FoxNews.com gave its link to its piece on Benedict’s Christmas homily at midnight mass the title, “Pope Laments Christmas Glitter,” while CNN.com ran with “Pope Shuns Consumerism.” But the bulk of the papal message at midnight mass was not one of lament, but joy and wonder. The somewhat misleading titles came from the antepenultimate paragraph. After reflecting on God’s humility in becoming the baby Jesus to seek our love, Benedict writes:
Today Christmas has become a commercial celebration, whose bright lights hide the mystery of God’s humility, which in turn calls us to humility and simplicity. Let us ask the Lord to help us see through the superficial glitter of this season, and to discover behind it the child in the stable in Bethlehem, so as to find true joy and true light.
These are the only remotely negative points in the entire homily. And thus of course they became the headlines.
The Pope’s message for the 45th World Day of Peace, New Year’s Day, was released a couple weeks early on Friday, December 16, by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Francis X. Rocca wrote a piece the Huffington Post entitled, “Pope Benedict Peace Message Calls for Wealth Redistribution” [sic]. While strictly true, the title was taken from one brief phrase within a long sentence deep in the piece that was (ironically) juxtaposed to a brief phrase about the promotion of growth:
In order to be true peacemakers, we must educate ourselves in compassion, solidarity, working together, fraternity, in being active within the community and concerned to raise awareness about national and international issues and the importance of seeking adequate mechanisms for the redistribution of wealth, the promotion of growth, cooperation for development and conflict resolution.
The title—and indeed, Rocca’s piece itself—skips the substance of the Pope’s message. And that’s unfortunate, for the message itself is radical, rooted in Benedict’s perennial theological concerns, and, if heeded, would actually do much to inspire peace and justice, rightly understood.
For Benedict does not envision peace and justice the way the world often does, as state-apportioned abundance of material goods and the mere absence of war, nor does he see the means for achieving them as matters of politics and technique. Rather, his vision is deeper: The Pope identifies the roots of the present crisis as cultural and anthropological, and calls for the education and moral formation of the young in justice and peace, addressing his remarks first to “parents, families and all those involved in the area of education and formation” and then other leaders. Indeed, the emphasis on the family as the first front of formation is notable and nowadays countercultural:
Where does true education in peace and justice take place? First of all, in the family, since parents are the first educators. The family is the primary cell of society; it is in the family that children learn the human and Christian values which enable them to have a constructive and peaceful coexistence. It is in the family that they learn solidarity between the generations, respect for rules, forgiveness and how to welcome others. The family is the first school in which we are trained in justice and peace.
The modern project has often seen the family as a problem to be overcome on the road to utopia brought about by state-sponsored public education. The late sociologist Norman Ryder asserted that public education is “the [state’s] chief instrument for teaching citizenship, in a direct appeal to children over the heads of their parents.”
But Benedict, a good Augustinian, knows that the human family, reflective of the image of God, the Holy Trinity, is the first front on the ongoing war against original sin, the primary school of discipleship. In contrast to regimes that attempt to create the conditions of justice and peace by undermining and destroying family ties, Benedict reminds us that justice and peace begin at home.
Most people assume that religion consists in saying “no” to most things, and thus the media naturally seize on whatever appears remotely negative. (If one read only the mainstream media, one would get the impression Popes do nothing but “blast,” “lament,” and “decry.”) It’s a pity, as Benedict has emphasized again and again that Christian faith is “yes”—God’s yes to us and our yes to God. Further, the media operate with the socio-political grids of the culture to which they are selling advertising, and right now in this political season the major fault-line lies between economic libertarians and liberals. Members of the media skew to the latter camp, and thus the headlines seized in on one line about the “redistribution of wealth” while ignoring the adjacent phrase about the “promotion of growth.”
As always, the Catholic faith represented by Benedict represents a true third way that cuts across the world’s ideological fault lines. Benedict will thus affirm neither raw economic libertarianism or liberalism. Rather, he reminds us that the second things of justice and peace flow from first things, here the family, the domestic church, the image of the triune God.
Leroy Huizenga is Director of the Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota. His most recent article in First Things is “The Collins Bank Bible.”
Pope Benedict XVI, “Educating Young People in Justice and Peace” (Message for the Celebration of the World Day of Peace, January 1)
Rome Reports: Pope's New Year's Angelus, “It's necessary and urgent to educate new generations”
FoxNews, “Pope Laments Christmas ‘Glitter’”
CNN, Pope Shuns Consumerism
Huffington Post, Pope Benedict Peace Message Calls for Wealth Redistribution
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