Monday, December 10, 2007

Ecumenicalism of Benedict XVI

Since the historic elevation of Cardinal Ratzinger to Pope, I have heard many opinions regarding this controversial figure. Sadly, many people honestly believe this election will bring nothing short of a catastrophe that will consequently end in nothing less than another schism in the Church. I often find myself struggling to understand this way of thinking, but it is there nonetheless.

I believe one of the problems is that many have never read anything by Pope Benedict XVI. Of course this doesn’t mean that reading his works will necessitate agreement; however, many of the type of disagreements I hear seem to be misunderstandings and out of context quotes. Just the other day I went to a public library and perused the religion and theology section. I found quite a few books that speculate about the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI and how his rigidity will divide the Church, yet I could not find a single book actually written by him. How do these one-sided opinions infiltrate the minds of so many people? Is it laziness or merely the library selection? Maybe the reality is that many people no longer want to do the homework.

One of the things I believe is becoming more obvious is Pope Benedict’s commitment to fruitful ecumenicalism. From his first message as Pope after his first mass in the Sistine Chapel, the Pope iterated this commitment.
The current Successor assumes as his primary commitment that of working tirelessly towards the reconstitution of the full and visible unity of all Christ's followers. This is his ambition, this is his compelling duty. He is aware that to do so, expressions of good feelings are not enough. Concrete gestures are required to penetrate souls and move consciences, encouraging everyone to that interior conversion which is the basis for all progress on the road of ecumenism.

Recent activities affirm this desire. Journalist Damian Thompson writes about many of these happenings focusing on three Church of Ireland parishes which have around 400,000 Anglicans. In Thompson's words, “The liberation of the Latin liturgy, the rapprochement with Eastern Orthodoxy, the absorption of former Anglicans - all these ambitions reflect Benedict's conviction that the Catholic Church must rediscover the liturgical treasure of Christian history to perform its most important task: worshiping God.”

November 15, 2007 the Joint Catholic-Orthodox Commission released a statement regarding the sacramental nature of the Church which focuses on “Ecclesial Communion, Conciliarity and Authority.” This promising document goes beyond local authority and discusses the problematic division within the Body of Christ. Although this statement doesn’t say anything too groundbreaking it is important that the Catholics and Orthodox are saying this together. By formally recognizing that this division is not of God in a joint document, both sides have set before them the commitment to work towards unity. Although much disagreement still lies in understanding the role of the Pope, the document recognized the Bishop of Rome as a first among equal. The next meeting of this commission intends to discuss this issue further.

On a few occasions, I have gotten into conversation about the universal indult allowing greater use and access to the traditional Latin mass. Many of the conversations started with somebody upset at the Pope’s actions. Somehow his actions supposedly confirm his rigidity and inability to be open-minded because he is seeking an older way of things and rejecting the goals of Vatican II. Without getting into what seems to be an improper understanding of Vatican II, on the surface level I find this intriguing since Pope Benedict has done nothing to make the new mass any less available. If anything he is reaching out to those in the Church who feel ostracized by not being able to worship in what they consider to be a valid liturgical expression. Even though people contend for a right to be upset, Benedict is not taking anything away from them but being more ecumenical.

Rather than being close minded, the Pope, if anything, is being open to being inclusive to a particular part of the church. Of course this inclusiveness will never be merely for the sake of inclusiveness but a response to the Gospel message to bring Christ to his people in a way that conforms to the mission entrusted to the Church. And Pope Benedict XVI definitely outlines his reasons for this decision in his Apostolic Letter “Summorum Pontificum” and his letter accompanying it to the Bishops. I recommend reading the latter as Benedict addresses the concerns of harsh opposition that this decision detracts from the liturgical reform of Vatican II.

This experience begs a question. Those people discontent at the decision of the Latin mass being made more available: are they upset because they believe this is somehow against the gospel, or are they jealous because this in no way benefits them? More complicated reasons are possible as well. I just don’t see how this can be used as a justification to show that Pope Benedict XVI is rigid and close minded in the negative way so many people seem to indicate. Yet, without getting too deep in the semantics of what constitutes an open or closed mind, a closed mind may not be an entirely undesirable thing, depending on what it closes upon of course.

"The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid."
-G.K. Chesterton

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