Reflections on the Pope’s Visit

Now that Pope Benedict XVI has concluded his first visit to the United States, we can begin to reflect on the themes he addressed. My reflections are rooted in my own perspective as a Seventh-day Adventist pastor who, nonetheless, spent many years as a member and a lay leader within the Catholic Church. As I reflect on the pope’s remarks, I see much that is positive, from which we can learn, as well as areas for caution and concern.

Throughout his visit, starting with his remarks at the White House, Benedict praised the American tradition of pluralism and religious freedom. This emphasis on religious liberty is to be welcomed and underscored. Benedict goes on to argue that because America is pluralistic, and values religious freedom, it also has valued the contribution of religious voices and values. One does not have to check their religious values or concerns at the door in order to enter into dialogue and debate about what is right, true, and proper. Freedom is not an absolute in itself, he reminds, but is rooted in truth–the objective moral truth about what is right and wrong, as well as the truth of the dignity of the human person.

In his address to the Bishops, Benedict focused on their pastoral role, and how they can lead the church given the struggles of society today. He began by highlighting the immigrant nature of the church, urging them “to continue to welcome the immigrants who join your ranks today, to share their joys and hopes, to support them in their sorrows and trials, and to help them flourish in their new home.” He reiterated his affirmation of America’s tradition of freedom of religion, “deeply ingrained in the American consciousness,” which “has contributed to this country’s attraction for generations of immigrants, seeking a home where they can worship freely in accordance with their beliefs.”

He cautioned against materialism and secularism, especially as they lead Christians to compartmentalize their faith from their daily life, and against a view of freedom that makes religion individualistic.

He affirmed the good done by Catholic health care and educational institutions in the US, but reminded that they must be run in accordance with church teachings, and reflect the church’s commitment to truth. They are agents in evangelization, in spreading the good news of the salvation that is offered in Jesus Christ.

He said that the church must have an influence on society, but not through direct legislative lobbying (as too many Catholic bureaucrats suppose); rather, his vision is that of Vatican 2’s teachings on the role of the laity. It is the laity who are to influence society from within, as leaven, in their roles as parents, teachers, lawyers, physicians, etc. The role of the bishops is to teach Christian principles.

He stressed the importance of the family as the center of Christian life, and the role of church and of society to strengthen it. He expressed  concern about trends in society that weaken the family, particularly the rise in cohabitation. “The family,” he said, “is also the primary place for evangelization, for passing on the faith, for helping young people to appreciate the importance of religious practice and Sunday observance.”

During the mass he celebrated in Washington, he underscored the need for renewed evangelization, an evangelization that begins with ongoing conversion of Christians.

During his meeting with educators, he spoke of the importance of maintaining the genuine Catholic nature of these institutions. Other churches with educational and health care institutions could benefit from his thoughts, and so I’m going to quote this at length:

Education is integral to the mission of the Church to proclaim the Good News. First and foremost every Catholic educational institution is a place to encounter the living God who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth (cf. Spe Salvi, 4). …

A university or school’s Catholic identity is not simply a question of the number of Catholic students. It is a question of conviction – do we really believe that only in the mystery of the Word made flesh does the mystery of man truly become clear (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 22)? Are we ready to commit our entire self – intellect and will, mind and heart – to God? Do we accept the truth Christ reveals? Is the faith tangible in our universities and schools? Is it given fervent expression liturgically, sacramentally, through prayer, acts of charity, a concern for justice, and respect for God’s creation? Only in this way do we really bear witness to the meaning of who we are and what we uphold.

From this perspective one can recognize that the contemporary “crisis of truth” is rooted in a “crisis of faith”. Only through faith can we freely give our assent to God’s testimony and acknowledge him as the transcendent guarantor of the truth he reveals. Again, we see why fostering personal intimacy with Jesus Christ and communal witness to his loving truth is indispensable in Catholic institutions of learning. …

While we have sought diligently to engage the intellect of our young, perhaps we have neglected the will. Subsequently we observe, with distress, the notion of freedom being distorted. Freedom is not an opting out. It is an opting in – a participation in Being itself. Hence authentic freedom can never be attained by turning away from God. Such a choice would ultimately disregard the very truth we need in order to understand ourselves. A particular responsibility therefore for each of you, and your colleagues, is to evoke among the young the desire for the act of faith, encouraging them to commit themselves to the ecclesial life that follows from this belief. It is here that freedom reaches the certainty of truth. In choosing to live by that truth, we embrace the fullness of the life of faith which is given to us in the Church.

Clearly, then, Catholic identity is not dependent upon statistics. Neither can it be equated simply with orthodoxy of course content. It demands and inspires much more: namely that each and every aspect of your learning communities reverberates within the ecclesial life of faith….

The Church’s primary mission of evangelization, in which educational institutions play a crucial role, is consonant with a nation’s fundamental aspiration to develop a society truly worthy of the human person’s dignity. At times, however, the value of the Church’s contribution to the public forum is questioned. It is important therefore to recall that the truths of faith and of reason never contradict one another (cf. First Vatican Ecumenical Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith Dei Filius, IV: DS 3017; St. Augustine, Contra Academicos, III, 20, 43). The Church’s mission, in fact, involves her in humanity’s struggle to arrive at truth. In articulating revealed truth she serves all members of society by purifying reason, ensuring that it remains open to the consideration of ultimate truths. Drawing upon divine wisdom, she sheds light on the foundation of human morality and ethics, and reminds all groups in society that it is not praxis that creates truth but truth that should serve as the basis of praxis. Far from undermining the tolerance of legitimate diversity, such a contribution illuminates the very truth which makes consensus attainable, and helps to keep public debate rational, honest and accountable. Similarly the Church never tires of upholding the essential moral categories of right and wrong, without which hope could only wither, giving way to cold pragmatic calculations of utility which render the person little more than a pawn on some ideological chess-board. …

In his address to representatives of non-Christian religions, he again highlighted America’s heritage of religious freedom, and the respect, dialogue, and cooperation between religions this has made possible. And yet, he says, while sharing a love of country and being able to work together, we cannot shy away from honest discussion of our very real differences. There is such a thing as truth, and it is to be our goal. This is a point to which he would return when speaking to leaders of other Christian churches.

The task of upholding religious freedom is never completed. New situations and challenges invite citizens and leaders to reflect on how their decisions respect this basic human right. Protecting religious freedom within the rule of law does not guarantee that peoples – particularly minorities – will be spared from unjust forms of discrimination and prejudice. This requires constant effort on the part of all members of society to ensure that citizens are afforded the opportunity to worship peaceably and to pass on their religious heritage to their children. …

Dear friends, in our attempt to discover points of commonality, perhaps we have shied away from the responsibility to discuss our differences with calmness and clarity. While always uniting our hearts and minds in the call for peace, we must also listen attentively to the voice of truth. In this way, our dialogue will not stop at identifying a common set of values, but go on to probe their ultimate foundation.

In his address to the United Nations, Pope Benedict sought to sketch a foundation for international cooperation. He noted that

questions of security, development goals, reduction of local and global inequalities, protection of the environment, of resources and of the climate, require all international leaders to act jointly and to show a readiness to work in good faith, respecting the law, and promoting solidarity with the weakest regions of the planet.

But his main emphasis was on the need to respect “the innate dignity of every man and woman.” This is an obligation incumbent upon states and the UN alike, and when a state fails to protect its population “from grave and sustained violations of human rights, as well as from the consequences of humanitarian crises, whether natural or man-made,” “the international community must intervene.”

This human dignity is rooted in our having been created by God; this is likewise the basis for our need to care for creation. Because of this, no human law can be seen as absolute. Our rights and our obligations as humans and as societies are rooted in who we are as a result of creation and in transcendent truth. “When presented purely in terms of legality, rights risk becoming weak propositions divorced from the ethical and rational dimension which is their foundation and their goal.”

Human rights, of course, must include the right to religious freedom, understood as the expression of a dimension that is at once individual and communitarian – a vision that brings out the unity of the person while clearly distinguishing between the dimension of the citizen and that of the believer. The activity of the United Nations in recent years has ensured that public debate gives space to viewpoints inspired by a religious vision in all its dimensions, including ritual, worship, education, dissemination of information and the freedom to profess and choose religion. It is inconceivable, then, that believers should have to suppress a part of themselves – their faith – in order to be active citizens. It should never be necessary to deny God in order to enjoy one’s rights. The rights associated with religion are all the more in need of protection if they are considered to clash with a prevailing secular ideology or with majority religious positions of an exclusive nature. The full guarantee of religious liberty cannot be limited to the free exercise of worship, but has to give due consideration to the public dimension of religion, and hence to the possibility of believers playing their part in building the social order. Indeed, they actually do so, for example through their influential and generous involvement in a vast network of initiatives which extend from Universities, scientific institutions and schools to health care agencies and charitable organizations in the service of the poorest and most marginalized. Refusal to recognize the contribution to society that is rooted in the religious dimension and in the quest for the Absolute – by its nature, expressing communion between persons – would effectively privilege an individualistic approach, and would fragment the unity of the person. …

What the Catholic church brings to the table is “her experience ‘of humanity’, developed over the centuries among peoples of every race and culture, and placing it at the disposal of all members of the international community.”

In addressing ecumenical leaders, Benedict began by addressing the problems in society that call for a united Christian witness. While globalization has brought about “a growing sense of interconnectedness and interdependency between peoples,” rapid change has also brought “disturbing signs of fragmentation and a retreat into individualism.”

The greatest challenge, though, is relativism, and he sees some churches as surrendering to it.

Also of grave concern is the spread of a secularist ideology that undermines or even rejects transcendent truth. The very possibility of divine revelation, and therefore of Christian faith, is often placed into question by cultural trends widely present in academia, the mass media and public debate. … Fundamental Christian beliefs and practices are sometimes changed within communities by so-called “prophetic actions” that are based on a hermeneutic not always consonant with the datum of Scripture and Tradition. Communities consequently give up the attempt to act as a unified body, choosing instead to function according to the idea of “local options”. Somewhere in this process the need for diachronic koinonia – communion with the Church in every age – is lost, just at the time when the world is losing its bearings and needs a persuasive common witness to the saving power of the Gospel (cf. Rom 1:18-23).

He’s addressing specifically liberalism within mainline Protestant churches, particularly on issues such as homosexuality. What sort of an ecumenism can you have when churches speak of the importance of ecumenism today while cutting themselves off from historic Christian practice? The only basis for unity must be truth, grounded in divine revelation.

Yet we must ask ourselves whether its full force has not been attenuated by a relativistic approach to Christian doctrine similar to that found in secular ideologies, which, in alleging that science alone is “objective”, relegate religion entirely to the subjective sphere of individual feeling. Scientific discoveries, and their application through human ingenuity, undoubtedly offer new possibilities for the betterment of humankind. This does not mean, however, that the “knowable” is limited to the empirically verifiable, nor religion restricted to the shifting realm of “personal experience”.

For Christians to accept this faulty line of reasoning would lead to the notion that there is little need to emphasize objective truth in the presentation of the Christian faith, for one need but follow his or her own conscience and choose a community that best suits his or her individual tastes. The result is seen in the continual proliferation of communities which often eschew institutional structures and minimize the importance of doctrinal content for Christian living.

Even within the ecumenical movement, Christians may be reluctant to assert the role of doctrine for fear that it would only exacerbate rather than heal the wounds of division. Yet a clear, convincing testimony to the salvation wrought for us in Christ Jesus has to be based upon the notion of normative apostolic teaching: a teaching which indeed underlies the inspired word of God and sustains the sacramental life of Christians today.

Only by “holding fast” to sound teaching (2 Thess 2:15; cf. Rev 2:12-29) will we be able to respond to the challenges that confront us in an evolving world. Only in this way will we give unambiguous testimony to the truth of the Gospel and its moral teaching. This is the message which the world is waiting to hear from us. Like the early Christians, we have a responsibility to give transparent witness to the “reasons for our hope”, so that the eyes of all men and women of goodwill may be opened to see that God has shown us his face (cf. 2 Cor 3:12-18 ) and granted us access to his divine life through Jesus Christ. He alone is our hope! God has revealed his love for all peoples through the mystery of his Son’s passion and death, and has called us to proclaim that he is indeed risen, has taken his place at the right hand of the Father, and “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead” (Nicene Creed).

His Meeting with Young People gave a foretaste of the upcoming World Youth Day, and shows that this pope, like his predecessor, appreciates and understands youth and young adults and their role in the church. Both were college professors; both formed lasting relationships with their students that extended into their post-college young adult years and later.

Have you noticed how often the call for freedom is made without ever referring to the truth of the human person? Some today argue that respect for freedom of the individual makes it wrong to seek truth, including the truth about what is good. In some circles to speak of truth is seen as controversial or divisive, and consequently best kept in the private sphere. And in truth’s place – or better said its absence – an idea has spread which, in giving value to everything indiscriminately, claims to assure freedom and to liberate conscience. This we call relativism. But what purpose has a “freedom” which, in disregarding truth, pursues what is false or wrong? How many young people have been offered a hand which in the name of freedom or experience has led them to addiction, to moral or intellectual confusion, to hurt, to a loss of self-respect, even to despair and so tragically and sadly to the taking of their own life? Dear friends, truth is not an imposition. Nor is it simply a set of rules. It is a discovery of the One who never fails us; the One whom we can always trust. In seeking truth we come to live by belief because ultimately truth is a person: Jesus Christ. That is why authentic freedom is not an opting out. It is an opting in; nothing less than letting go of self and allowing oneself to be drawn into Christ’s very being for others (cf. Spe Salvi, 28). …

Friends, again I ask you, what about today? What are you seeking? What is God whispering to you? The hope which never disappoints is Jesus Christ. The saints show us the selfless love of his way. As disciples of Christ, their extraordinary journeys unfolded within the community of hope, which is the Church. It is from within the Church that you too will find the courage and support to walk the way of the Lord. Nourished by personal prayer, prompted in silence, shaped by the Church’s liturgy you will discover the particular vocation God has for you. Embrace it with joy. You are Christ’s disciples today. Shine his light upon this great city and beyond. Show the world the reason for the hope that resonates within you. Tell others about the truth that sets you free.


The messages of Benedict XVI are in line with other things he has said as pope and, before, as a theologian. He is an evangelist, committed to preaching the gospel, and he speaks of it not in psychological or institutional terms but in terms of a saving relationship with the crucified and risen Christ. The church can never forget this or substitute any other activity or program for it. Its mission toward the poor is uniquely one of charity, not of economic restructuring. He has an Augustinian recognition of the sinfulness of the world and the human heart, and knows that no human effort, regardless of how pure the motives may seem, is untainted by sin, nor can it bring about the kingdom of God, which remains an eschatological act of God alone. His teaching is Christocentric, acknowledging Jesus as alone creator and redeemer. He believes in transcendent and absolute truth, which we grasp through God’s self-revelation, especially in inspired Scripture. Our life as Christians is oriented to God through Christ, in worship of him as creator and redeemer.

Biblical Protestants will affirm all of this. Benedict, as a theologian, is perhaps better able to phrase his teaching in Biblical language with sensitivity to Protestant concerns than John Paul was, having been trained as a philosopher. We can applaud his insistence on religious liberty, and his appreciation for America’s contribution. This is something we value, and which, historically, the Catholic church too often opposed. We can affirm as well his concern for the integrity of church institutions. We appreciate his criticism of the relativism that he sees in the ecumenical movement and in mainline Protestantism today. We agree, the only basis for unity can be unity in Truth.

Obviously Protestants are going to disagree with his beliefs on the mass, his Marian devotion, and his understanding of the identity of the Catholic Church and his own role as pope–all of which were in evidence during this visit. Protestants will also be skeptical of his overtures to politicians in the US and to the United Nations. I think we will agree that the church has the obligation to teach Biblical truth, and that Christians in the world should be guided by Biblical truth in their lives and actions. But at what point do we cross a line? Church and state are rightly separate. We don’t want the state enforcing church teaching, nor do we want the state interfering in church life. How do Christians speak of morality and what is right and wrong and what is necessary for civil society and for freedom without pushing us close to a theocracy? The former is right and proper given our commitment to religious freedom–the latter would make use of current freedom to restrict it in the future.

Protestants are also going to be mindful of the role Catholicism claims for itself, and for the pope. Over the course of his visit, Benedict expressed several times his remorse for the sexual abuse of children by clergy, and affirmed the steps that have been taken by bishops to address the crisis. But he only obliquely referred to the role of bishops in this scandal. Various commentators were reminded of the fact that Rome has disciplined no bishops for cover-ups, for inaction, for transfers, for lying to victims and their families. This is what is at the root of so much anger toward the church. Despite Benedict’s regard for the laity, we see in both the crisis itself and in his response the evidence of clericalism. In the medieval period clericalism led to the belief that bishops are somehow above human law, and should only be judged by the church, and that the church cannot be criticized by the laity. This clerical arrogance and privilege is visible in the special privileges the pope continues to enjoy, the prestige and adulation he accepts, the claims that the church continues to make for his office and for the “indelible character” said to be conferred on the clergy by their ordination.

One of the hallmarks of Benedict’s theological viewpoint has long been his “hermeneutic of continuity,” whereby Vatican 2 and later teaching is to be interpreted as being in conformity with the church’s teaching and practice prior to the council. He’s underscored this in little ways during this visit, like use of older vestments and a more traditional processional cross, symbols that are not lost on Catholic observers. He’s underscored it by his protection of the bishops from discipline. Is it any wonder that people wonder what the implications of that “hermeneutic of continuity” might be for church and state and religious liberty?