ROME — The election of Pope Benedict XVI means many things: a resounding affirmation of the pontificate of John Paul the Great; an overwhelming vote of confidence in Joseph Ratzinger, one of the great Christian minds and spirits of our time; dynamic continuity in the world’s oldest office.
In the long view of history, though, April 19, 2005, may mark the moment at which the forty-year effort to force Catholicism to tailor its doctrine and its message to the tastes of secular modernity crashed and burned.
Ever since the Second Vatican Council, some Catholics and most of the world media have expected — and in certain cases, demanded — that the Catholic Church follow the path taken by virtually every other non-fundamentalist western Christian community over the past century: the path of accommodation to secular modernity and its conviction that religious belief, if not mere childishness, is a lifestyle choice with no critical relationship to the truth of things. These expectations have involved both doctrinal accommodation (e.g., the question of whether Jesus is the unique savior of the world) and moral accommodation (e.g., the many issues involved in the post-Freudian claim that human beings are essentially bundles of desires).
I respect the decisions that other Christian communities have made, before God and before the bar of history, in adopting accommodation strategies. Yet it is very, very difficult to argue that this strategy of cultural accommodation — which in some cases bleeds into cultural appeasement — has solved the two-hundred-fifty-year-old problem of being Christian in the modern world. Nor is it possible to demonstrate, empirically, that cultural accommodation or appeasement produce vital, growing, compelling Christian communities. Precisely the opposite is the case. Christian communities with porous doctrinal and moral boundaries wither and die. Christian communities with clear doctrinal and moral borders flourish, even amidst the acids of modernity.
Yet it was expected that the Catholic Church would, indeed must, take the path of accommodation: that has been the central assumption of what’s typically called “progressive” Catholicism. That assumption has now been decisively and definitively refuted. The “progressive” project is over — not because its intentions were malign, but because it posed an ultimately boring question: how little can I believe, and how little can I do, and still remain a Catholic?
In choosing a pope with an unparalleled command of ancient, medieval, and modern theology, the College of Cardinals has sent a clear signal to the entire Catholic Church: the really interesting question is, how much of this rich, vast, subtle tradition have I made my own? At the same time, the College of Cardinals, by electing Pope Benedict XVI, has told both the Church and the world that the evangelical adventure of dynamic orthodoxy launched by John Paul II will not only continue, but be deepened.
Conventional wisdom notwithstanding, the great divide in world Catholicism these past several decades has not been between “liberals” and “conservatives,” “reformers” and “integrists.” It’s been between bishops, priests, religious and laity who see the Church primarily in terms of its evangelical mission, and bishops, priests, religious, and laity who see the Church primarily in terms of institutional maintenance and the exercise of intra-institutional power. The conclave of 2005 was a rout for the latter and a smashing triumph for the former.
The conclave of 2005 also repudiated what might be called “fifty-yard-line Catholicism” — the attempt to find the safe, comfortable, unthreatening “center” between “the extremes.” Pope Benedict XVI, like his immediate predecessor, is emphatically not a fifty-yard-line bishop. If one end zone is the truth of the world, and the other embodies a false story about the world and about us, you can’t split the difference and rest comfortably at midfield. Benedict XVI, to press the imagery a little further, will not play to avoid the interception; he’ll play for the touchdown.
Pray for his success. Pray that he’ll inspire the bishops of the Church to do the same, so that the people of the Church are given bold leadership in the critical task of showing the world the face of Christ, which reveals both the mercy of God and the truth about us.