In his long and interesting annual Christmas address to the Vatican senior staff (the Curia), Pope Benedict XVI talked about alllllll sorts of things. As with the stuff a CEO tells his folks at their annual Christmas get-together, this is usually an indicator of what stuff the guy thought worked out well last year and what stuff he plans to think and talk about during the next year. The media don’t normally give it much notice, which of course goes to show that they’re not paying attention in class.
This year, they paid attention — but in their usual “What dogs hear” way. (You remember the old Far Side cartoon by Gary Larson? “Blah blah blah GINGER blah blah blah.”) So I thought I’d write a little about it.
The major theme of the address was “an atmosphere of grace”. This gift from God is to be spread to others by the Church, attracting and inspiring them to do good and love God (and incidentally, to commit fewer sins). The Pope noted several big occasions in the past year when the Church apparently did a good job of this (as in the peaceful and happy World Youth Day festivities in Sydney). “On such occasions, the Church makes itself publicly perceptible…This public manifestation of the faith calls out to all who seek to understand the present and the forces which operate in it… It was a feast of joy… a feast for everyone. Or rather, it was the first time everyone realized what a feast is, a celebration – an event during which everyone is, so to speak, outside himself, beyond the self, and therefore, truly with oneself and with others.”
The Pope strongly supported these public events in the speech, and defended their theological status, even. Despite his own natural shyness and intellectual approach to the faith (not to mention his well-known personal distrust of “Dionysian” religious and musical elements), this is something that he understands to be important. “Faith, in its own way, needs to be seen and touched.”
Big events are part of a process, a road. What happens before and after an event can change lives.
“….a long road along which young people proceed to encounter each other and to encounter Christ.
“In Australia, it was not by chance that the Via Crucis through the inner city became a climactic event of those days. It synthesized once more all that had happened in preceding years and called attention to him who brings us all together – the God who loved us to the point of death on the Cross.
“And so, the Pope is not the star around which these events orbit. He is totally and only the Vicar [of Christ]. He points to the Other who is among us.”
(That’s the only way to avoid stage fright, too. Seriously.)
In the next paragraph, the Pope returns to what history will probably judge to be the primary theme of his papacy — the importance of Mass.
“….the solemn Liturgy is the center of all the celebration, because in it, what we cannot realize takes place, that for which we are always in wait. He is present. He is among us. He has torn open the heavens and this makes the earth bright. It is this that makes life joyous and open, and that unites us with one another in a joy that cannot be compared to the ecstasy of a rock festival.”
And then he quotes Nietzsche, because that’s our little Pope for you! So geeky, so fun!
And of course, Nietzsche leads directly to talk of the joy of the Holy Spirit. (It works well in context, but that’s not what Nietzsche makes me think about. The Pope loves, loves, loves making these non-obvious connections. He’d probably get along swimmingly with James Burke.)
And this is where the news media perked up, because here’s where the Pope deliberately dropped them some bones by talking about stuff that wasn’t all God and joy and other things the editors wouldn’t think was news.
One of the big themes in Sydney was joy and respect for Creation and all God’s creatures. This included human beings. A lot of people overlooked this as standard ecological and diversity rhetoric, so it’s time for the Pope to reiterate it again in his speech.
“First of all, there is the affirmation that comes to us from the start of the story of Creation, which tells of the Creator Spirit that moved over the waters, created the world and continuously renews it.”
This isn’t just a myth, the Pope is saying. You should pay attention, because —
“Faith in the Creator Spirit is an essential element of the Christian Creed.”
Paralleling this, we have an essential element of science:
“The fact that matter has a mathematical structure, is full of spirit (energy), is the foundation of the modern science of nature.”
So we hit the synthesis, insisting that there’s only one kind of truth, not some weird separate-but-equal science and religion segregated school system:
“Only because matter is structured intelligently is our mind able to interpret it and actively remodel it.”
But you can’t just stop there, admiring Creation. Noooo. There’s work to be done!
“The fact that this intelligent structure comes from the same Creator Spirit that also gave us our spirit, implies a task and a responsibility.
“The ultimate basis of our responsibility towards the Earth is our faith in Creation. The earth is not simply a property that we can exploit according to our interests and desires. It is a gift of the Creator who designed its intrinsic order, and through this, has given us the orientative indications to follow as administrators of his Creation.”
So God hasn’t just given us a gift and the job of taking care of it; He’s given us pointers to show us how to take care of it. We have a manual, and we also have pointers found in the way the thing was designed to work. But since a work of art always has a little bit of the artist in it, this has interesting consequences:
“The fact that the earth, the cosmos, mirror the Creator Spirit also means that their rational structure – which beyond their mathematical structure, become almost palpable through experimentation – carries in itself an ethical orientation.
“The Spirit that shaped them is more than mathematics – it is Goodness itself, which, through the language of creation, shows us the road to correct living.
“Since faith in the Creator is an essential part of the Christian Creed, the Church cannot and should not limit itself to transmitting to its faithful only the message of salvation. She has a responsibility for Creation, and it should validate this responsibility in public.
“In so doing, it should defend not just the earth, water and air as gifts of Creation that belong to everyone. She should also protect man from destroying himself.”
At this point, the Pope shifts over to theology of the body, as is perfectly natural. However, it’s fairly clear that stuff about “man destroying himself” was going to be read by reporters as the opening to a condemnation of war that their editors would love. So they paid attention. GINGER blah GINGER blah GINGER! And then they heard this instead:
“It is necessary to have something like an ecology of man, understood in the right sense.”
And the reporters keep on pricking up their ears. Ooh! Environment! GINGER! And then they get this:
“It is not outdated metaphysics when the Church speaks of the nature of the human being as man and woman, and asks that this natural order be respected.
“This has to do with faith in the Creator and listening to the language of creation, which, if disregarded, would be man’s self-destruction and therefore a destruction of God’s work itself.”
Poor reporters. Suddenly the happy unicorns and hippie elves of the rainforest are asking them to be carbon-neutral in an entirely different way. That pope guy sure is tricky!
There’s a lot more address after that, and it’s all pretty important and interesting. Creation was just point #1 in a series on the Holy Spirit, the unity of the Holy Spirit and the Son, the joy of the Church being derived from its connection to the Holy Spirit and the Son, etc. I’d love to analyze it all later, but I’m about to head over to my parents.
But GINGER’s work was done, and that’s the story the newspapers printed — albeit in a very distorted way. And it’s pretty obvious that the Pope really did set them up for that on purpose, wily ol’ professor that he is. (Of course, GINGER was included more for the Curia’s sake than that of the reporters, which is interesting, too.)
Now, whether or not his ecology/Natural Law/Theology of the Body talking point got out there as well, that’s a different question. The Pope says what he means, which is very hard for some people to understand.
In other news, the media is shocked to report that the Pope is still Catholic.