Monday, December 26, 2005

A great papal homily

There are still signs of life in the Catholic Church. Earlier this month Pope Benedict delivered a homily which firmly and eloquently rejected the modernist liberal mentality. It is a refreshing thing when a religious leader dares to move beyond accommodation to a hostile philosophy and actually attempts to refute it.

I must say that I was not so impressed by the first part of the homily. It is yet another attempt to place Mary at the centre of Catholic worship (“In her lies the true center in which we trust”).

However, further on we come to a passage which effectively rejects liberalism in the religious sphere. As you read the passage, remember that liberalism is the idea that to be fully human we must be free to create ourselves through our own individual will and reason. It is the philosophy of the sovereign, autonomous, independent, self-authoring individual.

Pope Benedict says, regarding the famous Bible passage in which Eve is tempted by the serpent,

What picture does this passage show us? The human being does not trust God. Tempted by the serpent, he harbors the suspicion that in the end, God takes something away from his life, that God is a rival who curtails our freedom and that we will be fully human only when we have cast him aside; in brief, that only in this way can we fully achieve our freedom.

The human being lives in the suspicion that God's love creates a dependence and that he must rid himself of this dependency if he is to be fully himself. Man does not want to receive his existence and the fullness of his life from God.

He himself wants to obtain from the tree of knowledge the power to shape the world, to make himself a god, raising himself to God's level, and to overcome death and darkness with his own efforts. He does not want to rely on love that to him seems untrustworthy; he relies solely on his own knowledge since it confers power upon him. Rather than on love, he sets his sights on power, with which he desires to take his own life autonomously in hand. And in doing so, he trusts in deceit rather than in truth and thereby sinks with his life into emptiness, into death.

Love is not dependence but a gift that makes us live. The freedom of a human being is the freedom of a limited being, and therefore is itself limited. We can possess it only as a shared freedom, in the communion of freedom: Only if we live in the right way, with one another and for one another, can freedom develop.

We live in the right way if we live in accordance with the truth of our being, and that is, in accordance with God's will. For God's will is not a law for the human being imposed from the outside and that constrains him, but the intrinsic measure of his nature, a measure that is engraved within him and makes him the image of God, hence, a free creature.

There is more. Pope Benedict says that we all carry a drop of the poison of thinking this way and that,

We call this drop of poison "original sin." Precisely on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, we have a lurking suspicion that a person who does not sin must really be basically boring and that something is missing from his life: the dramatic dimension of being autonomous; that the freedom to say no, to descend into the shadows of sin and to want to do things on one's own is part of being truly human; that only then can we make the most of all the vastness and depth of our being men and women, of being truly ourselves; that we should put this freedom to the test, even in opposition to God, in order to become, in reality, fully ourselves.

In a word, we think that evil is basically good, we think that we need it, at least a little, in order to experience the fullness of being. We think that Mephistopheles -- the tempter -- is right when he says he is the power "that always wants evil and always does good" (J.W. von Goethe, "Faust" I, 3). We think that a little bargaining with evil, keeping for oneself a little freedom against God, is basically a good thing, perhaps even necessary.

If we look, however, at the world that surrounds us we can see that this is not so; in other words, that evil is always poisonous, does not uplift human beings but degrades and humiliates them. It does not make them any the greater, purer or wealthier, but harms and belittles them.

This is something we should indeed learn on the day of the Immaculate Conception: The person who abandons himself totally in God's hands does not become God's puppet, a boring "yes man"; he does not lose his freedom. Only the person who entrusts himself totally to God finds true freedom, the great, creative immensity of the freedom of good.

The person who turns to God does not become smaller but greater, for through God and with God he becomes great, he becomes divine, he becomes truly himself.

I hope the significance of Pope Benedict’s words is clear to readers. In effect, the Pope is asserting that the liberal concept of what makes us human, namely a freedom to choose for ourselves, as autonomous individuals, who we are and what we do, is a false concept.

Instead, the Pope is arguing that there is a given truth to our being (not something we create for ourselves), which is not an impediment to freedom, not a “limitation,” because it forms the higher part of ourselves. We are free within a part of our nature, and therefore if we want freedom it is logical that we should aim, in what we will, to live in accordance with this higher part of our nature.

I do believe that this corresponds to the real experience of human freedom. Liberals would have us believe that we experience freedom when we are unconstrained in our choices. For example, liberals believe that we are liberated when we are not influenced in any significant way by the sex we are born to. Liberals want it not to matter whether we are born male or female.

So I am meant to feel free when I as a man am “unconstrained” by masculinity. But in reality I don’t feel free. I feel dismayed when I see signs of effeminacy in other men, or when I am hampered in fulfilling a masculine role in society. I feel most free when I witness the better and stronger masculine qualities in myself or others.

Which leads to a final point. It is encouraging that the Pope should reject the liberal mentality so firmly in the religious sphere. But the challenge for the Church is to understand how liberalism has also distorted other important spheres of life.

(I have already mentioned the issue of gender; the Church did, in fact, release a letter on gender last year which clearly rejected a liberal feminism, but only to replace it with a Catholic one.)

No comments:

Post a Comment