Eamon Duffy of Cambridge University is one of the church’s great historians. He is also, at times, one of its most disappointing. The problem with Professor Duffy—maddening, to those who admire his books—is that he has no feel for contemporary Catholicism. As long as he is writing about the Church and papacy before, say, the pontificate of Leo XIII, he shows a superb clarity which helps clear away many prejudices and mistaken views. But as soon as he steps into the twentieth century, and especially the twenty-first, his usual powers fail him.“Man of Sacristy Walks in Shadow of John Paul II.” John Paul II, writes Professor Duffy, had a “mesmeric personal presence and mastery of crowds” which made him “formidable even to those who rejected his religion”—as if self-adulation, and star appeal, were more important to John Paul and his supporters than the Catholic faith itself. Benedict, in contrast, “is an altogether smaller figure, a man of the sacristy and the lecture room,” we are told. Actually, the start of Benedict’s pontificate saw him drawing bigger crowds than even John Paul (whose were huge), and these have continued including half a million people at Fatima last May, and another 100,000 in Rome to show their support, a brief time later. Is Professor Duffy perhaps spending too much time in the lecture room himself to notice these epic events?
Whatever its intended meaning, the song, admittedly very secular, is paradoxically—and perhaps unintentionally—a warning against secularism. Its lyrics are revealing, even haunting:
Edmund Adamus, director of Pastoral Affairs for the archdiocese of Westminster, recently “did not reflect the archbishop’s opinions.”Zenit on the importance of Christian marriage, Adamus lamented the breakdown of societal morality, particularly in his own country:
Whether we like it or not as British citizens and residents of this country-and whether we are even prepared as Catholics to accept this reality and all it implies-the fact is that historically, and continuing right now, Britain, and in particular London, has been and is the geopolitical epicenter of the culture of death.
“Our laws and lawmakers for over 50 years or more have been the most permissively anti-life and progressively anti-family and marriage, in essence one of the most anti-Catholic landscapes culturally speaking than even those places where Catholics suffer open persecution.” He went on to criticize “permissive laws advancing the ‘gay’ agenda,” pornography, “the objectification of women for sexual gratification,” and described modern Britain as a “selfish, hedonistic wasteland.”
This was simply too much for some to digest. Adamus was roundly denounced in the secular media, and even hung out to dry by his own fellow Catholics. A Catholic in the Independent, for example, told Adamus to “get out more,” calling his views “extreme” and “spectacularly unhelpful,” while noting with approval that his beliefs are “significantly at odds with those of his boss, Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster..” The trendy London Tablet also chimed in, ridiculing “the Edmund Adamus section of the church,” and celebrating that he was duly “slapped down.”
As Pope Benedict prepares for his visit to the United Kingdom, speculation abounds as to what he might say. Perhaps clues can be found in a previous speech he delivered, which has been surprisingly overlooked.Fisher Lecture at the Catholic Chaplaincy at Cambridge University. The Times of London said it was one of the best-attended theological lectures ever in contemporary England, and for ample reason: it was classic Joseph Ratzinger–Ratzinger at his scintillating best.
Addressing what he called “the characteristic signs of our time,” he names them: an overwhelming sense of gloom, paradoxically alternating with a naïve sense of “progress;” a spiritual emptiness finding expression in sexual excess and drug abuse; a secular conformism which forbids serious criticism of social immorality (“whoever dares to say that…is put on the sidelines as a hopeless obscurantist”); and—most prophetically—a false and fanatical search for “liberation,” which spurs terrorism: “a real prevention of its root causes has not yet taken place….and, as long as this is so, it can erupt anew at any time.”
Against this nihilism, Ratzinger proposes the Christian world view, ingeniously invoking that most British of British Christians, C.S. Lewis. The latter’s Abolition of Man is cited as a guide to escape this destructive relativism, and as a defense of the Natural Law, which Lewis traces back to the earliest times of man. “The problem of modernity,” comments Ratzinger, “the moral problem of our time, consists in the fact that it has separated itself from this primeval testimony.” The future pope then goes on to explain why objective morality is itself evidence for Christianity’s truth and virtue, and how humanity finds its true fulfillment in it: “Morality is not man’s prison; it is rather the divine in him.”
Will Joseph Ratzinger, now as Pope, expand upon this theme during his return visit to Britain? There is every reason to hope he will, given his well-publicized defense of the Natural Law against the proposed (and misnamed) “Equality Bill” in Britain, which would threaten religious liberty, not to mention undercut the very morality on which the health of the country depends.
What was most encouraging about Ratzinger’s Cambridge talk—and what continues to inspire the faithful about his papacy, even when under duress—is that, as he told his Cambridge audience, he “will not be intimidated” by secular restrictions and taboos. Expect Benedict to exhibit that same faith and courage during his upcoming journey—William Doino Jr.
[Postscript: Cardinal Ratzinger’s complete Fisher Lecture (1988), entitled “Consumer Materialism and Christian Hope,” was reprinted in a 2002 collection, Teachers of the Faith, pp. 78-94, published by the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales, and available for free, on their publications website here; scroll down to section listing the 2002 titles]