If Benedict XVI truly is a cultural warrior, he's a curiously stealth version. Quite often in the last seven years, when people expected him to come out swinging, he's pulled his punches instead. On his recent foray into Mexico, for instance, Benedict avoided any direct mention of either abortion or gay marriage, despite the fact that Mexico City is among the first jurisdictions in Latin America to legalize both.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the great "Doctor No" of the Catholic church in his quarter-century as the Vatican's doctrinal czar, has actually turned out to be the pope of what I've termed "Affirmative Orthodoxy." It's an approach to church teaching that emphasizes the Catholic "yes" -- putting the accent on what Catholicism supports and affirms rather than what it opposes and condemns.
Benedict's rhetoric, either on the hustings or in Rome, could rarely be described as "hard-hitting." Typically it's gentle, basically positive and rooted in core Christian principles and concepts rather than the issues of the day.
The pope's most detailed explanation of Affirmative Orthodoxy came in a 2006 interview with German journalists just after his visit to Valencia, Spain, for a World Congress of Families. Handicappers had anticipated a Fight-of-the-Century-style showdown with Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, who loomed as an avatar of radical secularism. Instead, Benedict accented the positive, insisting before a crowd of more than 1 million people: "Christian faith and ethics are not meant to stifle love, but to make it healthier, stronger and more truly free."
Reporters pressed Benedict to explain his approach. Here's the exchange, as it was recorded by the German radio outlet Deutsche Welle:
Benedict XVI: Obviously, yes. Actually I had only two opportunities to speak for 20 minutes, and when you have so little time you can't say everything you want to say about "no." Firstly you have to know what we really want, right? Christianity, Catholicism, isn't a collection of prohibitions: it's a positive option. It's very important that we look at it again because this idea has almost completely disappeared today. We've heard so much about what is not allowed that now it's time to say: we have a positive idea to offer ... I believe we need to see and reflect on the fact that it's not a Catholic invention that man and woman are made for each other, so that humanity can go on living: all cultures know this. As far as abortion is concerned, it's part of the fifth, not the sixth, commandment: "Thou shalt not kill!" We have to presume this is obvious and always stress that the human person begins in the mother's womb and remains a human person until his or her last breath. ... But all this is clearer if you say it first in a positive way.
That formula -- a tenacious defense of Catholic orthodoxy coupled with a determination to phrase it in the most positive key possible -- has run through Benedict's teaching like a scarlet thread, especially his three encyclicals.