It has been interesting watching the papacy of Benedict XVI. He's really not any more conservative that John Paul II, but he lacks the charisma of his predecessor. And so a visit to Germany suggests warm greetings on the part of some, protests on the part of others. Benedict makes nice at times with Protestants, but he has no energy for it, so a visit to Luther's Germany doesn't bolster confidence. But, as Martin Marty suggests, the protests that accompanied the papal visit to Germany are in themselves signs of life in an era when apathy is more likely to be the response to the church and to faith. At least they still care. I invite you to read and then consider the issue of apathy in the religious world. Do people really care?
-- Martin E. Marty
Almost all of the headlines have ambiguity or tension written into them, as the stories they banner or the issues on which they report tug in opposite directions. One side reflects tender themes: “Homecoming,” “Faithful,” (twice), and “Native” give reason to picture the German Pope heading happily for Germany, where he spent most of his years. The other side is just the opposite: “Combative,” “Turmoil,” “Protest” and “Protesters.”
Were this a report of 500 years ago, the most traumatic challenge would be “Luther,” and the name and legacy may leave the Pope half-fulfilled with an agenda calling for “Change.” Today it troubles him less than all the rest. True, the headline cited includes the positive word “Reverence,” but even that headline points to a benumbing motif which outweighs almost everything else said: “Apathy.”
Popes, especially those as intelligent, experienced, and surrounded by counsel as Benedict XVI is, can argue their way out of challenges, ignore what does not please them, or offer softeners against the blows. What one thinks of critics and challenges depends upon who is looking in or looking on: aggrieved and outraged parents who feel they have not been heard or who are thwarted when they protest clerical abuse. These include women denied ordination, and some other intra-Catholic issues which needn’t directly concern the five-sixth of the world that is not Catholic of the Roman obedience.
Get past these, and then observe Catholics, Europeans, Christians in most parts of the world—half paralyzed or shaken by that word “Apathy.” The stories, taken together, suggest that the grievances and protests of the faithful should be at least signs of life. They are the voices of the faithful who still care enough to rise above apathy and inertia. The problem of which the pontiff is assuredly aware is that apathy has led millions of Europeans to vacate the pews, check out of the liturgies, stop participating in church-inspired works of love and maybe, as they exit the chapels and cathedrals, forget about those works of love entirely.
Knowing about apathy is one thing, but as these stories and all reports of the lead-up to the papal visit suggest, knowing what to do is another. The pope can be friendly to Lutherans, an ecumenical signaler of hope to those called “the faithful,” a greeter to people of other faiths. But he should have learned by now that “warning” does little in complex situations. German and European Catholics argue: does the Pope’s discouragement of the hopeful people who once flocked to the movement of aggiornamento and to generous ecumenism four decades ago contribute to the problems? He does not pretend that things are going well: all the statistics and cultural evidences challenge him. This apathy is not merely an isolated sign of a short and mild setback, but a symptom among populations which have simply lost faith in God, love for the Church, and the ability to care about them.
Martin E. Marty's biography, publications, and contact information can be found at www.memarty.com.
In this month’s Religion and Culture Web Forum, Curtis L. Thompson asks how dance helps us to understand both the relationship of God to the world and the reality of religion. Thompson seeks to challenge Christian thought to account for experiences outside the church—not only dancing, but also “music, theater, film and television, play, work, food and eating, [etc.]." Thompson also wants to confront our present dis-ease with the body. “The goal,” he writes, “is to lift up a God who embraces the creation in all its variegated particularity and to regard creation’s fulfillment as taking place within the God-enveloped network of connectedness.”----------
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.