Deal W. Hudson
April 21, 2008
His Holiness came to America known as the “enforcer” of Catholic doctrine. He left America as the face of the Church, the face of peace. Benedict XVI arrived in the midst of swirling controversies, but in addressing them, he raised our hearts and minds to the place where all struggles cease and all questions are answered.
“Peace be with you,” the President of the United States said to him on his birthday at the White House. Yet it was the Holy Father who gave us peace during his five days here.
Benedict XVI bestowed his peace while confronting every problem awaiting him in the youngest and wealthiest of the countries under his universal pastoral oversight. He addressed the priest sexual abuse scandal on the plane to Washington, D.C. and will be remembered for his willingness to meet with victims. Both his humility and transparency caught the nation off guard.
His transparency was apparent in everything he did and said. He praised the American Revolution for its foundations in divinely-endowed human rights while reminding us of the necessity of exercising freedom “for the cause of good.” He congratulated our bishops on the vitality of the Church but asked them to offer “a clear and united witness” on proposed legislation that contradicts sound morality.
He recognized the sacrifice made by American Catholics to educate their children, but he admonished presidents of Catholic colleges and universities never to use academic freedom as justification for contradicting “the faith and the teaching of the Church.” His admiration for the work of the United Nations was made clear in his speech, but he cautioned, “It should never be necessary to deny God in order to enjoy one’s rights.”
Benedict XVI gave us peace in spite of his admonishments, in spite of his constant reminders that our freedom should never be used as license, and our affluence should not tempt us toward the isolation of self-consumed individualism.
How did he do it? It was predicted that John Paul II’s successor could never match his charisma, his ability to attract and engage large crowds around the world. No one who watched the Popemobile travel up 5th Avenue or the Holy Father’s entrance into Yankee Stadium on Sunday could doubt he has won the heart of America.
He did it by relying on something that is rarely discussed in our culture: Benedict XVI spoke the truth. Truth, the Pope knows, is the most disputed idea in our post-modern culture. By proclaiming the truth, he defied the accepted opinion of the academy that there is no such thing, only politicized opinions based upon self-interest.
Benedict XVI expressed his confidence in truth in the way he talked about our common human nature – common because it originated in the hands of God. He used the word “common” over 30 times in his speech to the United Nations as he described the “common good,” “common desire,” “common ends,” “common ground,” and “common origin” of all human persons.
That each individual shares so much in common with every other individual makes it possible for each of us to know the same truth. This is an idea anathema in most colleges and universities in America. Such comments evoke laughter in the faculty lounge or around the conference table in the departments of philosophy, history, and literature.
Benedict XVI was himself a college professor during the time when the academy rejected the idea of truth, and when many in the Church used the occasion of Vatican II to reject central doctrines. He dismissed the rejections and redirected his own scholarship to reaffirm the objectivity of truth and the Magisterium of the Church.
These fundamental affirmations – that truth can be known in the human sciences and in theology – have crucial political and cultural implications as the Pope explained at the United Nations:
Those [human] rights are grounded and shaped by the transcendent nature of the person, which permits men and women to pursue their journey of faith and their search for God in this world. Recognition of this dimension must be strengthened if we are to sustain humanity’s hope for a better world and if we are to create the conditions for peace, development, cooperation, and guarantee of rights for future generations.
Benedict XVI came to America to remind us that there is no peace without truth. He has proclaimed it before to the entire Church. In 2006, he chose the theme “in truth, peace” as the topic for his reflection on World Peace Day:
In truth, peace – expresses the conviction that wherever and whenever men and women are enlightened by the splendor of truth, they naturally set out on the path of peace.
This is the peace that has shown so brightly on the face of the Holy Father throughout his visit to America.