Thursday, 5 February 2009

Times: The anti-moralist who became Pope

Thursday, 5th February 2009 by Ranier Fsadni

When Joseph Ratzinger was elected Pope, almost four years ago, many things were predicted. But puzzlement about the coherence of his actions was not one of them.

In recent weeks, however, many Catholics have wondered aloud. Pope Benedict has lifted the excommunication on four bishops who belong to an organisation, the Society of St Pius X, which has a history of deep anti-Semitism.

Cardinal Walter Kaspar, who is in charge of Vatican-Jewish relations, has washed his hands of the decision. The theologian Nicholas Lash has written that it is not at all clear that the four bishops have disavowed the various other points on which they contradict the teaching of the Catholic Church since Vatican II.

In Malta, greater coverage has been given to Pope Benedict's Christmas address to the Roman curia. This is the speech in which he was widely misreported as saying that the world needed saving from homosexuality. He did not actually mention homosexuality explicitly when speaking of threats that could destroy the conditions of proper human existence. He referred to "gender theory" (in English), although in a context where it was clear that he believes that any sexual consummation outside heterosexual marriage de-natures the people involved and the society that legitimises it.

Anyone watching Xarabank last Friday would have noticed that the clarifications given by Archbishop Paul Cremona and the Acting Vicar General, Fr Anton Gouder, seemed heartless to many audience members; puzzlingly so: How could a religion based on love, it was repeatedly asked, substitute it with suffering?

The puzzlement should be underlined. Pope Benedict's theological nemesis, Hans Kueng, has recently come out to say that this Papacy is confirming all the fears expressed at its beginning. Others are pointing out that the Vatican's numbers for the weekly Papal audiences show sharp drops for each of the last two years. But all this was supposed to be in response to unpalatable doctrines enunciated by a Pope who was all of a piece.

Instead, what we have are people wondering how the doctrines and actions hang together. What we need, if only as observers trying to understand in which direction a major social force is being led, is an account of Joseph Ratzinger's theology that explores what makes it cohere.

Tracey Rowland's Ratzinger's Faith (Oxford) does this. The author is professor at the John Paul II Institute in Melbourne and for some reason she abstains from any critical appraisal of her subject's thought. As a result, Pope Benedict, who has written on a very wide range of subjects, tends to emerge as the world's top expert on Western civilisation, Islam, gender, sexology, aesthetics and political philosophy, apart from theology. But a unified vision emerges as well.

Two important and surprising points surface. First, Joseph Ratzinger is an anti-moralist. If by moralising one understands the formulation of a system of general moral principles which one must obey like a law, then he is against it.

For Pope Benedict, religion is not a system of laws; it is intense immersion in life. It is why he gives so much importance to liturgy and to the aesthetically more satisfying Tridentine rite: it should flood the pores of the skin with the past and the future, call each person to magnificence.

Understand that and one understands better what seems to be an overly doctrinaire concern with what church music is appropriate, whether people should kneel in prayer and whether inter-religious prayer should be encouraged.

According to Pope Benedict, it is people like Kueng, trying to distill all the major world religions' teachings into one global ethic, who are the moralisers. And they will never get anywhere because such moral systems neglect the heart and its dramatic encounters, especially with Christ.

If the heart is so important, how come Pope Benedict can be caricaturised as heartless (or at least, pitiless)?

Enter the second surprising point: the disciplinarian is obsessed with the conditions that permit freedom. The conditions of liberty are what bring together his writings on faith, science, Islam and gender.

He thinks that real fundamentalism is the divorce between faith and reason. They are never "pure" on their own. Human beings are dependent, rational animals: dependent on God but with a rational structure in their lives.

Jettisoning reason carries the familiar risk of loss of critical transformation. But freedom is also lost if people begin to think they are accidental tourists who can morph into anything they like because they will lose touch with their creative power. It will also make one vulnerable to state power's social experiments.

Pope Benedict clearly thinks that the cultural tragedy of the West's last few centuries has been the divorce between faith and reason, which he believes exposes Western societies to the tyrannies of conventional wisdom, some of which may be impossible to reverse. That, at any rate, is his position. It is a pity that it is rarely presented adequately, even by his own followers. It would be challenged by scholars with sophisticated methodologies of the sociology of Islam, gender and science. But, unlike caricatures, it is also a position worth challenging. It shows an anxious grasp of how modern science has altered our cultural understanding of truth, being and having.

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