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.