Lessons from the pontiff

Pope Benedict XVI is often dubbed the “professor pope.” Which might well explain some of my strong affection for him, professor that I am. By now, everyone is familiar with Pope Benedict’s gift of clarity. And with his scholar’s gift for making bold and truthful claims while at the same time avoiding exaggeration. I have found him, too, a brilliant practitioner of the “holy grail” of talents (in my book): showing how faith illuminates reason while insisting simultaneously that faith needs reason in order to help it take root in this world. 

But Pope Benedict has taught me more than theology. His writings make spiritual demands upon me to a greater degree than those of any other theologian I have read (save, perhaps St. Paul, whose constant reiterating of how God can use even weak vessels to do good work keeps me going). In this brief tribute from one “daughter of the Church,” I would like to reflect on two of my favorite lessons taught by this pontiff.

‘The look of love’

My first favorite lesson, and the one that changed my daily life, was Pope Benedict’s admonition in his first encyclical Deus Caritas Est to “give [every person] the look of love which they crave.” First, this was very practical advice regarding how, realistically, to begin to live that whole Good Samaritan lifestyle thing. I have always found that story daunting and been tempted to avoid it. But if we remember that, in practice, God is asking us really to tend to those we encounter, those he puts in our “path,” not all of humanity as an undifferentiated bunch, then this is a task which might realistically be done. 

Second, I think a lot about how “invisible” so many struggling people are in our fast-paced world. Perhaps this is because I had a sibling whose disabilities made her invisible to a lot of people, and I saw how this hurt her. Now I live in a city (Washington, D.C.) with a lot of people whose work inclines us to think that we are doing important things. We are prone to overlooking the equally-made-in-God’s-image folks who park our cars and serve our lunch. I have noticed that demonstrating my belief in the radical equality and dignity of everyone I meet — giving them that “look of love which they crave” always graces the moment. It feels like a glimpse of the kingdom! I don’t know that I can explain it any better than that. It also has wonderful “side effects.” It helps you understand that whatever you are busy about, it could not possibly be as important as you think it is; there are simply too many human projects going on simultaneously for one to be so much more important than all the others! Also, the truth of St. Paul’s “many parts but one body” teaching becomes real before your eyes. Including the part of this teaching that insists that your work is in service to the rest of the body. 

I find this line of thought a great antidote to unhealthy ambition, and to fear that someone else will be better than I am at doing “x.” What they are doing is part of God’s plan, and what I am doing is part of God’s plan. Our works do not cancel each other out; they are each in service of a common good.

Concerning progress

My second favorite lesson concerns the meaning of progress. Like many people, when I think of the word “progress,” my mind wanders to matters like improved skills, material gain and technological or scientific developments. Apparently, this is a common problem. But Pope Benedict reminds us, that there is “ambiguity” and even danger in this view of progress. In Spe Salvi, he wrote: “In the 20th century, Theodor W. Adorno formulated the problem of faith in progress quite drastically: He said that progress, seen accurately, is progress from the sling to the atom bomb.” Pope Benedict’s advice? To “match” technical progress with “corresponding progress in man’s ethical formation, in man’s inner growth.” 

Human beings sense this to be true in their private and public lives. In fact, it is hard to avoid such a conclusion in a world grappling with everything from drones to stem cells, and from cosmetic surgery to sexual license. Benedict takes this intuition, puts it in straightforward language, and calls on us to meet the challenge. He provides me a rubric for questioning developments that fly under the banner of progress while undermining real love and freedom. He writes that “man’s freedom is always new and he must always make his decisions anew … .” We cannot point to material and scientific developments and call ourselves finished. Every person, every generation has to take up the central task by which we can measure real progress in the life of persons and communities: the task of learning to love as Christ loved. 

I can no longer look forward to almost daily doses of teaching from Pope Benedict. But I will always have the pleasure of trying to respond to the religious challenges he brilliantly posed in writing. 

Helen Alvaré is a law professor and the editor of “Breaking Through” (OSV, $16.95).