The Pope’s Gentle Touch

The turmoil since Pope Benedict XVI remitted the excommunications of four illicitly consecrated bishops of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) has, let’s hope, passed its zenith with Benedict’s letter to the world’s bishops definitively explaining his decision. The pope describes how what began as a “discreet gesture of mercy towards four bishops ordained validly but not legitimately suddenly appeared as something completely different: as the repudiation of reconciliation between Christians and Jews, and thus as the reversal of what the Council had laid down in this regard to guide the Church’s path.”

This mistaken appearance spurred criticisms of Benedict by Catholics and non-Catholics alike, a fact acknowledged with frank sadness in his letter. The most persistent criticism, however, began with an account by two Italian journalists and was immediately seized and repeated by the secular press over a period of weeks. Benedict, they charged, is “out of touch” with the Church and the wider world. Engrossed in arcane theology and acting without consulting the proper curial officials, Benedict, one critic claimed, is “dangerously isolated in his Vatican palace looking at the outside world through a narrow Roman keyhole.” The reality, however, is precisely the opposite: such critics view Benedict and his pontificate through the equally narrow and dangerously isolated ideology of what they think the pope should be.

Benedict’s letter shows a man more intimately connected to the Church today than journalists and bloggers. He writes as a father grieving over the divisions in his family; he knows exactly where these divisions lie and what they mean. His letter is, therefore, more than mere damage control. Benedict challenges his whole family to put aside rancor and be reconciled with one another. He gently reprimands not only some representatives of the SSPX for the “many unpleasant things” they have said over the years, but also those Catholics, including some bishops, who did not support his decision, for which he offers no apology.

Benedict explains that his “overriding priority is to make God present in this world and to show men and women the way to God.” He continues, “A logical consequence of this is that we must have at heart the unity of all believers” because disunity “calls into question the credibility of their talk of God.” As a corollary, ecumenism is necessary “in order to promote a common witness by Christians to their faith.”

Having linked evangelization and Christian unity, Benedict delivers his master stroke:

So if the arduous task of working for faith, hope and love in the world is presently (and, in various ways, always) the Church’s real priority, then part of this is also made up of
acts of reconciliation, small and not so small…. But I ask now: Was it, and is it, truly wrong in this case to meet half-way the brother who “has something against you” (cf. Mt 5:23ff.) and to seek reconciliation?

True Christian charity, true efforts at making God present in the world, demand, as Benedict told the cardinals in his first message, “[c]oncrete gestures that enter hearts and stir consciences.” That is the lens through which to view Benedict’s not so small act of reconciliation with the SSPX, as well as his gesture of reconciliation towards the entire episcopate. In the interest of “leading men and women to God,” the SSPX as well as the world’s bishops and their flocks must respond to the pope’s gesture: the former with obedience and doctrinal harmony, the latter with peace and reconciliation towards a group they have treated with less than Christian charity on more than one occasion.

One secular newspaper alleged that Benedict has been too focused on “the theology of esoteric doctrinal questions rather than their potential political ramifications” and as a result he is “alienating mainstream Catholics and undermining the Church’s moral authority.” While critics will now beat him for admitting mistakes – and certainly there were a few along the way – Benedict’s leadership has transformed a communications nightmare into an occasion for solidarity with the Jewish people and within the Church. The last eight weeks have shown that both are deeply and desperately needed. By reminding all of us that our “biting and devouring” of one another is no better than that of the Galatians 2000 years ago, the pope has taught a lesson of charity to Catholics of all kinds.

Benedict’s theology is not divorced from the real needs of Catholics, because charity is at its core, and it is also the essence of his powerful yet gentle touch in governing the Church: “Whoever proclaims that God is love ‘to the end’ has to bear witness to love: in loving devotion to the suffering, in the rejection of hatred and enmity—this is the social dimension of the Christian faith, of which I spoke in the Encyclical Deus Caritas Est.”

David G. Bonagura Jr. an adjunct professor at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism and Staying with the Catholic Church: Trusting God's Plan of Salvation.