Benedict: The Last 20th Century Man: UPDATED


It seems almost silly to say I am bringing coverage of Benedict XVI’s extraordinary sojourn in America to a close (actually, my final final thoughts are here) because the truth is I will likely be reading all of his addresses more closely and bringing them up in coming weeks, but the wall-to-wall writing will end here. I do want, though, to end with a thought that blipped through my head when Benedict was in DC, and again as he addressed the United Nations.

Benedict XVI is the last man of the 20th century to walk the global stage. He saw tyranny overtake his country and the minds and imaginations of his countrymen, as well as his own liberty. He watched the cold war play out and worked closely with one of the destructors of that system. That he viewed all of these things through the lens of faith and mystery means that his perspective is not only singular, it is supernatural, as well.

Before we knew him as Benedict, while he was still Joseph Ratzinger, he was telling us what he knew, but between his “rottweiller” caricature and all the religious wrappings, we missed it:

“…the population of an entirely planned and controlled world are going to be inexpressibly lonely … and they will then discover the little community of believers as something quite new. As a hope that is there for them, as the answer they have secretly always been asking for.” [emphasis mine – admin] — (from God and the World)

He knows. Listen to this 20th century man who sees what comes ahead because he vividly remembers all that came before – all that we want to believe we’ve left behind. He recognizes the tyrant because he has seen it, has felt its breath on his very neck. And in that statement, he acknowledges for us that the tyrant this time will eat up liberty so thoroughly that only in the spirit will freedom be found, nourished and strengthened. A totalitarian world without a spiritual defense will be unsurvivable.

Someone asked me why I did not write about Bill Maher’s standard-issue hate words about Benedict – timed to coincide with his visit and thus garner Maher the most attention.

I did not comment on Maher because it seemed pointless to; every word he speaks about Benedict proclaims himself, and his own lonely creed of atheism.

Bill Maher is a 21st century man; a fervent atheist, as fierce in his secular faith as the holiest of rollers. When I consider that line by then-Cardinal Ratzinger…”the population of an entirely planned and controlled world are going to be inexpressibly lonely…” I think Maher is already living there in that cold place, where one may lunch with the cool kids who hold court in the lunchroom, but then go home to a solitary room, hoping in nothing beyond their still-deigning to like you tomorrow.

Atheism may be the burgeoning movement, but that’s only because atheism is so easy. It requires nothing more of you than your willingness to cultivate cynicism, which is the laziest thing to grow. It lives of a piece with Benedict’s “dictatorship of relativism” and his counsel that

“relativism…does not recognize anything as definitive [its] ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.

…An “adult” faith is not a faith that follows the trends of fashion and the latest novelty; a mature adult faith is deeply rooted in friendship with Christ. It is this friendship that opens us up to all that is good and gives us a criterion by which to distinguish the true from the false, and deceipt from truth.

Relativism is a growth-stunter. When nothing matters and you answer for nothing, you’re living the life of a child, and a nation of children cannot survive for very long. Relativism-embracing Europe is dying for that reason, because growing up and parenting others is not just difficult, it is selfless; in relationships one is answerable to another.

In Christ we have a relationship, and Jesus calls us on it. We are answerable to Him, and (insofar as he has promised it) he to us.

Benedict knows this, just as he knew that sex scandals and bishops – including himself – must be called on and made answerable by and to the faithful, who in turn have their own responsibilities and relationships to maintain. This is hard stuff, not easy; it requires the cultivation of faith and trust, not cynicism. It requires the difficult, painful work of looking at things one would rather not, and asking forgiveness and trying to heal and rebuild. If we do that work, we can – eventually – look each other in the face, standing free and independent, living honorably together, in truth, and with no need to hide. We’ll be able to withstand the vagaries of life with hope, and joy and real peace.

Relativism is a game of hide-and-seek. Benedict XVI is calling out, “olly-olly-ox-in-free.” He’s saying “let’s get everyone out from the shadows” including the church itself.

That is the work of adult faith and if we now continue in this vein, we will be strengthened; we will grow; we will survive and be ready to face that cold, lonely “planned and controlled” world, and to ultimately defeat it. We begin again, as we mean to continue.

UPDATE: Just finishing my thought: Benedict is only a man – with all that coverage you might wonder if I have forgotten that, but I have not. He is a man, trying to shepherd the 21st Century, with the wisdom gleaned in the last century, the most deadly century. Actually, he is the last active soldier of the greatest generation, still standing, still fighting, and he will, I think, cast a giant shadow

Linking to this piece, Brian Saint-Paul at Inside Catholic makes a very insightful observation:

21st century man has skipped the last 100 years entirely. That’s why he can continue to parrot the parlour atheism of the 19th century without the 20th century’s sad lesson on where such things lead.

Beautifully said.


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