By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
In what is likely to be the most substantive and programmatic speech of his six-day trip to the United States, Pope Benedict XVI addressed the country’s Catholic bishops tonight, referring to the sexual abuse of children as an “evil” and bluntly conceding that the recent crisis in the church was “sometimes very badly handled.”
The language on sexual abuse will likely dominate news reports and after-the-fact discussion of the pope's speech this evening in Washington’s National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, but in reality the pope covered a great deal of additional ground. It merits a quick recap, especially given that many bishops were listening carefully to the speech for indications of how the pope wants to frame the future agenda of Catholicism in America.
Benedict warned that in an affluent society such as the United States, “the subtle of influence of materialism” can be an obstacle to encounter with God. Moreover, the pope said, materialism can breed a sort of me-first mentality that frays a sense of solidarity with others.
“In a society which values personal freedom and autonomy,” the pope said, “it is easy to lose sight of our dependence on others as well as the responsibilities that we bear towards them.”
Evangelization of Culture
Benedict called upon the bishops to lead a “renewed evangelization of culture,” beginning with a strong commitment to faith formation and religious education, and branching out to include engagement with pressing social issues.
“Yours is a respected voice,” the pope said, “that has much to offer to the discussion of the pressing social and moral questions of the day.”
Benedict observed that some Catholics don’t “think in harmony with the church’s teaching on today’s key ethical questions.” In response, the pope called for a stronger commitment to moral formation “at every level of ecclesiastical life,” on that reflects “the authentic teaching of the Gospel of Life.”
Later in the speech, Benedict pointed to “the scandal given by Catholics who promote an alleged right to abortion” as part of what he described as a tendency to “pick and choose” among the moral teachings of the church.
Benedict called the state of the family “a matter of deep concern,” saying that people should be “dismayed” about the “sharp decline of the family.” He pointed specifically to an “alarming increase” in Catholics living together without marriage, or who treat marriage as nothing more than a civil bond.
“It is your task to proclaim boldly the arguments from faith and reason in favor of the institution of marriage, understood as a lifelong commitment between a man and a woman, open to the transmission of life,” the pope said.
Benedict hit a note that has become a defining feature of his papacy – a strong call to traditional Catholic identity, but phrased in the most relentlessly positive fashion possible.
The pope stressed that a primary challenge facing the church in America is “cultivating a Catholic identity which is based not so much on externals as on a way of thinking and acting grounded in the Gospel and enriched by the church’s living tradition.
Without strong roots in tradition and the life of the church, Benedict warned, Catholics can drift into what he called a “silent apostasy.”
Yet at the same time, Benedict insisted that this sense of identity and roots has to be presented in a positive light, in order to render it attractive to the modern world.
“The Gospel has to be preached and taught as an integral way of life,” the pope said, “ offering an attractive and true answer, intellectually and practically, to real human problems.”
Reprising one of his most famous phrases, Benedict said that “the ‘dictatorship of relativism,’ in the end, is nothing less than a threat to genuine human freedom, which only matures in generosity and fidelity to the truth.”
Later, Benedict asked the bishops to present the “Catholic vision of reality … in an engaging and imaginative way.”