Pope Benedict’s ‘Affirmative Orthodoxy’

Here is another selection from John Allen’s observations on Friday. This is Allen’s explanation of Pope Benedict’s papal M.O. It seems to me that this explanation is more than plausible in assessing what makes this Holy Father tick.

What should we look for when Benedict XVI is in the United States?
At the level of media coverage, I suspect the two questions that will loom largest, especially in the early stages of the trip, is what Benedict XVI will say about the sexual abuse crisis, and whether there will be any fallout from his presence for the Catholic vote in the ’08 elections.

In terms of the pope’s own agenda, I expect variations on what has become a key theme of his papacy: “affirmative orthodoxy.” By that, I mean a tenacious defense of the core elements of classic Catholic doctrine, presented in a relentlessly positive key. Benedict appears convinced that the gap between the faith and contemporary secular culture has its roots in a widespread tendency to see Christianity as a largely negative system of prohibitions and controls. In effect, he wants to go back to the beginning, reintroducing Christianity from the ground up in terms of what it’s for rather than what it’s against.

Four examples of “affirmative orthodoxy”:

  • In Deus Caritas Est, Benedict presented a vision of sexual morality without rehearsing the church’s well-known prohibitions on birth control, abortion and gay marriage;
  • Benedict recently said that the church no longer requires the theological hypothesis of limbo, since it’s enough to trust in the loving mercy of God;
  • In Spe Salvi, Bendedict wrote that the doctrine of the Last Judgment is not a warning but a promise of hope;
  • In his Dec. 21 address to the Roman Curia, Benedict argued that the motive for mission is not that souls will otherwise be lost, but rather that so that the peace and reconciliation of the Kingdom of God can reach their maximum potential in history.

Of course, how persuasive “affirmative orthodoxy” will prove to modern women and men, or whether it ultimately does justice to the challenge presented by modernity, remains to be seen, but it does seem to be the most original flourish in Benedict’s teaching and “style.”

One final note of caution about the trip: Paradoxically, Benedict XVI is a master communicator who occasionally struggles with a communications problem. He’s a highly “Catholic-encoded” figure, meaning that he sometimes speaks a Catholic insider’s language that can be difficult for the outside world to follow. That can have explosive consequences, as we’ve seen in Regensburg, Brazil, and elsewhere. It will be interesting to watch how well the pope and his chief “translators” anticipate that danger this time around.