Pre-modern pope faces post-whatever Europe

20050419_elezione.jpgThe noted American Catholic theologian Maureen Dowd has already served up the official talking points for the first wave of coverage of Pope Benedict XVI. This pretty much covers the terrain, which the MSM is covering with various degrees of depth and balance. Ready?

The white smoke . . . signaled that the Vatican thinks what it needs to bring it into modernity is the oldest pope since the 18th century: Joseph Ratzinger, a 78-year-old hidebound archconservative who ran the office that used to be called the Inquisition and who once belonged to Hitler Youth. For American Catholics — especially women and Democratic pro-choice Catholic pols — the cafeteria is officially closed. After all, Cardinal Ratzinger, nicknamed “God’s Rottweiler” and “the Enforcer,” helped deny Communion rights to John Kerry and other Catholic politicians in the 2004 election.

Has the Roman Catholic Church actually established a civil right to receive Communion? I thought that was linked, somehow, with going to confession and being in union with the Church’s teachings. In other words, I think bishops and cardinals and folks like that do have a historic role to play in deciding who is OK and who is not OK.

But I digress. The key theme in much of the early coverage has been the new pope’s status as an anti-modern thinker, which would make him a pre-modern thinker.

The irony, of course, is that this man comes out of the heart of liberal Catholic academia in the spiritually chilly confines of modern Europe. The man knows modernity inside out and probably speaks pretty fluent postmodernism, to boot. In other words, he is a traitor to his class.

The smoking-gun document in all of these discussions is the remarkable sermon — a true statement, even if you hated it — that then-Cardinal Ratzinger preached immediately before the start of the conclave. Here is the money quote:

How many winds of teaching we have known in these last decades, how many ideologies, how many ways of thinking. . . . The little vessel of thought of many Christians has often been rocked by these waves — hurled from one extreme to another: from Marxism to liberalism, to the point of libertinism; from collectivism to radical individualism; from atheism to a vague religious mysticism; from agnosticism to syncretism and so forth. New sects are born every day and we see what Saint Paul says in terms of human trickery and cunning that tends to lead to error (cf Eph 4:14). To have a clear faith, according to the Creed of the Church, is often labelled as fundamentalism. While relativism, i.e. letting oneself be “swept along by any wind of doctrine”, seems to be the only up-to-date way to behave. A dictatorship of relativism is taking shape which recognizes nothing as definite and for the ultimate measure is simply one’s own self and its desires.

We, instead, have another measure: the Son of God, the true man. He is the measure of true humanism.

This is one of those documents that you really need to read for yourself, so click here. I promise you that Andrew Sullivan is saving a copy.

If you are looking for sympathetic commentary on the new pope, his beliefs and where those beliefs came from, you might want to check out this essay by Pope John Paul II biographer George Weigel, posted at the Ethics & Public Policy Center’s homepage. Here is his take on the whole pre-modern issue, which notes what I predict is the main theme in the next, more serious, wave of coverage — this pope and his take on the spiritual crisis of modern Europe and, thus, the future of North America:

Benedict XVI has long been concerned that the West risks the possibility of a new Dark Age. What he described in a sermon on the day before his election as a new “dictatorship of relativism” is one dimension of the problem. If there is only “your truth” and “my truth” and nothing that we understand as “the truth,” then on what principled basis is the West to defend its greatest accomplishments: equality before the law, tolerance and civility, religious freedom and the rights of conscience, democratic self-governance? If the only measure of us is us, isn’t the horizon of our aspiration greatly foreshortened? (And if you want to see what that kind of metaphysical and spiritual boredom can do to a once-great civilization, look around Western Europe, where self-absorption and a stubborn resistance to saying that anything is “true” has led a continent to the brink of demographic suicide.)

Weigel notes one event for the media to carve on the calendar as a must — World Youth Day, in Pope Benedict’s homeland. That is 117 days away, according to the event’s press-friendly homepage.

The other must-cover scene has not been put on the calendar yet, but I think it is safe to assume it will come relatively soon. If it does not, then that is a huge story.

Think about it: What will this pope say when he addresses a gathering of European Union leaders? This is the mind behind the Vatican’s harsh critique of the EU’s entire approach to faith, secularism and the post-Christian reality of Europe. Watch for that tense media dance to begin — pronto.

We thought this conclave would center on the Third World. It may end up sending shock waves — if modern Catholicism still has the power to trigger shock waves — through postmodern or pre-Muslim Europe.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Winston7000

    Terry, what a fine post with great links. Thank you.

    God moves in very strange and inscrutable ways through our individual and collective human lives.
    Though we have abused His gift of free will, yet He continually sends messengers and teachers of love, hope and courage to us. Such was John Paul II. Such is Benedict XVI.

    As Jesus so often points out, the messengers and prophets of God are so often abused, killed, and slandered by those who prefer the transient comforts of Mammon. The narrow road of Christ is too much for them.

    Yet, in the end, especially in light of the last one hundred years of terror and horror, it is all that we have to guide us home. All.

  • http://blogs.salon.com/0003494/ Bartholomew

    Why does Weigel get a free pass everywhere? The guy’s a conservative polemicist whose stock in trade is self-righteous, overblown rhetoric. Just where exactly are all these “relativists”?(a question Jeff Sharlett recently asked)

    Is there any chance that someone might consider the possibility that European secularism can actually be a morally serious enterprise? Or that the failures of religion may have caused secularisation? Or are we just going to party like it’s 1870?

  • Fred

    What an excellent post by Tmatt. How refreshing the honesty of this new Pope in this age of “nuance”, a fitting successor of John Paul II who paved the way for Benedict. He reminds us of who were trully are. Without a firm grasp of our identity we can make no steps forward. Without an honest assessment of the path we are on, we can make no changes.
    How sad Maureen Dowd appears. She seems to see only her limitations and looks for someone to blame.

  • Dev Thakur

    “Just where exactly are all these “relativists”?(a question Jeff Sharlett recently asked) ”

    Is this a serious question? I went to public school in the U.S., studied at a state university, and am now at another state university in a different part of the country. Relativism has been part and parcel of my education since as far back as I can remember. Relativism is in the newspapers, it was in my textbooks . . . my parents are sympathetic to it it and are quite concerned that I’ve abandoned it. This question is almost unfathomable from the point of view of a non-relativist living in today’s world. Not all homosexual activists or pro-choice activists or anti-religion activists are moral relativists, but can you deny it’s the #1 absolutely most common nearly-all-pervasive philosophical basis for their positions?

    “Is there any chance that someone might consider the possibility that European secularism can actually be a morally serious enterprise?”

    No. A philosophy that doubts the existence of morality cannot be a morally serious enterprise.

    “Or that the failures of religion may have caused secularisation?”

    I don’t recall Benedict XVI affirming or denying this. The fact is that secularism exists, and it is diametrically opposed to absolutism. And that’s a problem because one of the absolutisms is the Absoluteness of Jesus Christ.

  • Dev Thakur

    “Just where exactly are all these “relativists”?(a question Jeff Sharlett recently asked)”

    Is this a serious question? I went to public school in the U.S., studied at a state university, and am now at another state university in a different part of the country. Relativism has been part and parcel of my education since as far back as I can remember. Relativism is in the newspapers, it was in my textbooks . . . my parents are sympathetic to it it and are quite concerned that I’ve abandoned it. This question is almost unfathomable from the point of view of a non-relativist living in today’s world. Not all homosexual activists or pro-choice activists or anti-religion activists are moral relativists, but can you deny it’s the #1 absolutely most common nearly-all-pervasive philosophical basis for their positions?

    “Is there any chance that someone might consider the possibility that European secularism can actually be a morally serious enterprise?”

    No. A philosophy that doubts the existence of morality cannot be a morally serious enterprise.

    “Or that the failures of religion may have caused secularisation?”

    I don’t recall Benedict XVI affirming or denying this. The fact is that secularism exists, and it is diametrically opposed to absolutism. And that’s a problem because one of the absolutisms is the Absoluteness of Jesus Christ.

  • Bob

    You have Dowd in your sites – and such targets are worth the effort to bring down. Unfortunately, there’s more where she came from: Anyone who thinks the ranks of serpent-tongued NY Times scribes will not be replenished when Dowd and her ilk pass from the scene will be disabused of the notion when they read what college newspapers are spewing.

    The student opinion piece here: http://www.pacepress.org/news/2005/04/13/OpinionsEditorials/Passion.For.The.Christ.Alienates.Some.Members.Of.University.Community-925851.shtml
    is not atypical of what may be found in administration-sanctioned college student newspapers these days – and its puerile sarcasm ought to strike a nerve (the one that controls vomiting). Don’t expect its being labeled hate speech.

  • Stephen A.

    I’m glad others have chimed in to answer the (apparently serious) question “Just where exactly are all these ‘relativists’?”

    This is clearly not a boogie man invented in the minds of Rightwingers, but a living, breathing monster that has infected academia, and even religion.

    Benedict XVI is right to have spent his career focusing on and exposing relativism as a culprit for the anti-religious wave that has washed across Europe (and indeed, all of Western civilization) in the last few decades. He will find many supporters for that view both in and out of his Faith.

  • http://moronikos.com/blog moronikos

    Well, Mo Dowd is one feisty, attractive, red head, but I doubt if she ever serves any cafeteria food at one of her upscale soirees. As for the cafeteria being closed, I think it’s too early to tell.

  • http://blogs.salon.com/0003494/ Bartholomew

    “I went to public school in the U.S., studied at a state university, and am now at another state university in a different part of the country. Relativism has been part and parcel of my education since as far back as I can remember.”

    I went to public school in the UK – I’d be interested to hear how “relativism” informed your US education. But I’ll concede that some positions are actually relativist, even if their adherents would deny the term: for example, the calls by Creationists for their religious theories to be given the status of science is a relativist attack on scientific methodology.

    But I’m sceptical that moral relativism is what drives Europe, and I object to the claim that secularism “doubts the existence of morality”. Why do many people support gay rights, for example? Because they see the religious objections to homosexuality as oppressive and bullying. You can argue with that, but it’s not relativism – it’s a serious moral position.

    If the secular press needs to “get religion”, it would be good to see religious people showing us all how it’s done by “getting secularism”.

  • Stephen A.

    I guess those of us in the USA and those in the UK really are two peoples separated by the same language, since those definitions are pretty far from our standard understanding of them on this side of the pond.

    Moral relativism manifests itself in just the ways you describe them, but oddly, you’ve declined to label them as such. In fact, they are just the opposite as you describe.

    Perhaps it comes from living in the land of Orwell. How quaint.

  • Stephen A.

    And I have to say, our mass media clearly “gets secularism.” In fact, they get it so well, they insist that its the standard view, and that religious people and religious ideas are the abberations, rather than the other way around.

    I know those in Europe may not recognize this phenomenon, or even see it as a threat, since this has likely been the standard position for the last four or five decades. (Interestingly, that proves the point about secularization of Europe Benedict has been making, doesn’t it?)

  • Kevin

    “But I’m sceptical that moral relativism is what drives Europe,…”

    O.k., what moral absolutes are widely held in Europe? Take all the time you need to answer.

  • http://blogs.salon.com/0003494/ Bartholomew

    Stephen A:
    “Moral relativism manifests itself in just the ways you describe them, but oddly, you’ve declined to label them as such.”

    I assume you mean my gay rights example. But I didn’t “decline” to label it as such; I explained why it is wrong to label it as such. The drive to allow civil unions for gay people is based on serious the moral position that not allowing gay people to marry is discriminatory, and that discrimination is wrong (a lesson learned only after a lot of bloodshed).

    “Interestingly, that proves the point about secularization of Europe Benedict has been making, doesn’t it?”

    I don’t recall disputing the reality of secularization; I’m only criticing the reductionist way it is laid at the door of “relativism”.

    Kevin:

    “O.k., what moral absolutes are widely held in Europe?”

    Well, we tend to frown on things like murder, theft, rape, torture, and so on. Human rights and environmentalism are also quite popular. What did you think the answer would be? And how is this different from the USA?

  • http://victorysoap.us/ Andrea Harris

    I don’t think Bartholomew understood the question. I don’t think Bartholomew is capable of understanding the question. I’ll try, though:

    Bartholomew, why are things like rape and murder “frowned upon”? What makes them wrong? That’s where moral relativists and moral absolutists differ: relativists say they are wrong because they are bad for society, or they hurt people, or they are detrimental to the full development of a human being, and so on. And there they stop. A moral absolutists says yes, all that is true, but acts such as murder and rape are at base wrong because they are evil.

  • http://victorysoap.us/ Andrea Harris

    “Evil” was supposed to be in italics by the way. I forgot to use preview.

  • Stephen A.

    Bartholomew: My point was that you seemed eager to illustrate “relativism” by noting views that were clearly “absolutist” and not relativist at all. Thus, you’ve confused the terms, perhaps for comic effect.

    For example, Catholics and others who are against gay marraige don’t use the argument that it’s simply “unfair” for the pope not to sanction it or for the State to disallow it. That’s actually the relativist view which you put forth, i.e. “Who are we to say what’s wrong?”

    In contrast, opponents point to thousands of years of traditional marriage and Church teachings and Tradition to bolter their position.

    But you’ve said just the opposite. Odd, I usually get Brit humor.

  • http://blogs.salon.com/0003494/ Bartholomew

    Andrea:
    “relativists say they are wrong because they are bad for society, or they hurt people, or they are detrimental to the full development of a human being, and so on.”

    Well, I suppose that is “relativism” in one sense of the word: morality is developed in relation to human interactions. But the argument so far has been that secularists do not have any sense of right and wrong, and that is how “relativism” is defined by Benedict and co.

    “A moral absolutists says yes, all that is true, but acts such as murder and rape are at base wrong because they are evil.”

    I thought religious people see these acts as wrong because a supernatural being wishes us to behave differently. Both religious and non-religious people can understand the idea of “evil”.

    Stephen A:
    “For example, Catholics and others who are against gay marriage don’t use the argument that it’s simply “unfair” for the pope not to sanction it or for the State to disallow it.”

    So how is calling something “unfair” a relativist position?

    “That’s actually the relativist view which you put forth, i.e. “Who are we to say what’s wrong?””

    I thought that even most religious people (at least in the west) understand that while certain things should not be allowed, it is not always the job of the state to enforce morality. Up until the 1960s homosexuals risked being imprisoned just for their sex lives. Is it “relativist” for that no longer to be the case? I understand the religious/cultural objections to gay marriage. But I don’t think you understand why some people take a different view.

  • Stephen A.

    Granted, what the State allows, or disallows, is entirely separate from what Religion permits. All things “legal” are not necessarily “moral” or faithful to a religion’s teachings.

    But the point here, and the one the new pope has been making for decades, is how one arrives at the decision in the first place.

    Relativism is one way some arrive at their moral positions, while others get to those positions using longstanding tradition and/or from within their Faith’s teachings and scripture, which are likely to teach “absolutes” regarding moral action.

    Relativists would simply rely on current circumstances, one’s own best judgement or trial and error. Hence, the difference between the relativist and “absolutlist.”

    Therefore, it’s easy to get to a position where a polygamist may say “It’s unfair and discriminatory that the three of us cannot be married.” But if a Catholic or Protestant looks at it from an absolutist viewpoint, they will draw the conclusion that longstanding teachings of their Faith guide them to the right answer.

    Of course if you hold a secularist view of society, you may find reliance on any kind of informed religious belief to make laws abhorent, and simply take it out of the discusion altogether and just move forward with any number of untried experiments in social engineering.

    Worked well for the French in the 1790s, after all, didn’t it?

    To keep this on topic, we rarely hear this kind of analysis in the mass media. We simply hear advocates for the secularist view telling religious people to keep their damned hands off legislation. That’s not a balanced discussion, just a rabid, unreasoned demand.

  • Fred

    ‘secularists do not have any sense of right and wrong, and that is how “relativism” is defined by Benedict and co.’

    I don’t think so. Benedict and co. define “relativism” as that individual’s sense of right and wrong being developed from subjectives sources rather than an objective ultimate authority.

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