April 14, 2006

Pope Benedict XVI: Good Friday Reflections & More

On this Holy Day of Good Friday, when Christians commemorate the crucification of Jesus, Pope Benedict XVI offered these reflections on the Stations of the Cross. They are worth reading.

This newspaper article highlights some of the reflections.

Daniel Henninger of the Wall Street Journal adds his thoughts in a commentary entitled The Pope's Easter: Benedict XVI takes on the excesses of secularization and radical Islam:

If we still hold that the news reflects reality, we would be led to believe that Christians enter these final three days of Holy Week preoccupied with whether to credit the new Gospel of Judas that the hallowed National Geographic Society delivered unto the world this month, and whether to attend the imminent film version of "The Da Vinci Code," purporting that the Vatican has covered up Jesus' marriage to Mary Magdalene. My guess is that on this Easter Pope Benedict XVI, the new leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, feels he has larger fish to fry than the marital status of Jesus...

To a surprising extent, the pope's world is our world. His problems are the same problems that bedevil the political life of the United States: violence against the innocent under the cloak of Islam, the disdain of Old Europe, establishing an acceptable price for doing business with China, the pain of Africa's genocides and epidemics. These issues inhabit the public square, and inevitably through history the world's largest, centrally organized religion has faced onto that square.

Now comes a new kind of mosque. And this pope knows it.

Each January the pope delivers a formal address to the diplomatic corps attached to the Holy See. This year Benedict gave his first. Read the following and watch the religious wheat separated from the terrorist chaff:

"Attention has rightly been drawn to the danger of a clash of civilizations," said Benedict. "The danger is made more acute by organized terrorism, which has already spread over the whole planet. Its causes are many and complex, not least those to do with political ideology, combined with aberrant religious ideas. Terrorism does not hesitate to strike defenseless people, without discrimination, or to impose inhuman blackmail, causing panic among entire populations, in order to force political leaders to support the designs of the terrorists. No situation can justify such criminal activity, which covers the perpetrators with infamy, and it is all the more deplorable when it hides behind religion, thereby bringing the pure truth of God down to the level of the terrorists' own blindness and moral perversion."

Moral perversion? We indeed have a pope, one, it appears, who won't pull his punches, and one who like the rest of us just now must contemplate the meaning of Flight 93's hijackers driving a passenger airliner to earth while chanting, "Allah is the greatest."

Any leader has to pick his fights, and my guess is that this pope will take his to the place he knows best--Europe. In the post-Soviet Europe that Pope John Paul II helped bring to life, there is already political tension between the more actively religious peoples of Eastern Europe--particularly Poland, Lithuania and Slovakia--and an assertively secular West. In February the European Union, the official arm of secular Europe, threw down the gauntlet; it effectively collapsed the government of Slovakia over a religious issue.

In 2003 the government of Slovakia signed a concordat with the Vatican to let doctors and health-care workers in Catholic hospitals decline to participate in abortions as a matter of conscience. This January the EU's Network of Independent Experts on Fundamental Rights (their real name, not an Orwellian satire) ruled Slovakia in violation of its EU "obligations." Translation: Tell those Catholic docs to do abortions or we will hammer you financially. The political tensions split Slovakia's government, and in February it fell.

We may assume the new pope noticed this re-invasion of Slovakia. George Weigel of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, probably our most astute analyst of the papacy as a political actor (his biography of John Paul was a bestseller), has just written an absorbing book-length commentary on the new pope's probable direction called God's Choice. "Ratzinger has been thinking about Europe for 25 years," Mr. Weigel told me. "He needs to address the problem of a Europe in which consciences are being coerced by transnational institutions. This is the cash-out of what he means by the dictatorship of relativism. It's a real issue with real world consequences." Mr. Weigel notes Benedict will go to Cologne in September, and this could be the venue for a large, Europe-directed statement on the place of religion in contemporary society.

Don't write off the effort as quixotic. In 2004 then-Cardinal Ratzinger, one of the world's eminent theologians, made his case in a debate with the famous German philosopher Jrgen Habermas, himself a kind of secular saint. Habermas emerged from what turned into a dialogue with Ratzinger to cause a mini-sensation by suggesting that religious communities deserve respect for having "preserved intact something which has elsewhere been lost." There are signs, small as mustard seeds, of revival: In a paper last month for the American Enterprise Institute, Christopher Levenick drew attention to the renewed interest in monastic life inside Italy. In the past year some 550 women, most college-educated Italians, entered cloistered convents, according to Italy's Union of Mother Superiors.

If the pope's problems in Europe are mainly a struggle over the life of the soul, in foreign policy it is often a death struggle. Amid Denmark's prophet Muhammad cartoon debacle, Muslims in Maiduguri, Nigeria burned 11 churches and murdered 15 minority Christians. "For a Nigerian Catholic prelate," says Mr. Weigel, "the pope is a lifeline to the outside world." No one knows that better than the estimated eight million Catholics in China's persecuted underground church. Last month Benedict announced his desire to visit the mainland. The political hurdles are high. What should be the price of a papal visit? A Chinese claim to name his new bishops? Throwing over Taiwan's Catholics? It makes Google's political problems there look, well, young...

Here are some additional thoughts from the Pope earlier in Holy Week:

"Despite all the darkness in the world, evil does not have the last word," said Benedict XVI, frequently changing his prepared text off the cuff. "For our part, lets commit ourselves to create a more just world with more courage." The pope then invited the faithful to participate in celebrations of the Triduum starting tomorrow. "These days are intended to re-ignite in us an urgent desire to follow and to serve Christ, mindful of the fact that he loved us to the point of giving up his life for us."

For further reflections:

Pope Benedict XVI: Proposing Faith as an Antidote to Relativism
Follow Me: John Paul II Roused Us From a Lethargic Faith
Pope Benedict XVI: "A Man With Great Humility & Gentlemanliness"
Teaching Our Children Well: Rediscovering Moral Principles & History

A Poignant Reflection on John Paul II
John Paul II, Requiescat in pacem