In a rather surprising concession, Pope Benedict XVI has tacitly acknowledged that religion is losing its credibility. In an address to the faithful at Saint Peter's Square, he said, "Today we are all in danger of living as if God did not exist: He seems too far away from today's life."
As a remedy, the Pope invoked Blessed Angela of Foligno, a 13th century mystic who, according to the Pontiff, gained her piety through extraordinary suffering.
Having been born into a wealthy family in the Italian city of Foligno, the pre-Blessed Angela lived what the Pontiff called "a worldly life." Even after losing her father, she had little regard for religion and nothing but contempt for its penitent followers. After a couple of natural disasters -- an earthquake and a hurricane -- plus the ill effects of war with Perugia, Angela had a vision of Saint Francis of Assisi and began to feel a touch of good old Catholic guilt for her sins.
Still, it took total devastation of her life -- the sudden deaths of her mother, her husband, and all her children -- to push "blessed" Angela over the line. She sold all her remaining goods and joined the Third Order of St. Francis.
It just goes to show, as the Pontiff delicately put it, that "God has a thousand ways, for each one, of making himself present in the soul, of showing that he exists and that he knows and loves me."
Call me a crank, but I think Hank Williams has a better chance of knocking Justin Bieber off the Top-10 charts than the Pope has of recalling young people to the Mother Church with tales like this.
For one thing, back in the day, when priests told Angela that bad events in her life were the direct result of her sins, she had no better choice than to believe them. What else could explain earthquakes, hurricanes or plagues? Science had no role in medieval European life.
Humanity would have to await the coming of the Enlightenment and the rise of the scientific method before we could understand that natural forces with their totally impersonal paths of action can best explain such disasters.
Thanks to science, most people in the developed world live lives untouched by the kinds of horrific tragedy that were commonplace in Blessed Angela's day. Through vaccination, we rid the world of smallpox and suppressed dozens of other contagious diseases. Today, we are within a few thousand cases of eliminating polio.
Earthquakes and hurricanes are still with us, but better building codes and early warnings keep casualties to a minimum. So, for most people in the developed world, religion is an affirmation of their lives, not a guilt-ridden, fear-of-damnation-driven set of sacrifices.
Of course the Pope may have had the Third World in mind. God knows there is a plenty of suffering there. But does anyone still believe that belief in God is the answer to suffering? Now that we know that human suffering can be alleviated through rational and humane action, why would anyone favor penitence over progress?