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Some Disturbing Papal Remarks

by Christopher A. Ferrara

No one wishes more to be optimistic about the pontificate of Benedict XVI than this columnist, who had the privilege of being in St. Peter’s Square when the former Cardinal Ratzinger was introduced to the world as the 256th Roman Pontiff. I had tears in my eyes when Pope Benedict blessed the crowd and the whole Catholic world in Latin, referring specifically to the grace of final perseverance, the grace by which men are saved from hell: "But the one who perseveres to the end will be saved (Matt. 23:14)," said Our Lord.

And that, after all, is the mission of the Church: to administer the Sacraments so that the faithful will obtain the grace of final perseverance to save them from hell. But since the Second Vatican Council the whole concept of the Church as the ark of salvation has been obscured in favor of hazy ambiguities about the Church as a "sign and sacrament" of man’s unity and other such notions, which say nothing of the Church’s necessity for the salvation of souls from hell.

In his Crossing the Threshold of Hope, even John Paul II observed that "not so long ago, in sermons, during retreats or missions, the Last Things  —  death, Judgment, Heaven, hell and purgatory  —  were always a standard part of the program of meditation and preachers knew how to speak on them in an effective and evocative way. How many people were drawn to conversion and confession by these sermons and reflections on the Last Things!"

The Pope went on to admit further that "until recently [that is, for nearly 2,000 years!] the Church’s catechesis and preaching centered upon an individual eschatology, one, for that matter, which is profoundly rooted in divine revelation." The Pope’s use of the past tense in reference to a fundamental Catholic teaching is in itself an admission that something is gravely wrong with the post-conciliar ‘renewal.’

In the same book, John Paul freely conceded that the Church’s salvific teaching on the Last Things had suddenly been replaced by what he described as "the vision proposed by the Council [of] an eschatology of the Church and of the world." This vision, said the Pope, "was only faintly present in traditional preaching." In other words, traditional preaching profoundly rooted in Revelation has given way to a "faintly present" vision. As a result, the Church’s preaching has become as faintly present as the vision itself.

Indeed, John Paul conceded that it was reasonable for Catholics to ask "if man, with his individual life, his individual responsibility, his destiny, with his personal eschatological future, his heaven or hell or purgatory, does not end up getting lost in this cosmic dimension" of the "vision proposed by the Council." The Pope’s frank answer was that "to a certain degree man does get lost," and that the shepherds of the post-conciliar Church "no longer have the courage to preach the threat of hell."

These are truly explosive admissions that, I would submit, evidence a grave obligation on John Paul’s successor to correct this dire situation. One wants to hope that the new Pope will bring clarity back to the Church’s preaching on the Four Last Things. Yet it must be said that Pope Benedict’s remarks to the Roman clergy of Rome on May 13, in the Basilica of St. John Lateran (Zenit report, May 20, 2005), give every indication that the human element of the Church will continue to be afflicted by the postconciliar ambiguity concerning the salvific role of the Church.

At the conclusion of his remarks, which were described as "informal" and "spontaneous" (and thus utterly non-binding), Pope Benedict commented as follows: "Romano Guardini correctly said 70 years ago that the essence of Christianity is not an idea but a Person. Great theologians have tried to describe the essential ideas that make up Christianity. But in the end, the Christianity that they constructed was not convincing, because Christianity is in the first place an Event, a Person."

These astounding words are full of disturbing implications: Is the Pope here suggesting that the Church’s entire theological doctrine is "not convincing" but rather is a mere construction of "great theologians"? Is the Pope saying that the very formulations of doctrine and dogma approved by the Magisterium as the revealed word of God are "not convincing"? If that is not what he meant to say, then what did the Pope mean by the phrase "great theologians" and "the Christianity they constructed"? Is there some body of Catholic doctrine "constructed" by "great theologians" that is different from the teaching of the Magisterium, which presents Revelation with infallible certitude by way of formulas that must be held as articles of the Faith if one is to be saved?

Even more disturbing is the use of a false antithesis: "the essence of Christianity is not an idea but a Person." No! The essence of Christianity is both a Person and an Idea. The Idea is embodied in the Person of Christ. That is why Christ is called the Word by divine revelation itself: "And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us." The Word enfleshed did not merely ask us to believe in His Person but also to adhere to His words and the truth they contain: "Go forth and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded thee … He who believes not shall be condemned," said Our Lord of His own teachings.

What good does it do to say that the essence of Christianity is a Person if one does not also say that what this Person teaches, and what the Church teaches by His authority are also of the essence to Christianity?

Still more disturbing is the Pope’s comment on the missionary role of the Church:

And here I think we also find an answer to a difficulty often voiced today regarding the missionary nature of the Church. From many comes the temptation to think this way regarding others: "But why do we not leave them in peace? They have their authenticity, their truth. We have ours. And so, let us live together in harmony, leaving all persons as they are, so that they search out their authenticity in the best way." But how can one's personal authenticity be discovered if in reality, in the depth of our hearts, there is the expectation of Jesus, and the genuine authenticity of each person is found exactly in communion with Christ and not without Christ? Said in another way: If we have found the Lord and if He is the light and joy of our lives, are we sure that for someone else who has not found Christ he is not lacking something essential and that it is our duty to offer him this essential reality? We then leave what will transpire to the direction of the Holy Spirit and the freedom of each person. But if we are convinced and we have experienced the fact that without Christ life is incomplete, is missing a reality, the fundamental reality, we must also be convinced that we do harm to no one if we show them Christ and we offer them in this way too the possibility to discover their true authenticity, the joy of having discovered life….

It is hard to believe that the very Vicar of Christ would present the mission of the Church as merely something which "will do no harm" but will help people discover "their true authenticity" and thus "complete" their lives. What, pray tell, does this mean? Where in these remarks is there even the faintest trace of the constant teaching of the Church, rooted in the words of Our Lord Himself, that the Church has a divine commission to call for obedience to the teaching of Christ and by this means to save souls from eternal damnation? What has happened to the defined dogma of the Church that outside of Her there is no salvation? Has it been replaced de facto by the idea that outside the Church there is no "true authenticity"?

To recall the words of Pius XI in Mortalium animos, which reflect the entire Tradition of the Church and Revelation itself: "Let them hear Lactantius crying out: ‘The Catholic Church is alone in keeping the true worship. This is the fount of truth, this the house of Faith, this the temple of God: if any man enter not here, or if any man go forth from it, he is a stranger to the hope of life and salvation. Let none delude himself with obstinate wrangling. For life and salvation are here concerned, and these will be lost forever unless their interests be carefully and assiduously kept in mind.’"

If the mission of the Church is not precisely a rescue mission, if She does not in fact save people from the mortal peril of eternal damnation, then what is the reason for Her existence? If the Church is not needed to rescue souls from hell, but only to provide a vague "authenticity" and "completeness", then why should anyone care to join the Church in this life, for "authenticity" and "completeness" could even more easily be attained in Heaven, after one has lived according to whatever religion one chooses.

The Pope’s "informal" and "spontaneous" remarks bind no one, but they should disturb us all, because if this is how the current Pope thinks as a private doctor, only the direct intervention of the Holy Ghost will prompt a change of course that would lead the Church out of the fog of ambiguity created by the Second Vatican Council. Our Lady of Fatima, pray for us and for Pope Benedict XVI.