Maybe Big Ben’s not so bad after all

BenedictThank you to all the readers who sent along their favorite or least favorite stories published this past weekend. There are too many to get to, but I’ll begin with The New York Times Sunday Magazine‘s cover story on Pope Benedict XVI. Good timing on that piece, as it ran on Easter Sunday. The author is Russell Shorto, who has written previously for the magazine on people who oppose contraception and people who oppose gay marriage. Both of those pieces took a liberal view not out of place in the Sunday Magazine. But Shorto is a good writer who researches his topics better than, well, the average New York Times Sunday Magazine author. Not that that’s saying much.

Anyway, I’m sure there are many legitimate quibbles or gripes with the piece, and I’m curious what readers thought about it, but color me impressed. The piece is long (8,294 words!) and covers so much. Its main focus is The Pope Formerly Known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s emphasis on the threat of secularism — but it hits New (lay) Movements, Ratzinger’s background and the worldly and church context into which Benedict speaks. I kept wishing each aspect was its own piece since Shorto took the time to read the Pope’s speeches, visit actual congregations, and consider nuance. Shorto says Benedict’s papal theme is that Europe is moving toward a dictatorship of relativism that recognizes nothing for certain. It’s nice to see such a thoughtful retrospective on the second anniversary of his election, and one that doesn’t bring out the tired old tropes.

It must be said that Shorto seems only to know how to contact liberals since they are more or less the only people quoted in the piece. That’s a deficit. He also seems to continue with his “theological conservatives are wacky” approach, but I don’t mind that so much since he is explaining them to an audience that doesn’t naturally understand them:

“Dogma” wasn’t a dirty word — it was the ground. “Dogma was conceived not as an external shackle but as the living source that made knowledge of the truth possible in the first place,” he wrote in his memoirs. Ratzinger rose rapidly through the ranks of Bavaria’s intensely rigorous Catholic institutions, holding the chairmanship in dogma at the University of Regensburg from 1969 to 1976, until he was appointed archbishop of Munich and Freising and his career focus shifted toward Rome.

It’s just so funny to me. The assumption that dogma — meaning a a system of principles or tenets — would ever be considered dirty. But on the other hand I appreciate that he quotes Ratzinger — and quotes him well — to provide an alternate view.

Here’s another good sample from the piece. It shows the breadth and scope that Russo is trying to cram into this one article and it works around obstacles such as the Vatican’s long-practiced refusal to grant interviews to reporters. It also demonstrates his reliance on liberal church figures and sums up the point of the piece:

As a longtime university professor, the pope is well known for his collegiality, his reaching out to, and exchanging ideas with, a broad spectrum of Catholics as well as with nonbelievers. This may explain why, despite the fact that his core conservative convictions are unchanged, he has managed to get many left-leaning church figures to rally around his central focus. Notker Wolf, abbot primate of the worldwide Benedictine order, himself a Bavarian who has known the pope for decades, was critical at the start, based on Ratzinger’s actions in his previous job. But Wolf, too, was won over. As we sat in the serene Sant’Anselmo monastery on the Aventine Hill in Rome, which serves as the headquarters of the Benedictines, he distilled the pope’s core message for me this way: “Western society has become detached from the roots of its creator. This is the basic view of the pope, and it is my view also. What the Muslims say about the decadence of Europe is partly right, and that’s because we think we have to set up everything as if God doesn’t exist. On the other hand, faith also has to be reasonable — it has to stand in front of reason. I would say that he means this not just regarding terrorism but also charismatics. He says we have to remain sober in this religious way of thinking. The old Occidental tradition has been a fruitful tension between faith and reason.”

There is much to analyze in a piece that long, and there were aspects that I found troubling, such as the supposed conflict between Ratzinger as chief enforcer of doctrine versus Benedict as Pope. Ratzinger was “God’s Rottweiler,” of course, while Benedict is nice and broad-minded. First off, I’m not sure there’s as much of a difference there as some like to see it. I think the fact is that people in the mainstream media didn’t know Ratzinger terribly well when he was chosen as Pope and now they know him better. But even if there is a difference, I think some context is in order. The job of the doctrinal enforcer is different than that of the Pope. Is the dichotomy between upholding doctrine and being loving or evangelical false? At the very least I think it shouldn’t be assumed.

I loved the piece’s broad and sweeping scope, but that was also its major problem. It seemed to lack a bit of focus or enough details on each of the subsets. But there is also a sense that the stories were shoehorned into the piece. But you’ll have to go read it. All 8,300 words of it. There are fascinating tidbits about Benedict’s interest in the schism with the Orthodox, as well as a look at how the Vatican has continued to handle priestly sex scandals. Read it and let us know what you think.

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  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    From the very first sentence I found myself wondering “Are all reporters so culturally shallow?” To use a German greeting which has the word God in it to illustrate at the start how uniquely Catholic Bavaria is would be the same as to take the English language greeting “Good-bye” as proof of the the religious level of the English people. For “Good-bye” is simply the typical English shortening of phrases. It is “God be with ye.” Likewise Boston is the slurred shortening of “St. Botolph’s Town.” These prove nothing about today.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Now, after reading the story, I agree with Mollie’s comment about the Rolodex Times writers and reporters use–how about a few true conservatives showing up–NOT ONLY THAT, but those liberals whose quotes festoon most Times religion story like an overdecorated Christmas Tree– are getting rather long in the tooth and so white-haired they seem like ghosts of Christianity Past.
    But it is probably the best one could expect under the circumstances.
    It is interesting that the writer commented on the rules of working one’s way upward in the rigid Catholic, conservative theological world of Bavaria.
    I immediately thought of what it must be like for an orthodox Catholic trying to work his way up in the rigid liberal ideological world of the MSM and the NY Times.

  • Jinzang

    dictatorship of relativism

    The sense of this metaphor eludes me. A ditatorship where everyone can act as they please?

  • tmatt


    Was it Chesterton who said, at the dawn of the last century, “We are entering a time when nothing will be forbidden except to forbid”?

    Or, in the words of Stephen Bates, summing up the new tolerance: “There are people in this world who just don’t love everyone the way that they should and, you know, I hate people like that.”

    Think about it.

  • Dan

    Here is a fuller context from the homily in which Cardinal Ratzinger refered to the “dictatorship of relativism”:

    “To have a clear faith according to the creed of the Church, is often labelled as fundamentalism. While relativism, that is, allowing oneself to be carried about with every wind of ‘doctrine’, seems to be the only attitude that is fashionable. A dictatorship of relativism is being constituted that recognizes nothing as absolute and which only leaves the ‘I’ and its whims as the ultimate measure.”

    In other words, when absolute truth is denied and everything is made relative it becomes impossible to distinguish between good and evil and what ultimately triumphs is raw power.

  • Dan

    Amy Welborn posted on her site a very good assessment of the article.

    My major complaint about the piece is that it did not convey the power and sophistication of Pope Benedict’s critique of modernity — and of relativist and materialist ways of thinking in particular. Pope Benedict says that Christianity affirms reason more deeply than do modern atheistic philosophies. This is because, the Pope says, the God of Christianity is rational (the “Logos”) and has created an ordered universe governed by laws (viewed historically this came about as the result of Christianity having early on merged Greek philosophy with the Jewish belief in a personal God). This belief in an ordered universe is what allowed the Christian West to acheive spectacular success in science. Modern atheistic philosophies however posit that there is no meaning or truth, at least not outside of science. The Pope has pointed out that this view makes the world unintelligble and undermines the basis of science itself.

    Reading Shorto’s article I wondered if Shorto really understood the basics of Pope Benedict’s views concerning the relationship between faith and reason. Rather than set forth the sort of summary that I’ve set forth above, the article speaks only very generally and very vaguely about the Pope’s views. At times the article seems to assume that there is a conflict between faith and reason and leaves the impression that the Pope would resolve the conflict by favoring faith — an impression that is completely wrong for the reasons that I’ve tried to explain above. Two, all the potshots that Shorto takes at the Pope — and there are a number of them in the article — are on political and practical matters. He offers no critique of the Pope’s views on the relationship between faith and reason. It is a shame that the views were not more fully and accurately explicated given all the glib references we’re used to reading about the “conflict” between faith and reason and intimations that Christianity is obscuratant in nature. It would have been a much better article if Shorto had explained clearly and accurately how the Pope believes Christianity supports reason and then said something to the effect of either “this is dubious thinking because….” or “this is really insightful, and something that is worth thinking about.”

    (By the way, if anyone is interested in what the Pope has to say he has written many brillant books. His “Introduction to Christianity” is one of the most profound books that I have ever read. “Truth and Tolerance” is very good on the issue of relativism.)

  • Eric Chaffee

    Thanks for sharing. (Absent any quotation marks, I trust these are all your words, and not Amy Welborn’s. I did go to her site but was unsure where to look for the comments you reference, as there were so many icons.)

    I read the entire Times article on Easter Sunday, and felt bloated, as though it were the turkey holiday rather than that of Lamb or pig. I, too, wish Shorto had written with more focus on the tension between faith and reason.

    I really like the assessment in your first major paragraph. The account of the intellectual merger of Athens and Jerusalem is very well told in a recent book by Richard E Rubenstein (of Geo.Mason U.) entitled Aristotle’s Children: How Christians, Muslims and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Dark Ages.

    Thanks for the tip on the Pope’s intro book. Do you write somewhere?


  • Dennis Colby

    I thought the article was surprisingly fair-minded, although the bits at the end with the guy in Dublin seemed like cheap shots. It would have been interesting to read this from someone with a little more perspective on the Vatican (I guess John Allen is the first name that springs to mind), because maybe this stuff wouldn’t seem as strange as some of it obviously did to Shorto.

    Also, the faith/reason angle might not have been the right peg to hang the story on, since those terms are hardly mutually exclusive in Catholic theology, and since Shorto never really provides clear definitions of either. I thought he dug up other angles which would have made a better focus; especially the way B16 has surprised his critics with the way he’s conducted his papacy so far.

  • Dan Crawford

    I’m surprised Get Religion didn’t draw a comparison between the Times article and the absolutely wretched piece of journalistic tripe written by Jane Kramer and published in The New Yorker several weeks ago. If anyone needed convincing that The New Yorker has fallen on grim days, the Kramer piece is exhibit A.

  • Dan


    I agree that Shorto seems to have tried to be fair.

    John Allen would have o.k. but just o.k. To even things out, Father Fessio would have been far better (although I don’t know if Fr. Fessio knows any of the “inside the Vatican” stuff). Perhaps he is not on anyone’s rolodex, I don’t know.

    I think the faith/reason angle was a good peg, it is just that the article was not as strong on the substance as it should have been. The hyper-secularization of Europe is in fact a major and longstanding issue for the Pope and it is likewis a subject of inherent interest to the readers of the New York Times. In the 1980s and 1990s Cardinal Ratizinger debated leading secular intellectuals (Marcello Pera, Jurgen Habermas) and gave in depth interviews on weighty issues. These debates and interviews make for fascinating reading. Had it been better done, the NYT article would have captured some of what made the interviews and debates so interesting.

    I strongly disagree that the “surprise of the critics” storyline would have been a better angle. That storyline is based on the fallacy that Pope Benedict has somehow changed his stripes. He hasn’t. Why are his devotees not surprised at all? Why only the “critics”? It’s either because the “critics” are pursuing an agenda of demonstrating that the Church is “loosening up” (“see, Pope Benedict isn’t harping on abortion, that means it’s not an important issue anymore”) or because they are just uninformed. Either way, it does not make for good journalism. I defy anyone to cite a single substantive difference, even one of only emphasis, between the “new” Pope Benedict and the “old” Cardinal Ratizinger.

    (And thanks to Eric Chaffee. No, I’m not a writer.)