NYT: Steinfels on aftermath of Pope Benedict’s visit to the USA

The NYT has an article by Peter Steinfels on the Pope’s visit.

My emphases and comments.

April 26, 2008
Pope Benedict and the Lasting Impact of His U.S. Trip

Pope Benedict XVI has come and gone. To a population that knew little about him, he almost certainly left a favorable impression. Once the afterglow fades, however, what will remain?

There are a variety of categories, of course, for sorting through the messages and images. But here are two useful ones: the God crisis and the church crisis.

As theologian and now as pope, Joseph Ratzinger has been, above all, a man of the God crisis. For him, God is the answer to questions that “can never be erased from the human heart,” as he said in his Washington meeting with other religious leaders.

“What is the origin and destiny of mankind?” he said to them. “What are good and evil? What awaits us at the end of our earthly existence?

“Only by addressing these deeper questions can we build a solid basis for the peace and security of the human family.”

Yet in his view modernity, in a myriad of ways — from materialism to relativism to the technological mind-set — has shunted those questions aside or thrown up intellectual barriers to answering them.

Europe has been the heartland of the God crisis. So naturally it has preoccupied a European intellectual like Benedict. His response has two parts. Over the years he has offered a finely woven fabric of ideas about Christian faith, reason, truth and freedom. His arguments are certainly not beyond challenge, not even by theologians and philosophers who share his conclusions. [Oh?  What are they?  The writer just tosses this onto the table, splat, and leaves it there.] But there is little doubt that they are serious and substantial.  [But, if they are "serious and substantial", what are they?]

But Benedict has never thought that a purely intellectual response was adequate. There was also an inescapably personal dimension to the God crisis — a matter of opening oneself, of inner conversion and personal decision.

This movement of the heart could be stirred by the witness of believers, by the solidarity and charity of the Christian community, by the power of worship or the beauty of religious art. Warning against an individualistic piety, Pope Benedict told the American bishops, “If we are truly to gaze upon him who is the source of our joy, we need to do so as members of the people of God.”

The God crisis, therefore, cannot be separated from the church crisis. If the church [here is a problem] has become dysfunctional, inarticulate or spiritless, it will be incapable of addressing those deeper questions with responses that satisfy both the mind and the heart.  [The Church, in its deeper sense, is not dysfunctional.  Members of the Church or structures in the Church can be dysfunctional.]

But for Benedict, the God crisis always takes priority. [Well… duh!  That being the fundamental question of man’s existence.] Whether speaking of truth to educators or human rights to the United Nations, he returns again and again to the question of “foundations,” which for him ultimately mean God. He grows impatient whenever talk of the church seems to supplant talk of God. [Rightly so.  And, thus we must ask, if someone addresses man’s problems without the God dimension, can those approaches, or criticisms of Benedict’s approach which don’t take adquate account of God, be "serious and substantive"?]

Of course, Benedict came to the United States knowing that the God crisis is hardly as acute here as it is in Europe and that what has been troubling American Roman Catholicism is the church crisis. [As a result he had to so something about those structures or people in the Church who are dysfunctional.] And just as the God crisis has both a personal dimension and an intellectual one, the church crisis has both a personal dimension and a structural one.

The pope certainly addressed the personal dimension. He exhorted the bishops to be “engaging and imaginative.” [for example, it is entirely possible that many bishops today, so pressured by matters of administration, have come to see themselves more as senators or CEO’s than bishops.] He worried out loud about the state of the liturgy [Because liturgy is the tip of the spear.] and whether preaching had “lost its salt.” He underlined the need for more priests. He urged the healing of divisions in Catholic ranks. [A main division is that which now exists in many places between priests and their bishop.] He called on all Catholics to take their beliefs into public life. [This is a key point, which needs more attention: in order to give something useful in the public square, we must have a clear identity!] Most of all, in meeting with victims of sexual abuse by priests, he offered a model of pastoral sensitivity.

About the structural dimension of the church crisis, however, he said nothing. Does the American church need new or refurbished structures of transparency, accountability and consultation in a wide range of matters, including finances, parish closings and the appointment and assignment of bishops and pastors?  [It sounds like the writer is advocating for this, disguising advocacy as a question.]

Should new roles for the laity in parish leadership be more formally recognized? ["Formally"?  How?  Only clerics can exercise certain levels of jurisdiction.] Are changes beyond prayer and exhortation needed to combat the growing shortage of priests?  What about the ordination of married men or women or the reintroduction of female deacons?  [What about them?  This is advocacy, not the mere raising of questions. And notice the word "reintroduction"?  There never were female deacons, at least not as clerics or in holy orders.  So, this is deceptive in some ways.]

Such structural changes are favored by many moderate-to-liberal Catholics. [I dispure the premise.  I do not believe that any Catholic who is truly moderate, or anywhere near moderate, will advocate the "reintroduction" of female deacons (who never existed).] There are less publicized ones favored by some conservatives, including tight episcopal control over Catholic higher education, ["Tight" control?  I wish more bishops exercised "some" control!  According to the document Ex corde Ecclesiae!] restoration of traditional forms of seminary training and broad resort to oaths of fidelity.  ["Broad resort" … what to make of that phrase.  It smacks of desperation, no?  I think what the writer is doing is presenting "positive" solutions from the liberals and "desperate" crackdowns from conservatives.  Or am I getting this wrong?]

The pope’s silence about all such institutional nuts and bolts is not surprising. For one thing, he believes that church structures must evolve, as he says, “organically” rather than by grand design.  ["Nuts and bolts".  I wonder if the problems can be reduced to that.  The hierarchical dimension of the Church is so "nuts and bolts" that it is a constitutive part of the Church.]

His suspicion of structural changes goes further, however. He often dismisses them, especially liberal ones, as “power games” or as superficial diversions from the foundational God crisis and the interior transformation it entails.

Indeed, the very mode of calculating gains and losses in Catholic ranks, parishes without priests, a decline in religious literacy or Mass attendance among young Catholics seems foreign to Benedict’s outlook.  [On the other hand he has openly wondered about the future and perhaps seeing a smaller Church.  So, it is not entirely foreign.]

At one level, this stance is unassailable. Who would deny his reminder of some years ago that “the church does not exist for herself but must be God’s instrument”?

But what if the instrument needs significant repair or reconstruction? What if, to change the metaphor, the problem is not so much weak foundations, at least not yet in the United States, as a leaking roof, bad wiring and faulty plumbing?

Will addressing the God crisis, perhaps with the pastoral sensitivity Benedict demonstrated on his visit, spontaneously generate responses to the church crisis? Or is addressing the structural dimension of the church crisis a prerequisite to successfully addressing the God crisis?  [I don’t see why one can’t do both at the same time.  This isn’t a zero sum game.]

The lasting impact of Pope Benedict’s visit may hang on the answers to those two questions.


Plop.  At the end, does this really go much beyond leaving the reader with the vague impression that the "conservative" approach to this is somehow inadequate?  I think that might be the writer’s position. 

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  1. Johnny Domer says:

    Why do secular people write about the Church? They clearly don’t have the foggiest idea what they’re talking about, and they offer the same tired lines every other secular thinker offers. *snore*

  2. Father Anonymous says:

    Who is this dopey writer trying to play philosopher and theologian? The article reads like a 10th grade “reflection” paper from religion class.

  3. FatherAnonymous: Peter Steinfels, religion writer for the NYT, has been around for awhile.

  4. Peggy says:

    Steinfels sounds like he’s arguing the CTA case for revolution. He also echos precisely the battles being waged in our Belleville IL diocese where the priests have publicly called for the bishop’s resignation (because he’s not very nice and makes different decisions than they would) and have now mocked his mourning of the death of his mother in letters to the local secular paper. Prayers are needed here for our bishop and diocese.


  5. Dave Deavel says:

    Steinfels now holds a chair at Fordham University. His book, A PEOPLE ADRIFT, basically complained that American Catholics don’t know doctrine, and advocated as a solution, basically all the ideas that have worked so well in the Episcopal Church–women as priests, chaning teaching on homosexuality, etc.

    I think he may have finally realized that’s really not going to fly, so this is the “light” version of his earlier advocacy.

  6. Ken says:

    The article was rather poor fare, but not entirely uncharacteristic. For much of it, Steinfels talks a lot without saying anything at all; the dig at His Holiness for not being “unchallenged” on points of theology is a perfect example. It’s an ages-old trick: detract from a given authority by fabricating the dissent from that authority. And I’m sure by now we’re all quite used to “important sources from the upper echelons of the Vatican” saying things in the NYT and elsewhere that no cleric would ever say, and likely never has to begin with.

    The rhetorical questions which compose the bulk of the article give one simple impression: that the author is unsure of the ground he is on, and is just lobbing up possibilities and disjointed thoughts into the air in an effort to exude competence and sophistication. But there’s little substance in it.

  7. Volpius says:

    Of all the things he could have wrote about the Popes visit and he produced that!?

  8. GOR says:

    I am reminded of the saying: “The dumbest person can ask a question that the wisest man can’t answer.”

  9. FrWithFaculties says:

    Steifel’s argument is typical, (for other examples google anti-clerical Russell Shaw): “Something is wrong in the church (like the sexual scandal), therefore even more changes are needed (women priests, married priest, lay control), but one should not consider any return to the past, any conservative ideas. These are bad because that would be turning back the clock, stuffy, rigid or controlling.”
    Maybe just maybe the problems in the church are because it is under so much change. Maybe the church has lasted two thousand years because it is largely avoiding useless changes. The church has eternal principles, is rooted in the Gospels which means that it has to return back to old practices when new practice prove adverse to those eternal principles.

  10. Humilitas says:

    What would anyone expect from the NY Times.
    Their liberal bias is well known.
    We can only pray for those misguided reporters who don’t have a clue about what the Catholic Church is all about.
    Nothing he says can take away from the glorious visit of our Holy Father.
    Viva Il Papa!

  11. William says:

    Peter Steinfels would have the most holy Roman Catholic Church be tomorrow everything that the Episcopal Church is today!

  12. Barb says:

    I believe people who think like this fear the “smaller church” language he is using of late.

    St. John in the apocolypse was told to measure the sanctuary of God but omit the court that is without for it has been given to the nations and they will trample on the holy city for forty-two months. The church is going to be much smaller for a time because a vast majority within her fold no longer believe.

  13. Thomas says:

    I detest the disingenuousness of Steinfels’ ilk. They “cry” about the shortage of priests, but do they have any desire to see the numbers rise? Have they EVER encouraged a young man to consider a vocation? Of course not. They see the shortage as an opportunity to destroy the Church by ushering in their own damnable fads and fashions.

    Thank God we already know who wins this Battle. In the meantime Steinfels & Co. need to get onboard the Barque of Peter before they pay the price for their assaults on Christ’s Church.

  14. RBrown says:

    Steinfels is simply someone who wants to reduce the Church to an instrument of social activism. Any problem in the Church can be solved by integrating socially liberal concepts. Priest shortage? Ordain married men and women. Sexual morality? Ignore it.

    He is confused because BXVI has made it clear–both in his first encyclical and in his actions–that the Church exists primarily for the love of God, not for social justice.

  15. Mark says:

    He may want to undo nuts and bolts; that is, until they are the ones that hold his brakes, engine, and the rest of his own vehicle together…

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