Much of the media coverage of Benedict XVI’s recent U.S. visit focused on what he didn’t say—and that silence was significant. The pope, who as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was the church’s chief enforcer of orthodoxy, did not choose to publicly scold those U.S. Catholics who challenge his positions on intra-church matters such as women’s ordination or married clergy. Of the things he did say, what drew the most attention were his repeated statements of repentance for the clergy sex abuse that has shaken much of the American church.
But the pope also had some things to say about American individualism and materialism that bear a second look, because they are things we’re not used to hearing in our culture.
The pope affirmed many positive elements of American life, especially our integration of immigrants and our widespread piety. But he also clearly identified individualism as our Achilles’ heel. This individualism, in the pope’s view, leads to an atomized and exploitative society and a shrunken and shriveled faith. He cautioned, “In a society which values personal freedom and autonomy, it is easy to lose sight of our dependence on others as well as the responsibilities that we bear towards them.” And the pope noted that our “tendency to treat religion as a private matter” can also lead us to “ignore or exploit the poor and the marginalized ... or to adopt positions that contradict the right to life of every human being from conception to natural death.”
I must admit that, when I became a Roman Catholic in 1989, the papacy didn’t loom large on my screen. But as I lived through two decades of John Paul II’s long tenure, I developed an appreciation for the institution of the Holy See, which gives a tangible, overarching sense of unity to the bewildering diversity of the world’s billion-plus Catholics. As distant as he may be, there’s a sense in which, for many Catholics, the pope really is the shepherd of our shepherds.
AT TIMES, the appeal of the papacy has not been limited to Catholics. Affection for John Paul II, who made inter-religious dialogue one of his hallmarks, was widespread across denominational lines in America. But that good feeling has waned in recent years. A Vatican document issued in July 2007 offended many Protestants by asserting that “[Protestant] Communities ... cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called ‘Churches’ in the proper sense.” While in the U.S., Benedict met with 250 Protestant, Orthodox, Anglican, Jewish, and Muslim leaders, but did not address the controversy about the 2007 statement.
Still, if only by sheer weight of Catholic numbers, all Christendom is bound to be affected by the direction set at the Vatican. And for the past two decades, the bishops of Rome have had some things to say that badly need to be heard by Americans of all religious stripes.
John Paul II staked out a consistent double-edged assault on the atheism and repression of the East and the hedonistic materialism of the West. Since 1990, we’ve lived in a unipolar world of global capitalism, and the Catholic Church has become one of the most important forces still standing against the total triumph of materialist values and the individualist ethic of the marketplace. In this, Benedict XVI has continued the direction set by his predecessor. There is a clear, consistent, communitarian line running through recent Vatican statements on matters ranging from global human rights and economic development to marriage and family life. At its core, that message says: We belong not just to ourselves, but to God and to each other. And we will find our true purpose not in pleasure or material gain, but in sacrifice for the common good. As Benedict XVI put it during his visit, “We were created as social beings who find fulfillment only in love—for God and for our neighbor.”
That message may never win an election, but it is a message for all time, and especially for this one.
Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing writer, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky.