Wednesday, August 01, 2007


Review: Pope Benedict's Apostolic Exhortation (Sacramentum Caritatis: The Sacrament of Love, 143 pp., 2007) and Encyclical Letter (Deus Caritas Est: On Christian Love, 71pp., 2006), St Paul's Publications, Strathfield, NSW.

These two booklets are pocket/purse-sized, and intended for the faithful's slow meditative reading.

My first response has to be to the titles: Christian love/charity is not a bad place to start for a newly-appointed Pope, eh?

And they're excellent reading - for Catholics and others.

Pope Benedict XVI was, of course, the infamous Cardinal Ratzinger (the
Church's 'rottweiler' my pro-Vatican 2 friends used to call him). As
'Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith' (1981-2005)
- formerly known as the Holy Office, the historical Inquisition - his
task was to defend the Roman Catholic Church's traditional faith and
values, which he did with ruthless zeal, and a very sharp intellect.

Now that he's Pope - a pastor pastorum - his writings have a pastoral,
more 'soft conservative' stance.

His first encyclical letter on love has 41 short paragraphs. Unlike the
Apostolic Exhortation the language is uniformly sexist - which means
that he obviously wrote it himself whereas he was helped by a more
contemporary amanuensis with the other publication. (However, just
occasionally he exhibits some knowledge of modern ideas - 'parallel
universe', for example). Some of the material has an 'in house' Roman
Catholic flavour: and we have to be patient with his strong traditional
views about Mary, the Eucharist, and the priesthood. He also dances
around the issue of love expressed in terms of social justice: unlike
the liberation theologians, Benedict does not condone the Church's
meddling in politics too much.

All that aside, there are some beautiful, even lyrical, paragraphs here.

Benedict has a first-rate mind, and is an excellent scholar of the Bible and patristics. And most of this is good raw material for devotion and prayer. One example: '...In God and with God I love even the person whom I do not like or even know. This can only take place on the basis of an intimate encounter with God, an encounter which has become a communion of will, even affecting my feelings. Then I learn to look on this other person, not simply with my eyes and my feelings, but from the perspective of Jesus Christ. His friend is my friend. Going beyond exterior appearances, I perceive in others an interior desire for a sign of love, of concern... But if I... [relate to] others solely from a desire to be "devout" and to perform my "religious duties," then my relationship with God will also grow arid. It becomes merely "proper", but loveless.' (pp. 30-31).

Sacramentum Caritatus is a more substantial theological offering (with 256 endnotes!) about the centrality of the Eucharist in the Church's and Christian's life. It's an excellent introduction to this subject, and I'd encourage Protestants to read it with an open mind. The most frequently-quoted Church Father is, of course, Saint Augustine, which gives the discourse more of an 'original sin' than an 'original blessing' flavour.

Benedict is certainly traditional. The Church has to relate to polygamists gently but 'firmly' but he doesn't help us with the practical details of how to do that with love. 'Separated brethren' are still somewhat separated, and only barely brethren. (He wouldn't like what a radical Catholic priest I know did: concelebrate the Eucharist with the help of Protestant pastors). A couple of times he advocates the
use of Gregorian chants over more modern hymns and songs, encourages priests to master Latin, and urges the daily celebration of the Mass, even when the faithful are not present. And if there are 'non-practising Catholics' and others attending a wedding, for example, the officiating priest should consider replacing a celebration of the Mass with a 'celebration of the Word of God' (p. 67).

But I wrote 'Yes' in the margin a couple of times: 'The quality of homilies needs to be improved' (p. 63). 'There is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the Gospel, by the encounter with Christ. There is nothing more beautiful than to know him, and to speak to others of our friendship with him' (p. 107).

In my view, whatever the anachronisms of someone who lives in a 2,000-year past (!), if this man has this sort of devotion to Christ, I for one want to hear more from him.

Rowland Croucher

August 2007.


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