It can be tempting to judge the papacy, the world’s longest continuously functioning institution, by its various historical stages that often have little relevance to the modern office. While the Chair of Peter remains the central teaching medium of the Roman Catholic Church, it is safe to say that the challenges faced by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI are not the challenges faced by Pope Adrian I (772 – 795) or even Pope Leo XIII (1878 – 1903). The papacy is always acting in response to an ever-changing world, while remaining rooted in the truth of the Gospel.
In The Modern Papacy, Acton’s Director of Research Samuel Gregg notes that the “…popes recognizing that the political, social, and religious culture of modernity was one in which Catholicism would be obliged to live, move and have its being.” This engagement between culture and the papacy has been one of critique, or as Gregg says, affirming “what the Church considers to be good in modernity without ignoring its shortcomings.”
One criticism often hurled at the Catholic Church is its (at best) “old-fashioned” view of human sexuality. Yet, John Paul II arguably wrote more about sexuality than anyone in the Church’s history. He taught that modernity reduced people to objects of pleasure, rather than beings created to pursue virtue.
It was only a few short years ago that Pope Benedict XVI faced down criticism for his speech at Regensburg addressing faith and reason. Again, Sam Gregg:
[A}bove all, Regensburg asked the West to look itself in the mirror and consider whether some of its inner demons reflected the fact that it, like the Islamic world, was undergoing an inner crisis: one which was reducing Christian faith to subjective opinion, natural reason to the merely measurable, and love to sentimental humanitarianism. The West, Benedict suggested, was in the process of a closing of its own mind.
If there is one thing the most modern of popes have been willing to do is to enter into dialogue with the modern world. To judge the papacy as it stands today by any other standard is to wholly misunderstand the role of pope and the legacies of men like Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI. As Gregg points out, “the developments at the level of politics, technology and culture made necessary an even more urgent discussion” by the popes to engage the world as it is, not as it appears in the rear-view mirror of history.
Read Samuel Gregg’s The Modern Papacy.