glimpse, the successor to St. Peter spoke to American bishops in a venue that called to mind a time when Christianity was a small religious sect facing a great assault from the Roman empire. Other than photographers, the media were not even allowed down to the Crypt Church, but were instead scattered throughout a mostly empty upper church and watched his address on large television screens. As he said on his plane ride to America: "It is more important to have good priests than many priests." Popularity isn't Pope Benedict's XVI's goal -- fidelity to God is.
By John McCormack