Steering the Barque of Peter

by Edwin Faust
February 13, 2012

A mark of maturity is the ability to postpone gratification. This mark is notably absent in our time. Our society appears incapable of taking the rational long view and instead rushes toward whatever is immediately attractive, even if that shining bauble takes us to the edge of a precipice and into an abyss.

Instead of maturing, our intellectual and moral growth appears stunted. Our concerns are adolescent: an overarching fascination with sex and self-image, and an indulgence in behavior that offends propriety and good taste. We are, in a word, a boorish and puerile people. It is time we grew up.

The agent for maturation in times past has been the Church, which taught us the map of our minds and passions and how to navigate that often mysterious and treacherous terrain so that we might arrive safely at a place of sanity and goodness.

At a point in the not-too-distant past, the Church decided to yield its magisterial and moral hegemony and assume a secondary role in a secular society, offering its counsel in a deferential manner and accepting the rude disregard of the world with forbearance.

For all of his media presence, the late Pope John Paul II did little to change this lamentable state of affairs. He may, in fact, have exacerbated the situation, as he appeared willing to play to the cameras, pleased with the attention accorded him. But there is a world of difference between publicity and substance; between being seen and being significant.

The late pope’s celebrity status is fast being forgotten, as the media is like a shark, ceaselessly hunting new prey to be devoured by its cameras and commentators. The present Holy Father is not temperamentally inclined to seek the spotlight. On the contrary, Pope Benedict’s natural bent is reclusive and meditative. He is one who ponders large questions and speaks in a measured and precise manner, after a great deal of careful reflection. This does not make for the sort of sound bytes that can be served up as fast food in the media cafeteria.

Pope Benedict has as one of his stated goals the development of what he calls a hermeneutic of continuity. One is unlikely to hear this phrase on the evening news broadcast as it requires some patient explanation. What the Holy Father envisions is the possibility of healing the rift that has divided and decimated the Church since the Second Vatican Council.

The Church, he thinks, cannot disavow an ecumenical council, no matter how flawed its documents and how regrettable its aftermath. The Church can, however, interpret the conciliar decrees and constitutions in a manner consistent with traditional teaching, and slowly correct all the doctrinal vagaries that have arisen in the past half-century.

Of course, the pressing question is whether Pope Benedict will have sufficient time to accomplish this large and difficult course correction. He is seven years into his pontificate and in his mid-80s. Will his successor carry on his work?

The future has never been more difficult to predict than it is in the current maelstrom of world affairs, which necessarily affects the Church. Nevertheless, we should take heart that Pope Benedict is doing a great deal to lay the groundwork for his hermeneutic of continuity whenever and wherever he is able.

The Holy Father recently addressed a group of bishops from the United States who were in Rome for their required ad limina visit. Every five years, the bishops must go to Rome and report on how their diocese is doing, and pledge their allegiance to the Pope and receive whatever instruction or exhortation he offers. This group was from Region IV in the U.S., which includes Washington, D.C. The latter fact is significant, especially in light of Pope Benedict’s address.

The Holy Father noted that the founders of the United States recognized that the natural law was impressed on the human heart by its Creator. He also noted that the U.S. is now departing from that recognition and endangering the very freedom to which it pledged itself in its formation. Historical quibbles aside, the Pope was attempting to find common ground between Church and State on which the bishops could make a stand. Here is some of what the Holy Father said:

“Our tradition does not speak from blind faith, but from a rational perspective which links our commitment to building an authentically just, humane and prosperous society to our ultimate assurance that the cosmos is possessed of an inner logic accessible to human reasoning. The Church’s defense of a moral reasoning based on the natural law is grounded on her conviction that this law is not a threat to our freedom, but rather a ‘language’ which enables us to understand ourselves and the truth of our being, and so to shape a more just and humane world.”

The statement is profound and contains a great many implications, chief of which is that the U.S. bishops should get off the sidelines and into the game, so to speak. Pope Benedict is asking the bishops to stand in the public square and remind everyone that reason is a sure guide to morality, and that morality is rooted in our nature and essential to our happiness.

The Pope is asking the bishops to teach the adolescent culture in which the U.S. is now immersed that freedom can only be maintained when it conforms to timeless principles of cosmic truth, not to present fashions; and that truth is not arbitrary but a “language” that we must learn to speak if we are to understand who we are and why we are here. Otherwise, in the name of a false freedom, we will be enslaved by our passions and by whoever can manipulate our appetites.

Will the U.S. bishops take the Holy Father’s words to heart? We can only hope so. Will the Holy Father have the time to complete his course correction? We must be patient and pray.

We recently witnessed the tragedy of an Italian cruise ship capsizing off the coast of Giglio in Italy. The death toll is still uncertain, but rising daily as of this writing. According to media reports, the captain steered too close to some dangerous rocks near the shoreline and tore a hole in the bottom of the ship. He then attempted a radical course correction and tried to turn the ship too sharply and too quickly. The result: the ship turned on its side.

There are those who would like Pope Benedict to act in a radical manner; to make reforms in dramatic and sweeping ways. They are often frustrated by what they see as the glacial speed at which Vatican affairs proceed. But the Holy Father is steering the Barque of Peter. He wants to get it away from the rocks, to return to safe seas, but he must be careful not to capsize in the process.

At times, what the Vicar of Christ needs most from us is patience and prayer. Part of the Message of Fatima that pertains to the laity is that we should pray for the Holy Father very much, for he has much to suffer. Let us hope that his suffering, and the suffering of the world, may soon end in the realization of the promises of Our Lady of Fatima.

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