Acton Commentary

Benedict XVI and the Irrelevance of 'Relevance'


Over the soon-to-be seven years of Benedict XVI’s papacy, it’s been instructive to watch the shifting critiques of this pontificate. Leaving aside the usual suspects convinced that Catholicism should become what amounts to yet another liberal-Christian sect fixated with transitory politically-correct causes, the latest appraisal is that “the world” is losing interest in the Catholic Church. A variant of this is the claim that the Irish government’s 2011 decision to closing its embassy to the Holy See reflects a general decline in the Church’s geopolitical “relevance.”

Whenever one encounters such assertions, it’s never quite clear what’s meant by “relevance.” On one reading, it involves comparisons with Benedict’s heroic predecessor, who played an indispensible role in demolishing the Communist thug-ocracies that once brutalized much of Europe. But it’s also a fair bet that “relevance” is understood here in terms of the Church’s capacity to shape immediate policy-debates or exert political influence in various spheres.

Such things have their own importance. Indeed, many of Benedict’s writings are charged with content which shatters the post-Enlightenment half-truths about the nature of freedom, equality, and progress that sharply constrict modern Western political thinking. But Benedict’s entire life as a priest, theologian, bishop, senior curial official and pope also reflects his core conviction that the Church’s primary focus is not first-and-foremost “the world,” let alone politics.

Rather, Benedict’s view has always been that the Church’s main responsibility is to come to know better — and then make known — the Person of Jesus Christ. Why? Because like any orthodox Christian, he believes that herein is found the summit and fullness of Truth and meaning for every human being. Moreover, Benedict insists the only way we can fully comprehend Christ is through His Church – the ecclesia of the saints, living and dead.

These certainties explain the nature of Benedict’s long-standing criticisms of various forms of political and liberation theology. His primary concern was not whether such movements reflected some Catholics’ alignment with the left, or the liberationists’ shaky grasp of basic economics. Instead, Benedict’s charge was always that such theologies obscured and even distorted basic truths about the nature of Christ and His Church.

There is, of course, a “relevance” dimension to all this. Unless Catholics are clear in their own minds about these truths, then their efforts to transform the world around them will surely run aground or degenerate into the activism of just another lobby-group amidst the thousands of other lobby-groups clamoring to be considered “relevant.”

Which brings us to another great “relevance” of Benedict’s pontificate: his desire to ensure that more Catholics understand the actual content of what they profess to believe.

It’s no great secret that Catholic catechesis went into freefall after Vatican II. It’s true that much pre-Vatican II catechesis was characterized by rote-learning rather than substantive engagement with the truths of the Faith. But as early as 1983, Joseph Ratzinger signaled his awareness of the lamentable post-Vatican II catechetical state of affairs in two speeches he gave in Paris and Lyons. Much to the professional catechists’ displeasure — but to the delight of Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger and every young priest present — Ratzinger zeroed in on the huge gaps in the catechetical text-books then in vogue.

Two years later, the 1985 Extraordinary Synod of Bishops suggested that a new universal catechism be published. This bore fruit in the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church produced under Ratzinger’s supervision. Significantly, it followed precisely the fundamental structures he had identified in his 1983 addresses as indispensible for sound catechesis.

Fast-forward to 2012. Now Benedict is launching what’s called “a Year of Faith” in his apostolic letter Porta Fidei to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Vatican II’s opening. Reading this text, one is struck by how many times Benedict underlines the importance of Catholics being able to profess the Faith. Of course you can’t really profess — let alone live out — the truths of the Catholic Faith unless you know what they are. Nor can you enter into conversation with others about that Faith unless you understand its content.

Hence, as one French commentator recently observed, at least one sub-text of Benedict’s Year of Faith is that “doctrinal break-time” for the Church is over. This point was underscored by the recent Note issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Along the other practical suggestions it gives for furthering the Year of Faith, the Note emphasizes “a profound bond between the lived faith and its contents” (i.e., true ortho-praxis can only be based on ortho-doxy). It also stresses that Catholics need to know the content of the Catechism and the actual documents of Vatican II (rather than, sotto voce, the ever-nebulous “spirit of Vatican II” that seems indistinguishable from whatever’s preoccupying secular liberals at any given moment in time).

The predictable retort is that this proves that, under Benedict, the Church is turning in upon itself. Such rejoinders, however, are very short-sighted. To paraphrase Vatican II, Benedict understands the Church can only have a profound ad-extra effect upon the world if it lives its ad-intra life more intensely and faithfully. Far from being a retreat into a ghetto, it’s about helping Catholics to, as the first Pope said, “be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope” (1 Peter 3:15).

And therein lies the Church’s true contemporary significance, as understood by Peter’s present-day successor. It’s not to be found in turning the Catholic Church into something akin to the Episcopal church of America (otherwise known as the preferential option for self-immolation). It’s about bringing the Logos of the Lord of History into a world that lurches between irrationality and rationalism, utopianism and despair, so that when we die, we might see the face of the One who once called upon Peter to have faith in Him and walk on water.

And what, after all, could be more relevant than that?

This article first appeared in Crisis Magazine.