Wednesday, August 26, 2009


The Pope’s Challenge to the Faithful
Joel Hilliker, Columnist
August 26, 2009
“This saying is hard,” he says as he marches forward with his conservative agenda. “Will you also go away?”

Catholic priests are now encouraged to perform mass ad orientem—facing east, with their back to the people. The change, approved by the pope this past weekend, is the latest step in the Vatican’s march toward traditionalist, conservative Catholicism.

Pope Benedict xvi is leading the way, his back to the people, challenging them to keep up. Inside the church, he is continuing his decades-long campaign to expel liberals and stack the deck with conservatives. In Europe, he is working to reestablish a Catholic continent. Among non-Catholic Christians, he seeks to draw worshippers under papal authority. In the world, he is leveling a strong attack against secularism and godlessness. And to Islam, he has unmistakably shown a resistance, a toughness, that promises to grow stronger. He has repeatedly spoken out against those who would stand in his way, unafraid to offend, unafraid to turn opponents into enemies.

In March 2006, Ratzinger lashed out against European secularism—and Islam—with his book, Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam. Co-authored with the president of the Italian Senate, it addressed the “advance of Islam” and stated that Europe is now “paralyzed because it does not believe that there are good reasons to say it is better than Islam. And it is paralyzed because it believes that, if such reasons do indeed exist, then the West would have to fight Islam.”

In September, Pope Benedict traveled to his home state of Bavaria for a six-day visit where, among other things, he spoke with German President Horst Kohler about the dangers of Islamic penetration into German society. His most famous speech on that trip was a lecture at the University of Regensburg, where he quoted Catholic Byzantine Emperor Manuel ii Paleologus: “Show me just what Mohammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”

In March 2006, Pope Benedict xvi chose to drop “patriarch of the West” from his lengthy list of official titles and became merely “Bishop of Rome, vicar of Jesus Christ, successor of the prince of the apostles, supreme pontiff of the universal church, primate of Italy, archbishop and metropolitan of the province of Rome, sovereign of Vatican City State and servant of the servants of God, his holiness Benedict xvi.” Why bother with the change? The message was not lost on the Eastern Orthodox Church. It meant the Catholic Church still sought “universal jurisdiction of the bishop of Rome over the entire church,” the Eastern Orthodox synod said, adding that it makes it so that their status as “‘sister churches’ between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox church becomes hard to use.” The non-Catholics the pope was targeting knew: He dropped “patriarch of the West” not because it gave him too much jurisdiction, but not enough.

In July 2007, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith restated the doctrines of Dominus Iesus, a document the pope—then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger—had signed in 2000 to proclaim that non-Catholics were “gravely deficient” and that Protestant churches are “not churches in the proper sense.” The restatement added that Orthodox churches suffer from a “wound” because they do not accept the pope’s authority, a wound “still more profound” in Protestants. The document, approved by Pope Benedict, said that denominations outside Roman Catholicism are defective or not full churches. “Despite the fact that this teaching has created no little distress … it is nevertheless difficult to see how the title of ‘church’ could possibly be attributed to them,” it said.
Mid-May that year, the pope traveled to Brazil to open an assembly of the Latin American bishops’ conference—not by invitation, but by personal choice. There he challenged the bishops to galvanize a continent-wide crusade against competing non-Catholic religions (“sects,” he called them), such as North-American evangelicals. Latino bishops jumped on board and began lobbying national governments for legislation to ban and obstruct non-Catholics’ operation in Latin America. The visit illuminated Benedict’s aims to re-energize Catholicism not only in Europe, but across the whole globe.
The pope has also resurrected the Tridentine Mass, a Latin-language ceremony codified in 1570. In the 1960s, the church restricted the use of the ultra-conservative Tridentine prayer book, which is peppered with references that make Jews and non-Catholics bristle (asking God to “lift the veil from [their] eyes,” and that Jews “be delivered from their darkness” and converted to Catholicism). The more inclusive, modern mass the church adopted in its place was scorned by hard-core Catholics, one of whom was a younger Joseph Ratzinger. In July of 2006, Pope Benedict reversed that restriction, reconnecting the church to its medieval past.
The offense to Jews grew worse when, in February of 2008, the pope revised the “Good Friday Prayer for the Jews” portion of the Tridentine Mass. The new version reads: “Let us also pray for the Jews: That our God and Lord may illuminate their hearts, that they acknowledge that Jesus Christ is the Savior of all men.” German rabbi Walter Homolka said, “This kind of signal has an extremely provocative effect on anti-Semitic groups. The Catholic Church does not have its anti-Semitic tendencies under control.”

Conservative Roman Catholics see nothing to balk at in praying that Jews would emerge from darkness. They see no problem with labeling non-Catholics gravely deficient. Catholicism, after all, is universalism. The church can never attain its universal potential—more are coming to believe—unless it stops pretending that those outside of it have access to God.

While some take offense at the pope’s political incorrectness, an increasing number find it refreshing in a world sick with moral relativism. They appreciate his courage in turning his back to lead the congregation into a stricter, more orthodox, less accommodating future. (Read Brad Macdonald’s column from last year, “Benedict’s Strategy for Expanding Vatican Power,” for more on this trend.)

This was the message of Pope Benedict’s sermon this past Sunday. He spoke of how Jesus’s saying offended many, who responded, “This is a hard saying! Who can listen to it?” The pope then said, “And from that moment on, many of His disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied Him. Jesus, however, does not lessen His claim. Indeed, He directly addresses the 12 saying, ‘Will you also go away?’”

This is the pope’s challenge to the faithful. “Jesus in fact is not satisfied with a superficial and formal following,” he said. Total devotion—even in opposition to non-believers—is required.
It appears they are accepting the challenge—and that, remarkably, their numbers are swelling. It’s been said that crowds came to see Pope John Paul ii, but they come to hear Benedict xvi. Over his pontificate, Benedict has consistently attracted larger audiences to witness his weekly homilies in St. Peter’s Square than did his predecessor.

As their devotion grows, so does the indignation of the pope’s growing list of opponents. And so too does the inevitability of a violent clash—prophesied in the Bible—between the church and its fiercest enemies, which are becoming more polarized before our eyes. •

Joel Hilliker’s column appears every Wednesday.To e-mail Joel Hilliker, click here.Please note that, unless you request otherwise, your comment may appear on our feedback page.To read more articles by this author, click here.

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