Papal evangelist: David Cameron bids farewell to Benedict XVI after his 2010 visit to Britain (Ben Birchall/PA)
A year ago, my subject would probably have struck some as counter-intuitive, implausible, even absurd: why would an octogenarian German theologian with little practical experience of political and economic life have anything interesting or important to say about "the future of the West"? Pope Benedict XVI's Westminster Hall address last September ought to have put paid to at least some of that cynicism. For as many Britons conceded after last September's papal visit, the elderly German theologian had indeed given the United Kingdom, and the rest of the West, a lot to think about in his reflections on the relationship between the health of a culture, and the health of the democratic institutions that culture must sustain.
And that, in turn, should focus our attention on the font of wisdom from which Pope Benedict drew in analysing the current cultural situation of the Western democracies: the social doctrine of the Catholic Church as it has developed from Leo XIII — the last pope of the 19th century and the first pope of the 20th — through John Paul II, the last pope of the 20th century and the first pope of the 21st. Benedict has, of course, made his own distinctive contributions to this evolving body of thought; but before exploring those themes, a brief sketch of the Catholicism that has emerged during the period following Leo XIII, and that is struggling to come to full maturity today, will help orient the distinctively Benedictine reflections on society, culture, politics, and economics that follow.
Blessed John Paul II and Benedict XVI represent the full flowering of a renaissance in Catholic thought that began with Pope Leo XIII, who, after his election to the papacy in 1878, sought an engagement with modern intellectual and cultural life through distinctively Catholic methods. The Leonine Catholic renaissance flourished in the mid-20th century in philosophical, theological, liturgical, historical and biblical studies. Those studies in turn paved the intellectual way to the Second Vatican Council, and shaped its deliberations between 1962 and 1965. The Second Vatican Council was unique, however, in that it did not provide keys for its proper interpretation: it wrote no creeds, legislated no canons, defined no doctrines, condemned no heresies — all the things other ecumenical councils had done in order to provide keys for their interpretation. Absent such keys, the nature and terms of Vatican II's achievement were sharply, even bitterly, contested in the years immediately following the Council's conclusion. As a result, the evangelical energy that Blessed John XXIII had intended his council to ignite–the determination to bring the Gospel of God's passionate love for the world to the world through a two — way dialogue with the world — was dissipated.
Then came the Wojtyła-Ratzinger years. Since October 16, 1978, the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican has been given an authoritative interpretation by two popes who, as young men, had both been influential participants at Vatican II. And with that authoritative interpretation, which synthesises the achievements of Catholic intellectual life since the Leonine revival of the late 19th century, a decisive moment has been reached in the history of the Catholic Church: the catechetical-devotional Catholicism of the Counter-Reformation is giving way to what may be called Evangelical Catholicism.
Evangelical Catholicism takes its ecclesiology, its idea of the Church, from Lumen Gentium (Light of the Nations), Vatican II's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, as interpreted by John Paul II's 1991 encyclical Redemptoris Missio (The Mission of the Redeemer). In this ecclesiology, the Church does not so much have a mission (as if "mission" were one among a dozen other things the Church does); the Church is a mission. Everything the Church does, the Church does to propose Jesus Christ as the answer to the question that is every human life. Everything the Church does, the Church does in order to offer friendship with Jesus Christ as the true means of satisfying the deepest longings of the human heart. Evangelical Catholicism takes John Paul II's injunction in the 2001 apostolic letter, Novo Millennio Ineunte [Entering the New Millennium], to heart: it sets sail from the stagnant shallows of institutional maintenance into the deep waters of post-modernity, preaching the Paschal Mystery as the central truth of the human condition, while building communities of integrity, decency, solidarity, and compassion — Eucharistic communities of supernatural charity capable of nurturing genuine human flourishing.
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