My friend John Allen, the fair-minded nearly ubiquitous columnist of the otherwise ultra-lefty weekly fishwrap National Catholic Reporter, has an interesting piece today about the Holy Father’s trip to Prague.
Allen looks at the Holy Father’s work there from the point of view of what Mr. Allen has been calling "affirmative orthodoxy". Meaning:
No compromise on essential points of doctrine and discipline, but the most positive, upbeat presentation possible. Christianity is framed not as a dry book of rules, but as the answer to, as Benedict put it Monday morning, “the profound thirst for meaning and happiness in the heart of every person.”
Here is another interesting observation:
The pope’s commitment to affirmative orthodoxy over these three days seemed to embody a deliberate effort to get back “on message.”
In many ways, Benedict’s surprisingly positive tone was the early storyline of his papacy. It seemed to go into eclipse in early ’09, however, with a furor over lifting the excommunications of four traditionalist bishops, including one who’s a Holocaust denier, and controversial comments on AIDS and condoms during a trip to Africa. Pundits hinted that the “real Ratzinger,” the hard-line figure familiar from his years as the Vatican’s top doctrinal enforcer, was finally coming to the fore.
For secular society, Benedict’s aim is to present Christianity as the best guarantee of the values which even the most ardently secular agnostic also prizes: peace, tolerance, dialogue, and freedom. To make that case, the pope seems to believe he can’t start the conversation with flash-points of controversy, but rather with a positive vision of what Christianity has to offer.
For the local church, meanwhile, Benedict’s prescription boils down to embracing life as a “creative minority.” Gone are the days of Christianity as the culturally dominant force; today it’s fated to be a subculture, with fewer priests and nuns, lower levels of Mass attendance, and a generally shrunken sociological footprint. The key question, from the pope’s point of view, is what kind of subculture it will turn out to be.
Borrowing a phrase from the British historian Arnold Toynbee, Benedict is pressing the church to be a “creative minority.” Toynbee’s contention was that in any civilization, renewal happens when a small subgroup works out fresh responses to new challenges, which are eventually copied by the majority.
On the papal plane en route to Prague, the pontiff was asked what his message would be for a thoroughly secularized country where Christians have been reduced to a minority. His answer was vintage Benedict: “It’s normally the creative minorities that determine the future,” he said.
You might tool over to Mr. Allen’s column and read the whole thing.
There was a more than a hint of this same idea in the opening sermon of Archbp. Dolan in NY’s St. Patrick Cathedral.
I resonate with his suggestion that Pope Benedict could be trying to get back on message.
But in doing so, I am also thinking that if he has not entirely been on message lately, then His Holiness must deal with the possibility that he is not being well-staffed by some of those around him.
Also, I am not convinced that Pope Benedict doesn’t also see "flash points of controversy" as opportunities for a little creative destruction, to haul in a term from another field.