Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Pope Benedict's appreciation for America's Religious Liberty

"The Pope likes New York and what it stands for", asserts Jeff Israely in a rather decent article on the Roman Pontiff by the American press ("The American Pope" Time April 3, 2008), examining Benedict's relationship with the American people and his perspectives on our system of government:

"I think he's really fascinated by the city and what it represents," says Raphaela Schmid, a Rome-based German with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, who knows him. "It's about people being two things at once, like Italian Americans or Chinese Americans. He's interested in that idea of coexistence."
Israely disputes the idea that the so-called "Vatican enforcer" harbors an antagonism toward "the democratic, pluralistic values that constitute (on our good days) the American brand":
... A survey of the 80-year-old Pontiff's writings over the decades and testimonies from those who know him suggests that Benedict has a soft spot for Americans and finds considerable value in his U.S. church, the third largest Catholic congregation in the world. Most intriguing, he entertains a recurring vision of an America we sometimes lose sight of: an optimistic and diverse but essentially pious society in which faiths and a faith-based conversation on social issues are kept vital by the Founding Fathers' decision to separate church and state. It's not a stretch to say the Pope sees in the U.S.--or in some kind of idealized version of it--a civic model and even an inspiration to his native Europe
According to Israely, during his stint as peritus during the Second Vatican Council, Joseph Ratzinger was sympathetic to the arguments of the U.S. delegation (John Courtney Murray?) in the debate over religious freedom:
Conservatives opposed [religious freedom]: states must sponsor faith, and the faith should be Roman Catholic. The Americans argued that religious liberty was morally imperative and--from experience--that in a multireligious state, Catholicism could best thrive when the government could not play favorites. The council sided with them, and Ratzinger, anticipating a world composed of jostling religious pluralities, heartily approved. In a 1966 analysis, he wrote, "In a critical hour, Council leadership passed from Europe to the young Churches of America and [their allies]," who "were really opening up the way to the future."
Israely admits that Ratzinger's appreciation for the American conception of religious freedom "did not extend to an acceptance that all roads to salvation are equal or to a license for democracy within his church" (how could it, really?) -- nonetheless:
[Benedict] came to respect the way Catholic leaders in the U.S. went about their business. A current (non-American) CDF official notes that the U.S. church is the only one that keeps a "serious" doctrinal office rather than an unthinking rubber stamp or an old-boys' club; when conflicts arise, its bishops are actually prepared to discuss them. Moreover, says Levada, "he seems to recognize that we're plain speakers. We don't hide behind words."

The Pope also admires the Americans' role as, in the words of one cleric, "intellectual first responders," especially as the country's great network of Catholic hospitals wrestles with novel problems of medical ethics. "Through the great sphere of worldly experience that the Church has in America," Benedict wrote, "as well as through her faith experience, decisive influences can be passed on." He has shown his comfort with the direct and thoroughly American approach by appointing Americans to the No. 1 and No. 3 spots in his powerful former office [The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith].

Israely cites as a prominent example of the Pope's appreciation for America expressed in Without Roots, his 2004 exchange with the president of the Italian Senate, Marcello Pera:
It bemoans the European Union's refusal to acknowledge Christianity in a draft constitution, and Pera wonders about bringing back some kind of multidenominational "Christian civil religion." In response, Ratzinger cites Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America and makes the case that America's Founding Fathers were pious men of different denominations who wrote the First Amendment prohibiting state establishment (that is, sponsorship) of religion precisely because sponsorship would stifle all non-established creeds--which they hoped would achieve full and varied flower.

Of course, no such bloom would occur if the American soil were not already faith-saturated. But Ratzinger believes in America's "obvious spiritual foundation," its natural, Puritan-instilled DNA. He is well aware that this is eroding; he thinks we watch too much TV and fears that American secularization is proceeding at an "accelerated pace." But he insists that there is a "much clearer and implicit sense" in the U.S. than in Europe of a morality "bequeathed by Christianity." He has also given earnest thought to the mechanics of this civil religion, specifying that to affect the moral consensus, it is not enough for Catholics to rub shoulders with other Christians; they must translate their concerns from doctrinal language into a "public theology" accessible to all.

As far as his Apostolic Journey to America is concerned, Israely believes Benedict will be "less interested in scolding American Catholics than in talking up 'new religious communities ... being formed who quite consciously aim at a complete fulfillment of the demands of religious life'" -- schools of burgeoning Catholic orthodoxy like Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif.; Christendom College in Front Royal, Va.; and Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, Fla -- "eruptions of non-state-related religious vitality at which he thinks we excel."

There are a few points in Israely's article which betray his liberal sympathies -- as when he says "There are times when Benedict's love affair with American religious pluralism seems a bit naive, especially when it clashes with his nonnegotiable doctrinal stands" or "downplaying the idea that Catholics may legitimately balance church teaching against the demands of their conscience." But on the whole I think it worth the read. Israely closes:

John Paul II described faith and reason as the twin wings that lift the church. And yet a balanced takeoff has remained elusive. The U.S. is one of the few places where it seems to happen regularly. "America is simultaneously a completely modern and a profoundly religious place. In the world, it is unique in this," says a senior Vatican official. "And Ratzinger wants to understand how those two aspects can coexist." Almost all the things the Pope likes about us--our faith in the real value of plainspokenness, our pluralistic piety and even our wrangles around applying religiously grounded moral principles to increasingly abstruse science--can be understood in light of this quest. If he finds answers in the U.S., they could help define his papacy.

When he arrives on U.S. soil on April 15, we in the press will no doubt be parsing Benedict's every sentence for his opinions on U.S. policy or remonstrance of American morals. But the most important waves emanating from this contact may reverberate well beyond tomorrow's news cycle. John Paul II and the U.S. played as anticommunist co-leads on the 20th century stage. This Pope, more a student of global drama than an eager protagonist, knows that rising religious conflict may be the 21st century's great challenge. He also appears to sense that American power alone won't solve it--but that the power of American values still might. In rummaging through our founding precepts for a path for his own purposes, he might find something important for us to remember too.

Further Reading

Ratzinger/Benedict on "Separation of Church & State"

  • "A Tocquevillian in the Vatican", by Dr. Samuel Gregg:
    Upon being inducted into the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques of the Institut de France in 1992, then-Cardinal Ratzinger remarked that Tocqueville's “ Democracy in America has always made a strong impression on me.“

    Describing Tocqueville as “le grand penseur politique,“ the context of these remarks was Ratzinger's insistence that free societies cannot sustain themselves, as Tocqueville observed, without widespread adherence to ”des convictions éthiques communes.“ Ratzinger then underlined Tocqueville's appreciation of Protestant Christianity's role in providing these underpinnings in the United States. In more recent years, Ratzinger expressed admiration for the manner in which church-state relations were arranged in America, using words suggesting he had absorbed Tocqueville's insights into this matter.

  • Biblical Aspects of the Question of Faith and Politics homily delivered on 26 November 1981 for Catholic members of the Bundestag in the church of St. Wynfrith (Boniface).
  • Why Church and State Must Be Separate An excerpt from "Theology and the Church’s Political Stance" in Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger Church, Ecumenism and Politics: New Essays in Ecclesiology (NY: Crossroad, 1988 -- republished by Ignatius Press in 2008).
  • Benedict XVI on Religion and Public Life Zenit News Service Sept. 17, 2005 - which included his June 2005 remarks to Italian President Carlo Ciampi on church-state relations.
  • On October 17, 2005, in a letter to the president of the Italian Senate, Marcello Pera (with whom he co-authored Without Roots: Europe, Relativism, Christianity, Islam), Pope Benedict expressed his support for a "healthy secularity of the state" -- or that which guarantees "to each citizen the right to live his own religious faith with genuine freedom, including in the public realm" and includes "a commitment to guarantee to all, individuals and groups, respect for the exigencies of the common good, [and] the possibility to live and to express one own religious convictions." (The full text of the letter can be found here).
  • Secularity: On Benedict XVI and the Role of Religion in Society | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | January 9, 2007 (on Benedict's lecture to 59th Study Conference of the Union of Italian Catholic Jurists).
Ratzinger on Europe