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Pope Benedict XVI Sets the Themes for his Papacy: Rulers Must Help the Poor; Respect of Persons Prohibits Some Economic Practices; Lectio Divina Will Bring a New Spiritual Springtime

While waiting for some dramatic theme to come out of the new papacy, many commentators have missed the soft, gentle, but sure voice of Benedict XVI developing a common thread through his presentations in which he proclaims a new vision-a vision that is not really new, but so old it looks like new (cf. Peter Maurin). From his inaugural address through World Youth Day, through presentations to various conferences, his meetings with ambassadors and Bishops, his weekly reflections on the Psalms, his letters and his homilies, a clear message has already come forth, even though his first encyclical has not yet appeared.

A Strong Theme Emerges

Pope Benedict XVI builds on the constant teachings of the Church from the very beginning on crucial concepts for the world today, ideas based in the Gospel itself, such as the universal destination of goods and the necessity of all to work toward the common good.

A strong theme has emerged in the Pope’s statements. Some recent examples follow:
God Defends the Weakest: Rulers Should Follow Suit

The various Catholic news services reported that during his December 7 audience, in his reflection on Psalm 137 (138) the Holy Father stated that world leaders and citizens must use their power to aid the poor-they have a moral obligation to do so.

Five Catholic communications services carried headlines about his statement:

Vatican Information Service: “God Defends the Weakest.”

Catholic News Agency: “Pope Benedict on the Psalms: God Defends the Weakest; World Rulers Should Follow Suit.”

Catholic News Service: “World leaders, citizens must use their power to aid poor, says Pope.”

Zenit: “God Cares for the Lowly”

Catholic World News: “Rulers Must Protect the Poor, Pope Tells Audience.”

The Pope went outside his printed text to emphasize this point:

“God chooses, therefore, to defend the weak, the victims, the smallest. This fact is conveyed to all kings, so that they might know which option to choose in governing their nations. Of course, he does not just say it to kings and to all governments, but to all of us, as we also must know which option we must choose to be on the side of the humble, the last, the poor, and the weak.”

This, of course, goes with Mary’s Magnificat, where she sang that the Lord will pull down the mighty from their thrones and raise up the lowly.

In other speeches he asked that politicians address situations of injustice and be aware of the intrinsic ethical dimension of every political decision.

Economic Alternatives

In other recent statements the Holy Father addressed the powerful, those who control the global economy: “The market economy cannot be separated from the “solidarity market.” To those looking for economic alternatives he recommended cooperatives and policies that encourage small farmers around the world. The Vatican’s perma-nent observer to the United Nations, Archbishop Celestino Migliore, has been speaking in favor of sustainable development, of how “responsibility and solidarity can be linked in such a way that action in favor of the environment becomes an affirmation of belief in the destiny of the human family gathered around a common project crucial to everyone’s good.”

It was delightful to see that the Holy Father is encouraging cooperatives and help for small farmers around the world. When from the Catholic Worker tradition we recently recommended cooperatives to priests working in Honduras with so many poor, they told us that it is still very dangerous to try to form cooperatives there because they are considered Communist. The Holy Father’s words should be spread far and wide so that this wrong perception can be corrected

The Pope has been speaking about how important it is to find ways for society to give support to families, especially large families. It is so difficult for families of workers around the world to survive in today’s economy.

Signs of the times: Migrants and Refugees

The Second Vatican Council asked Catholics and Christians to read the signs of the times and to respond with God’s love and work for justice. In his Message for the 92nd World Day of Migrants and Refugees for 2006, Benedict XVI noted that in a globalized economy, huge numbers of people are uprooted: “One of the recognizable signs of the times today is undoubt-edly migration, a phenomenon which during the century just ended can be said to have taken on structural characteristics, becoming an important factor of the labor market worldwide, a consequence among other things of the enormous drive of globalization.”

“Naturally in this ‘sign of the times’ various factors play a part. They include both national and international migration, forced and voluntary migration, legal and illegal migration, subject also to the scourge of trafficking in human beings. … The Church sees this entire world of suffering and violence through the eyes of Jesus, who was moved with pity at the sight of the crowds wandering as sheep without a shepherd (Matthew 9: 36). Hope, courage, love and ‘creativity in charity’ must inspire the necessary human and Christian efforts made to help these brothers and sisters in their suffering.”

The Holy Father specifically made migrants the theme of his missionary prayer intentions for the month of January 2006. The Apostleship of Prayer, a group which inspires thousands of Catholics worldwide to offer prayers and sacrifices for the Pope’s prayer intentions, announced that Benedict will pray this month especially that the 200 million people “who live and work in a country which is not the one in which they were born be recognized as persons treated in the image and likeness of God and welcomed with respect and charity.”

Reiterating Church teaching on the importance of assuring just treatment for migrants, in his Message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees he noted the increase in migration of women (what might be called a feminization of migration), and asked that we especially work to end their exploitation. He gave his Apostolic Blessing to those who, “moved by the desire to contribute to the promotion of a future of justice and peace in the world, spend their energies in the field of pastoral care at the service of human mobility.”


The people who come to Casa Juan Diego each day after a perilous journey, tell us how desperate they were in their countries. “I became desperate,” they tell us. “The situation in our countries is so bad…” The message we receive from so many immigrants and refugees is that not only is the economy bad, it has become worse and worse in the years of globalization, the 1990’s and beyond.

Stamp Out the Deplorable Social Plague of Usury

On November 23 Pope Benedict condemned the “social plague of usury” and spoke of its deplorable effect on families.

The Gospel turns current ideas of economics and the war-making that supports them upside down. When he spoke of the social plague of usury, the Holy Father put his criticism in the context of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, in whom the world and all its people have been transformed by his birth, death and resurrection. The follower of Christ is asked to build a civilization of love, a culture which would not include usury.

What does this condemnation of usury mean on a practical level? It is clearly a condemnation of credit card companies and banks that charge 18% interest plus. It condemns enticing people to buy more and more that they cannot afford on credit while charging interest that leaves individuals and families indebted, and then ruins their credit ratings forever.

The individual is left swimming in debts they will never be able to escape. Debt has become the new indentured servitude.

Plague of Usury Includes Foreign Debt

The implication in the condemnation of usury carries over to what Cardinal Bertone of Genoa recently called the “immorality of the foreign debt.”

Tremendous debts have also been bestowed on poor countries, where interest charges seem to increase geometrically. Pope John Paul II campaigned strongly against these external debts, in which poor countries have much more than paid their debts to lenders like the IMF and World Bank, but because of these agencies’ continuing to raise the interest rates over the years, those payments have only been credited to the interest.

Pope Benedict spoke recently of the “crushing debt that feeds the spiral of poverty in many less developed nations.”

Food and Hunger

Addressing the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organiza-tion, he emphasized the basic right of each person to be free of hunger, and the paradox that side by side with advances in the economy, science and technology, there is an increase in poverty. Technical progress, he said, is not everything. True progress enables each people to share its own spiritual and material resources for the benefit of all.

He spoke of the vulnerability of small rural farmers and families around the world and the importance of supporting them with education and training and structures that safeguard family farms.

We know that the Pope must be aware of studies such as that of the United Nations Report on the World Social Situation 2005: The Inequality Predicament which dramatically describes the horrendous increase in ine-quality since globalization both between countries and within countries, because the author of the report, Jose Antonio Campos, has spoken at recent Vatican conferences.

What the Pope Did Not Say

Perhaps what the Holy Father did not say is as significant as what he did say on these themes. He did not say that the purpose of the economy is to create wealth and more wealth (while that wealth is distributed to the few and poor families suffer so much around the world).

He did not speak of “laws of the market,” which cannot be affected by Catholic Social Teaching; he did not affirm those who state that theologians should keep their noses out of economics because it is a science with its own “laws.”

He did not affirm those who teach ethics courses in economics departments from the point of view that the unrestrained “market” run by multinational corporations is the only economic alternative that exists, but rather insisted that the Church does not endorse any particular economic or political system at the same time as it enunciates principles of justice and solidarity.

The Implications

The implications of the Pope’s statements for our world today are enormous. He has made it clear that nations cannot attack or exploit other nations, especially poorer nations, by economic or military pressure in order to support a higher standard of living. If one listens to the Holy Father, one cannot pay salaries to workers on which families can barely survive while CEO’s and stockholders become fabulously wealthy in the same company.

The rulers, obligated to defend the poor, should never make laws to enrich huge corporations which force small businesses to go out of business. They should not lay heavy burdens on the poor and only help the wealthy.

Under this teaching it could not be right to make health care strictly a business in which people are destroyed eco-nomically by medical bills.

It is clear that the Pope wants to carry on the theme of Pope John Paul II in regards to life styles that hurt others. It may sound trite and repetitive, but this concept is said well in the phrase that one must live simply that others may simply live.

Dignity of Human Being Much More Than DNA

Pope Benedict stated in his address of November 21 to the Pontifical Academies that “The human person is at the heart of the whole social order.” Meeting with the International Theological Commission on December 1, he emphasized that basic human rights are not granted by governments, but recognized by them. They are “universal, inviolable and inalienable” because they are based on the dignity of every human created in the image and likeness of God.

At a conference for health care workers on the human genome November 21, he said that the dignity of a human being is not identified with or limited to his DNA genes-and thus this dignity does not diminish when physical or genetic defects exist. The person’s basic dignity comes from being created in the image and likeness of God.

Lectio Divina Will Bring a New Spiritual Springtime to the Church

At the international conference on “Sacred Scripture in the Life of the Church” the Holy Father recommended to all the ancient tradition of Lectio Divina, quoting Dei Verbum of Vatican II: “The diligent reading of Sacred Scripture accompanied by prayer brings about that intimate dialogue in which the person reading hears God who is speaking, and in praying, responds to him with trusting openness of heart” (n. 25). Reminding listeners that the Church knows well that Christ lives in the sacred Scriptures and for this reason has always venerated them in the same way as she venerates the Body of the Lord (Dei Verbum n. 21), he declared that if Lectio Divina is effectively promoted, this practice will bring to the Church a new spiritual springtime.

Presence of the Risen Lord in the Eucharist

Benedict XVI speaks of the scandal of the Cross (emphasized by St. Paul and also many saints, as well as Dorothy Day) but also emphasizes that it leads to the event of the Resurrection: “The Son’s sacrificial obedience is followed by the Father’s glorifying response, echoed by the adoration of humanity and creation … The faithful are invited–especially in the liturgy-to proclaim it and reap its fruits.”

In various talks he assures listeners of the Lord’s promise, “Know that I am with you always, until the end of the world” (Matthew 28:20), which is fulfilled in the sacramental celebration and the mystery of the Eucharist and “through the experience that is offered to us in the adoration of his Real Presence under the sacred species.” He invites us to contemplate the “Eucharist as the source of holiness and spiritual nourishment for our mission in the world.”

All the Baptized are Called to Perfection

A theme of the Catholic Worker with Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, and especially with the retreat movement so related to the CW, was the call to holiness for all, lay people as well as priests. Some thought this was extreme, that to be asked to live the Sermon on the Mount was extreme. However, the Holy Father tells us that this is a theme of the Second Vatican Council-that those who are baptized are called to the perfection of the Christian life, priests, religious and laity, each one according to his own charism and specific vocation.” In an Angelus address, he said that the Council Decree on the Laity emphasizes that “the success of the lay apostolate depends upon the laity’s living union with Christ, that is, a solid spirituality, nourished by active participation in the Liturgy and expressed in the style of the evangelical beatitudes.”

The German Message

At World Youth Day in Germany the Pope spoke of how the Magi discovered a very different kind of power as they knelt at the feet of they knelt before the child of poor people-and how we can also discover a different kind of power there.

Violence is Not the Way

In his inaugural address, Benedict stated: “How often we wish that God would show himself stronger, that he would strike decisively, defeating evil and creating a better world. All ideologies of power justify themselves in exactly this way, they justify the destruction of whatever would stand in the way of progress and the liberation of humanity.”

Recently he made it clear again that ideologies of power and violence are not the way.

Addressing the new Ambassador to the Holy See from Nepal, the Holy Father stated that “The use of violence as a tool for political change must always be avoided, while the building of mutual understanding and the constructive exchange of ideas is at all times to be upheld.”

We were encouraged to see that the Pope, who spoke clearly against the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the attempt by Catholic writers who tried to change the just war theory to include a new concept called “preventive war” in order to justify it, continues to speak against violence and war. However, he also addresses the causes of war, injustice and bitterness: “Opposing factions must let the blessing of forgiveness bring about the hope of future peace thereby taking away the pain and wiping away the tears of the past.”

When he received the credentials of eleven new ambassadors on December 1, 2005, he made a new appeal to all leaders of nations and all human beings of good will to unite to halt violence, asking for the commitment of all to peace-making and reconciliation. He emphasized how violence “disfigures humanity and mortgages the growth of peoples and the hope of many populations.”

As he presented the Pope’s message for the World Day of Peace, Cardinal Renato Martino the President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (also an outspoken critic of the Iraq War), told how the Holy Father had chosen “the truth” as the theme for his reflection, linking its many dimensions to the questions of peace in the modern world. In fact, Cardinal Martino pointed out that the theme of truth constantly recurs in Benedict XVI’s teaching “even to the point of characterizing his papal ministry, like a background motif on the basis of which other themes are developed in keeping with the musical art of ‘variations on a theme.'”

Cardinal Martino, with Pope Benedict, criticized the lack of progress against the proliferation of arms and weapons. He also asserted that torture is not an ethical means for fighting terrorism. Torture, he said, is the humiliation of a person and for this reason the Church does not accept is as a valid means to extract the truth.

Secret to Happiness

In his reflection on Psalm 111 Pope Benedict told us two secrets to happiness: Docility to God and generosity to the needy. “Docility to God is the root of hope and interior and exterior harmony”; however, at the heart of this fidelity to the divine word is a fundamental choice, namely, charity to the poor and needy.”

He spoke of the distractions that we perceive as so important in our lives, which one day we discover do not bring true happiness.

Pope Benedict XVI made clear his opinion on the consumerism that has taken over people’s lives when he said that the celebration of Christmas has been polluted by consumerism.

For Those Who Believe Differently

He reaches out to others in dialogue.

Reflecting on the Psalm 136, Benedict reminded us of St. Augustine’s meditation on that Psalm in which he commented that among those who do not share the biblical faith, there are people who are committed to peace and the good of the community. “They have a spark of desire for the unknown, for the greatest, for the transcendent, for a genuine redemption.” Even among persecutors, among nonbelievers, Benedict said with St. Augustine, there are people with this spark, with a kind of faith, of hope in the measure that is possible for them in the circumstances in which they live.

From his very first homily, he stated his goal and commitment of working toward unity with the Orthodox and other Christians, and he has continued to express his hope for deeper communion with them.

In speaking to Bishops of the Sudan, for example, the Holy Father told them (as he emphasized the commitment of the Vatican to the suffering people of the Sudan) that though they are a minority there, Catholics have much to offer through interreligious dialogue as well as the provision of greatly needed social services, to bring Christ’s healing presence.

While he decries moral relativism and individualism, Benedict often also speaks of tolerance and respect for other cultures and spiritual heritages, asking that each place its ethical values at the service of the human family throughout the world. In other words, in our pursuit of the truth, we always are required to be open to our brothers and sisters even though they may not agree with us.

Faith and Reason

The Holy Father emphasizes that human reason and thinking in communion with the Church do not exclude each other but instead speaks of a synthesis between truth and love which is the vital center of Catholic culture. In calling for a new Christian humanism to repair the “artificial divide between faith and reason,” he has spoken of the need to address the great questions of how to live and how to die, which seem today to have been “excluded from the realm of rationality and are confined to the sphere of subjectivity.” As a consequence, he said, “in the end the question disappears which gave origin to the university-the question of truth and good-to be substituted by the question of feasibility”-only of what is practically possible. Like Peter Maurin who brought to us a synthesis of the rich tradition of the Church, the Pope speaks against fragmentation, the almost total separation of different disciplines, and insists on the intrinsic unity that unites the different branches of learning: theology, philosophy, medicine, economics, and even the most specialized technologies, in the divine Logos, eternal reason, who is at the origin of the universe. The Pope has noted that “secularization in the form of radical secularism no longer satisfies the more aware and alert minds,” which means “that possible and perhaps new spaces are opening up for a profitable dialogue with society on important themes such as those relating to life.”

Communio Theology

One can observe that the Pope’s message flows from a life of faith and meditation on the Word of God, from the great tradition of the Church, and from his theology, the theology of communion. David Schindler, editor the North American edition of Communio (of which Cardinal Ratzinger was one of the founders) has explained in interviews that the theology of communion involves an understanding of the Church as the sacrament of Christ’s love, in which “the communion of persons that makes up the Church is an icon of the divine Trinitarian communion of Persons.” a perspective which enables us to meet the grave problems of contemporary culture. This has been “an abiding feature of Cardinal Ratzinger’s life,” he said.

The basic aim of the international journal, Communio is to show how the theological and spiritual riches of the Church’s tradition, “enable us to meet squarely the grave problems of contemporary culture, and to sustain hope in the face of these problems.”

Communio theology honors the Petrine ministry (papal), but very much also takes the point of view of Mary, who by her fiat, her consent, accepted God’s plan for her, something each person has to do-be conscious of their vocation or destiny. Mary gave a definite yes, not “maybe” or “if” or “depends on what the group decides,” and responded with her “ad sum,” I am present. In fact, Benedict XVI recently said that the “Petrine aspect of the Church is included in the Marian aspect, and that Mary sustains the Pastors, and in the first place the successors of Peter, in their demanding ministry at the service of the Gospel.”

Interpreting the Second Vatican Council

And so it was not surprising when after days of speculation of some announcement to be made by Pope Benedict on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception about the interpretation of the Second Vatican Council, he declared on that day that the key to understanding the Council is the Virgin Mary.

In his homily the Holy Father declared that the Council took place in a Marian setting. It was, he said, “actually more than a setting; it was the orientation of the entire process.” The Council refers us, he said, “as it referred the council Fathers at that time, to the image of the Virgin who listens and lives in the Word of God, who cherishes in her heart the words that God addresses to her and, piecing them together like a mosaic, learns to under-stand them (cf. Lk 2:19, 51).

The Pope, who was present at the Council, described a very moving moment from that experience.
“Indelibly printed in my memory is the moment when, hearing the words of Pope Paul VI, ‘We declare Mary the Most Holy Mother of the Church,’ the Fathers spontaneously rose at once and paid homage to the Mother of God, to our Mother, to the Mother of the Church, with a standing ovation.”


(One can find Benedict XVI’s writings at www.vatican.va by clicking on “Benedict XVI.”)

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXVI, No. 1, January-February 2006.