THIS WEEK, Pope Benedict XVI turned 85; yesterday marked the start of the eighth year of his pontificate, the most extraordinary and brilliant of recent times. In Ireland this statement reads as unexpected, “counter-intuitive” – perhaps even perverse.
This arises, however, not because of objective circumstances, but because of those who stand between the pope and his people. In other societies, Pope Benedict has shown himself to be adept at reaching out to the educated generations of young people seeking to overcome the lassitude invoked in them by a globalised culture selling sensation and freedom but not the peace they crave.
Elsewhere, the initial prejudices which greeted this pope’s election in 2005 have long evaporated; here – doggedly maintained by a determined cadre of embittered media ideologues standing between the people and the light – they remain.
Were it not such a serious matter, it might become increasingly comical to observe the illogicality of Irish media positions towards the Catholic Church. Although there are no more than three or four print journalists working in our media who are other than relentlessly hostile to the very idea of Catholicism (I can think only of one radio presenter and no one on television), the only content of media coverage is an incessant clamouring for “reform”.
Pope Benedict makes written and spoken contributions on almost a daily basis about matters as diverse as the condition of modernity, the meaning of eternity, the conundrum of reason, and the quality of beauty, and yet we are only enabled to hear what he says when this is deemed to provide an appropriate – selective – backdrop for discussion of the favourite topics of media apparatchiks and their pet contributors.
Personally, I do not play golf, know almost nothing about it, do not belong to a golf club and find the rules of the game pointless. For me, golf is a ludicrous way of spoiling good fields. But I do not write articles here every week about what should happen when pine needles piled for removal interfere with the line of play. Nor am I afforded space on the sports pages to issue persistent demands that the golfing authorities change the rules to make them seem less ridiculous to me. I assume that those who wish to play golf are happy to abide by the rules of the game and to accept the logic behind its regulation.
Last week, on the publication of an opinion poll conducted on behalf of the Association of Catholic Priests, commentators who had never written a sentence indicating genuine interest in, or affection for, Catholicism – who never miss an opportunity to attack the church and its leadership – struck up demands for “democracy”, purportedly on behalf of what they depict as the downtrodden and ignored “faithful”. Why? Why do they care whether the Catholic Church is democratic or not? What is it to them?
And is it not odd that the first recourse of many who cannot live up to the demands of Christianity is to demand the adaptation of those teachings to their personal needs rather than ask themselves whether they have misunderstood something about the church, reality or themselves? To adopt another sporting metaphor: a striker who fails to score enough goals does not get a platform for claims that the goals should be enlarged, but a Catholic who says he cannot live up to the church’s expectation of its members is regarded as a worthy victim, if not a hero.
Let us pause very briefly to contemplate the silliness of the idea that an opinion poll can decide anything to do with Christ’s church.
To say that the Catholic Church is not a democracy is to state its very nature: for Catholic believers, it is the institution founded by God to implement His will on earth. For those who believe this, it is the end of the discussion. If you do not believe this, why be interested in what the church thinks or says about anything?
An interesting aspect of these discussions is the way selective interpretations of the Second Vatican Council – which the Association of Catholic Priests, for example, claims as its principal inspiration and motivation – are employed to consider matters relating to the church as though to a political party.
Such interventions, the pope has frequently observed, are based on a refusal to read the text of Vatican II, or its division into two parts: an “acceptable” progressive part and an “unacceptable old-fashioned” part. Vatican II must be read, he insisted, in the context of what came before, and in particular of Vatican I. Yes, there was a Vatican I too.
One of the greatest threats to the church, the pope reminds Catholics, is public pressure for a watered-down, appeasing Christianity. Because the church is “not our institution but is the breakthrough of something different”, he wrote as Cardinal Ratzinger in Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith (2002), it follows that “we cannot ever simply constitute her ourselves”.
And we certainly cannot consider the nature of the church under the guidance of forces seeking her destruction.