René Girard: The Papacy Defeated the West

815px-Matthias_-_Holy_Roman_Emperor_(Hans_von_Aachen,_1625)
Neither holy, nor Roman, nor emperor (Hans von Aachen, Matthias, Holy Roman Emperor, 1625; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100).

The medieval West is frequently identified with Christendom. Girard sets the record straight in Battling to the End by reminding his readers of the battles between pope and emperor, Church and state, characteristic of the period starting with the 9th c. until, basically, now.

Then he surprisingly says:

Between the papacy and the empire, it is the papacy that won.

But what could that possibly mean?

The Decalogue is perhaps the one contemporary film that comes closest to rendering a God's eye view of our times.
The Decalogue is perhaps the one contemporary film that comes closest to rendering a God’s eye view of our times.

Sometimes the connections between my readings pile up like the connections between characters in Kieslowski’s Decalogue. That’s when I need to unload here to see whether they actually make sense.

Unbeknownst to me the Wall Street article parading as a defense of Christendom was the start of one pile. It was clear to me that it was not a defense of Christianity. Nor was it really a defense of the Pax Christi of the Middle Ages, but a defense the decay of Christendom. It was a defense of the indefensible, machtpolitik (or Nietzsche), not Benedict XVI whom it claimed wrongly as its patron saint.

Right around the same time I  wrote that piece I started Houellebecq’s controversial novel Submission. I finished it yesterday sometime after I received news of Rene Girard’s passing. The plot of the novel revolves around the “takeover” of France by the Muslim Brotherhood, which then transforms the country along subtly Islamic lines, but the party’s real goal is to revive medieval Christendom. What’s more, Houellebecq seems to suggest that Islam is a religion better suited to a revived Christendom or Roman Empire (read: machtpolitik) because it is not burdened by the embarrassing weakness (kenosis) of the second person of the Trinity:

The idea of Christ’s divinity, Rediger went on, led directly to humanism and the “rights of man.” This too Nietzsche had already said, and in harsher terms, and for the same reasons he would certainly have signed on to the idea that Islam had a mission to rid the world of their pernicious doctrine of the incarnation.

As I got older, I also found myself agreeing more with Nietzsche, as is no doubt inevitable once your plumbing starts to fail. And I found myself more interested in Elohim, the sublime organizer of the constellations, than in his insipid offspring. Jesus had loved men too much, that was the problem; to let himself be crucified for their sake showed, at the very least, a lack of taste . . .

This brings me back to Rene Girard and his claims in Battling to the End about the papacy’s victory over the West and Empire, its reclamation of the idea of Christendom on theologically-authentic terms:

Battling to the End is one of the most thorough and fearless reflections on the post-9/11 world.
Battling to the End is one of the most thorough and fearless reflections on the post-9/11 world.

Of course that war [between papacy and the empire] was not always glorious, and naturally temporal concerns played a part in it. However, we have to understand it with a view to what John Paul II’s action [his various apologies, especially for the persecution of Jews], which closed the second millennium of the Christian era. When I say that the papacy won, I am thinking immediately of this repentance, by which the papacy triumphed over itself and acquired worldwide significance. Before our eyes, it succeeded in expelling all imperial ideas [unlike Byzantine Christianity as Girard says elsewhere in the book], at the very point when its temporal power disappeared. It has thus indeed been a struggle in which both sides put everything on the line, and the empire lost.

Girard is clearly making connections between John Paul II’s papacy and the essentially Pauline paradox of power in weakness. This is what the theologians call a theology of kenosis, that is, self-emptying to make space for the other instead of using force–as Christ did on the Cross in loving us too much (Houellebecq).

There is also an interesting connection between this and Remi Brague’s idea of Europe (something I explore in The West Was Never Western) as an eccentric culture whose strength lies in the weakness of borrowing its core principles from the cultural Other. I’ll have to think about this more.

Here’s something from John Paul II’s friend Bono on the need for repentance:

Girard is not the only outstanding recent Catholic or Christian thinker. There are still plenty of very influential living figures working in philosophypoetry, science, and fiction about whom believers who obsess about bygone Golden Ages and returning to the catacombs know nothing about. It is a real shame.

See also: How the speech Pope Francis gave in Congress was a Girardian moment.

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