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May 18, 2022

‘Gospelisation of culture’

John Paul II was a travelling Pope by excellence, the most active Bishop of Rome in history, given the facilities that air travel offered him. His successor, despite being elected at a venerable age, could not have lowered the bar of this new form of papal responsibility, pastoral, missionary and political alike.

While more contested than John Paul II, Benedict XVI has not ducked controversial destinations. This is also the case with his recent visit to Great Britain. In a country where atheist advertising on the famous red double-decker buses went as far as to urge people to peacefully sleep on Sunday morning, as there is no such thing as God, in the home country of Anglicanism, a religious denomination increasingly prepared for the religious formalization of same-sex marriages, and with a tradition already of ordaining women as priests, in a state more multicultural than many others in the European Union, with a religious competition far from cheerful, in an extremely secularized society that is an influent promoter of a new humanism, immune and at times intolerant towards Christian values, a Pope with a reputation for being a rigid and retrograde conservative could not have been relaxed about his visit.

The more so as the latest anti-Catholic campaign against the debauched clergy accused of paedophilia still strikes a chord with the public. Benedict XVI had to face the following issue head on: The Catholic Church must show penitence, but also make proof of accountability of renewing. The abuses shall not be played down or concealed. It would be counterproductive in a world dominated by advertising values. However, there is a need for courage to overcome a defensive and suspicious attitude in a matter of a nature to seriously hurt the credibility of the Church and its clergy.

It is true nonetheless that the solutions advanced by the Pope may appear as ineffective as it is all too easy to simply label the paedophile priests as mentally diseased or speak of the need of addressing the traumas of those abused. The pressure by a culture promoting erotic perversions is overwhelming. It is not just the Catholic priests that fall prey to it, abut also Protestant pastors, politicians or opinion makers. There is a rollercoaster of sexual scandals, with promoters of ‘family values’ and ‘moral reform’ themselves often among their protagonists. Under such conditions of expanded pornographic advertising and libertine mentality, enhanced vulnerability of unmarried clergy is a Catholic particularity. It should be reminded that the reserve showed to the demand of celibacy is one of the chief reasons for which the number of those willing to join the Catholic clergy has dropped significantly over the past decades.

It didn’t just happen that Benedict XVI reminded several times during his visit of the role played by secularism. The Catholic Church, which has been confronted for at least two centuries with aggressive secularization, had to gradually get used to toning down its proverbial clericalism. The issue is both moral and institutional. The Vatican has encouraged all kind of associations, mainly in the context of the new conditionings required by modern democracies, yet moral accountability in the social context remains personal nonetheless. The core issue here is the status of the Christian in a pluralist world values wise. The Christian cannot just withdraw themselves to the social and spiritual security of their own identity group. The strong tendencies towards privatizing religious faith and its practices show the deep tension between a ghetto-like perspective, where you practice your religious identity within symbolical or even local confines, and that of assuming your religious faith socially. If in the past, the Catholic Church was tempted into state-level agreements, now the focus is on promoting a Christian meaning of political and cultural freedom, in competition with others of different foundations.

It all boils down to what Benedict XVI called the ‘gospelisation of culture’. The culture at the root of societies once basically Christian has been watered down and submitted to spiritual cross-breeding. The Pope called for the courage to also promote Christian values, even if at odds with the dominant culture. Such tension is also tied to the realism of the Christian faith. Actually, Christians need to rediscover their faith, purged by damaging fakes and adaptations. Actually, the Vatican has recently set up a Pontifical Council for the gospelisation of the countries with a long standing Christian tradition. Europe thus becomes, again, a place for Christian missionarism. Libertine mores, a strong neo-pagan culture, a centrifugal society, the reign of relativism and a neurotic reaction to it – fanaticism – political idolatry, religious syncretism, they are all features of a contemporary age that appears to overlap that during the first centuries of Christianity.

The forms of virulent atheism accompanied by political persecution (the communist regimes in the first place, but the Nazi one as well) makes room now for a ‘cultural’ intolerance pushing towards a privatized/ghettoized Christianity in the name of ‘freedom’, ‘tolerance’, ‘multiculturalism’ etc. Anything else aside, contemporary papacy lives up to a pressing challenge: to spiritually guide a planetary Church by facing so many spiritual and political trends. Even if the fairness of the options could be disputed punctually, this example of moral and spiritual responsibility is worthy to be followed by the Orthodox world as well, more low key and reticent to this ‘gospelisation of culture’.

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