The Catechist Pope

Jeff McLeod - Pope Intellectual Courage


I was planning to write a post today about intellectual virtue, but that plan was postponed when I received word that Pope Benedict XVI had made the historic decision to step down from the Chair of St. Peter at the end of this month.

Surely there will be an outpouring of love and gratitude on the Internet for the service this beloved Pope has given us over the last eight years. The Sacrament of Holy Orders is one of the two (the other being Holy Matrimony) Sacraments of Service. Pope Benedict has lived his vocation as a servant in every possible sense of the word.

Now, other writers will be more skilled at analyzing the political and social implications of the Holy Father’s resignation, and I would be the last person who would do that. I would like instead to reflect on our Pope in light of the difference he has made in my life.

When Pope Benedict XVI was chosen by the College of Cardinals in 2005, I was jubilant because I saw him as a fellow scholar. I could relate to him as an academician, a teacher, and a student. He did not disappoint. With laser-like precision he identified the fault lines in our intellectual milieu. If I could be so bold as to paraphrase on behalf of the Holy Father, one of the essential themes in his teaching has been that we are people who have lost confidence in reason.

I have shared his concern as a teacher who knows that the search for truth and meaning has become marginalized in modern education. Ask any college student and they will tell you there is no truth. Everyone’s perspective is as good as any other. This is a different topic for a different day. I write these words simply to thank the Holy Father for reading the “signs of the times”. Mankind has through a variety of influences found that he has no use for reason in the proper definition of that word. Mankind holds a special contempt for the source of all reason, the divine Logos at the heart of all creation. Again, I will – God willing – have many more occasions to talk about that topic here at Catholic Stand.

Until then, I would like to urge you, especially if you have fallen away from the Church because you feel it lacks credibility in the modern world – I urge you to one day read two books by this brilliant professor, Joseph Ratzinger. I am referring to Introduction to Christianity, and The Spirit of the Liturgy. If you would like to go deep into the Catholic faith, to understand why the Church and its glorious liturgy are relevant, indeed indispensable at precisely this critical juncture in history, these are the books to read. Mind you, they are not easy reading, but they will reward the patient reader.

My personal story is that I have come to see Pope Benedict XVI over these brief eight years from the point of view of his work as a catechist. The Holy Father is a master teacher, and I have no shame in admitting that I have adopted many of his rhetorical and linguistic habits in my own teaching.

Pope Benedict XVI, when acting in the role of a catechist shows tremendous intellectual courage. When he takes up a topic, he doesn’t simply run down a checklist in a perfunctory manner. There is of course a place for memorization in catechesis, but Pope Benedict XVI – as devout readers will attest – invariably goes straight into the thick of things. He usually begins a difficult lesson by taking the opposing side, rather like the disputational method of scholastic theologians from the age of St. Thomas Aquinas. Unlike those teachers, who were to some extent preaching to a Christian audience, Pope Benedict is teaching people who vehemently disagree with the entire premise of the Catholic Faith. He understands that some members of his audience think that much of what we teach is “a delusion”, but rather than marginalize or dismiss these members of his audience, he engages them. He suffers no illusions, he is aware that Christianity is received with great hostility in many quarters. He knows the source of that hostility and he knows the arguments that are deployed on its behalf.

And he faces all of this without a trace of fear.

Consider his first Encyclical Deus Caritas Est, which means God is Love. Straight away he welcomes not just the skeptics, but the staunchest enemies of Christianity into the discussion.

According to Friedrich Nietzsche, Christianity had poisoned eros, which for its part, while not completely succumbing, gradually degenerated into vice. Here the German philosopher was expressing a widely-held perception: doesn\’t the Church, with all her commandments and prohibitions, turn to bitterness the most precious thing in life? Doesn\’t she blow the whistle just when the joy which is the Creator\’s gift offers us a happiness which is itself a certain foretaste of the Divine?

Pope Benedict continues: “But is this the case? Did Christianity really destroy eros?” You are correct if you guessed that the Holy Father proceeds to explain with painstaking precision and first rate erudition exactly what we mean as Catholics when we profess that God is Love.

My friends, this is breathtaking. It is intellectually and spiritually breathtaking. Read the encyclical. Read his entire opus! Spend some time with it. See how he engages the world on its own terms without compromising a shred of truth. Again: I have never seen such intellectual courage in my life. His style has transformed me as a person, as a teacher, and as a catechist.

Pope Benedict XVI has made me more courageous. He has made me strive to get to the very heart of our articles of faith, to know exactly why they are credible, and why they are in truth the answers to the questions of our time.

Faith and reason are not incompatible, as his predecessor John Paul the Great taught so eloquently. We must be confident in reason, and we must apply it rigorously to our faith. It is impossible for God to create a world where the truths of faith and natural science are at odds with one another. We can feel this confidence in the catechesis of Pope Benedict XVI. His confidence and his courage are contagious. He has changed my life, my faith, and my teaching for the better.

God bless you, Pope Benedict XVI. I thank you with all my heart for your great service.

© Jeff McLeod, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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4 thoughts on “The Catechist Pope”

  1. Pingback: The Catechist Pope | CATHOLIC FEAST

  2. Pingback: Pope Benedict XVI and What Happens Next

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