Meet Pope Benedict (the Gothic Version)

RatzingerChandelierAnthony Grafton, a professor of history at Princeton University, has written a thoughtful summary of Pope Benedict XVI’s writings (The New Yorker, July 25). I apologize for my delay in mentioning this essay — it never appeared on The New Yorker‘s website, and the paper edition often reaches my home rather late in the publication week.

An illustration by Robert Risko depicts Ratzinger as a Pope Noferatu, clutching an inaccurately thick copy of The Ratzinger Report that’s marked with six small Post-It notes. Grafton’s profile is less prone to caricature, though he often returns to the image of Ratzinger as a man who prefers the shelter of “an enchanted castle of Latin song and prayer, intense and sacraments, which he has spent the rest of life exploring.”

Here is a key paragraph toward the end of Grafton’s essay:

In some sense, Ratzinger may be right: the form of our devotions certainly shapes our religious experience. Even in the secularized West, religions and denominations from Catholicism to Reform Judaism have found that a liturgy rich with music and cast in a sacred language continues to attract and hold worshippers. Yet Ratzinger’s passion for a particular world of Catholic beliefs and devotions is more than a recipe for a revived Catholic worship. His emotional vision underpins and buttresses at every point the doctrinal structures that he has made as a scholar. In the end, it determines what he can accept as suitable and what he rejects. As the organ and liturgy drown out the weaker voices of liberal critics, as the searchlight of orthodoxy retrospective reveals the errors of Leonardo Boff and other dissidents, the Pope and the magisterium — the centralized authority of Roman Catholic wisdom — have no need to look outside for enlightenment.

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The Catholic card

The nomination of Judge John Roberts is driving some Democrats to distraction because he is probably ultimately un-Borkable. As my colleague Gene Healy wrote, Roberts’ selling points include “[g]reat grades, stellar resume, nice posture, nice smile, [and] no doubt a firm handshake. But where he stands on anything is anyone’s guess. What we’ve got here is a guy who, apparently, was genetically engineered and grown in a vat for the sole purpose of getting past the Senate Judiciary Committee.”

So people are looking for proxies to try to infer Roberts’ opinions, and one of those proxies is religion. Roberts is a practicing Catholic, and plenty of attention is being focused on his parish of choice: Church of the Little Flower in Bethesda, Maryland. Beliefnet sent my friend and former colleague George Neumayr to the church in search of some clues into Roberts’ true beliefs. Neumayr came away with certain impressions of the church and “its most famous parishioner.” Little Flower, Neumayr writes, is a parish “that heterodox Catholics would regard as an outpost of traditional Catholicism.”

To wit:

Little Flower displays the marks of a parish in conformity with official Catholic teaching: a large picture of Pope Benedict XVI at the moment of his papal election greets visitors as they enter the church; there is a Vatican flag on the altar; the bulletin board in the foyer announces the beginning of the canonization process for Pope John Paul II; pro-life literature is prominently available; the parish newsletter encourages congregants “to send your best wishes and prayer intentions to Pope Benedict XVI . . . by e-mail to”

If the Democrats really want to get nasty, they’ll drag Roberts’ priest into the proceedings. The Roberts clan was apparently so taken with Monsignor Peter J. Vaghi that it followed him to Little Flower when he moved from St. Patrick’s in D.C. I hope the Dems flinch from dragging Vaghi’s proclamations into the mix, but if they decide to do so, here’s a preview:

Monsignor Peter J. Vaghi, upholds the Vatican’s teaching on artificial birth control, an issue American priests have tended to relativize, dismiss or ignore since Vatican II.

On the Church of the Little Flower’s website, which links to the Vatican and promotes traditional piety and devotions such as “Forty Hours of Eucharistic Adoration,” Monsignor Vaghi has posted a meditation on chastity. Quoting the archbishop of Bologna, he said that every “sexual act performed outside marriage” is “gravely illicit,” but “even within marriage there can be an exercise of sexuality that does not respect its moral value: when the conjugal act does not truly respect the dignity of the person of one’s spouse, as well as when it is deprived, through a positive intervention of the spouses, of its natural capacity to give origin to new life.”

In another meditation, Monsignor Vaghi staunchly defended the Church’s teaching on abortion. “After all, since Roe v. Wade in l973, the Supreme Court decision which legalized abortion, there have been over 44 million abortions, young children dying before they had the opportunity to enjoy life outside the womb as we enjoy life,” he wrote. “Our church is always, and will always, be on the side of life, life from conception until natural death. And it is precisely because Jesus took on life, took on flesh and ennobled it by becoming man and like us in everything but sin that we value human life so much, that we were born in His image and reborn in Christ Jesus.”

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Death in the European church family?

You had to know this was coming. During the days before the conclave in which Pope Benedict XVI was elected, many commentators predicted this would be the papacy that furthered the transition to the “global Christianity” reflected by many of the appointments made by Pope John Paul II.

Well, that’s true. But there are two ways to look at that.

One way is that this would be a papacy that symbolizes the rise of the Third World. The other is a papacy that symbolizes the fading of the First World.

What would this second reality look like? As has often been noted (Andrew Sullivan leaps to mind), Cardinal Ratzinger is a traitor to his class. He emerged from the heart of chilly European liberalism and has turned into a champion of the old ways and traditions of pre-modern Europe. He is a modern intellectual who does not worship modernity or postmodernity.

So this Associated Press report by Nicole Winfield is not really a surprise. But the language is blunt. If this keeps up, it is clear that many journalists are going to need to catch up on their Philip Jenkins (click here for that classic Atlantic Monthly article called “The Next Christianity”).

The bottom line: The rise of the “Next Christendom” does imply that some other Christendom has to fall.

Thus, the bold headline: “Pope Laments ‘Dying’ Churches in West.” This has been the story for some time in the Anglican drama. At some point, the heat will increase in the Church of Rome.

Here is some of what Big Ben had to say, during an informal talk to some Italian priests in the northern Valle d’Aosta region:

Benedict . . . said the “joy” at the growing numbers of churchmen in the developing world is accompanied by “a certain bitterness” because some would-be priests were only looking for a better life. . . .

Benedict also touched on another his favorite themes: the state of the church in Europe. He said in contrast to the developing world, where there is a “springtime of faith,” the West was “a world that is tired of its own culture, a world that has arrived at a time in which there’s no more evidence of the need for God, much less Christ, and in which it seems that man alone can make himself.

“This is certainly a suffering linked, I’d say, to our time, in which generally one sees that the great churches appear to be dying,” he said, mentioning Australia, Europe and the United States.

At the moment, it is hard to think of an oldline and liturgical church that is not really being affected by this global tension, other than some that are so elite or tired that they literally have no ties to a vital faith community in the rest of the world. This is one news story that will not fade any time soon. It seems this pope will talk about it openly, even if it does represent a death in his immediate cultural family.

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Colson and prisons: Why not hard news?

Hey, our home DSL is finally working. Time to do some catching up.

Here is a little essay about Charles Colson that The New York Times ran the other day. Part of me wonders if this is part of the newspaper of record’s attempt to deal with more countercultural and “radical” segments of American life — such as traditional religious believers. But here is the larger question: Why is this on the op-ed page? The topic discussed by Adam Cohen is worthy of news coverage. At least, I think so.

I mean, read this section of the essay and tell me this is not a news hook:

Prison reform has been a liberal cause since the Quakers founded the first penitentiary, Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Jail, in 1790. Political conservatives have traditionally been more focused on punishing criminals than on reforming them, and religious conservatives have generally felt the same way. “The evangelical church has some great strengths,” Mr. Colson said in an interview, but historically, “concern for the poor and the marginal was not one of them.”

There are signs that, at least on the issue of prisons, that could be changing. In the last few years, evangelical Protestants and their allies in Congress have become more interested in prison reform, and Mr. Colson deserves much of the credit.

Why not turn this into a news feature and interview all kinds of people with all kinds of viewpoints? This sounds like serious news to me.

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Where does the L.A. editor worship?

I am not a big Huffington Post reader, but I do pay attention to the blogging of a friend of mine named Mark Joseph, one of those journalism students who went to the dark side and works in Hollywood. MJ just shot off an interesting critique of some of the early U.S. Supreme Court coverage — especially the stories focusing on the religious beliefs of nominee John Roberts and his wife, Jane.

What is unique is that MJ starts far from the court. He begins with the recent leadership transition at the top of the most powerful media institution on the Left Coast — the Los Angeles Times. What does that have to do with the court wars? Here is a major chunk of MJ’s provocative little post:

Reading stories in the L.A. Times on the paper’s new editor Dean Baquet and Supreme Court nominee John Roberts, I noticed something about the coverage: The paper is telling me a lot more about Roberts than Baquet.

Apparently it’s newsworthy that Roberts’ wife was president of the anti-abortion group Feminists For Life. But the reporter profiling the new editor gives me no such insights into Baquet’s wife’s activities. To what groups does she belong to? The ACLU? The Sierra Club? A pro-life group? You can tell a lot about a man by the groups his wife belongs to.

The Times tells me that Roberts is a conservative, but I read nothing about Baquet’s ideological orientation. I read that Roberts is a member of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group, but I read nothing of the groups to which Baquet has belonged to.

Reporters dig up memos at the Reagan Library written by Roberts in the early ’80′s to help me understand his thought processes and political views, but I read nothing of comparable memos written by Mr. Baquet.

MJ admits that a Supreme Court justice has a much greater national impact than one newspaper editor. But it is true that, as a rule, newspapers do not do a very good job of sharing even small amounts of information about the views of the institutions and the people who run them. Does your newspaper union support abortion rights with chunks of your dues? Mine did.

The Times story about its new editor does give us some interesting personal information, but nothing about his beliefs. Some forms of diversity are more equal than others, it seems.

. . . Baquet was reared in a working-class section of New Orleans by parents who owned a neighborhood Creole restaurant. His promotion will make him the first African American to run a top-level American newspaper.

Baquet attended Columbia University in New York City but never graduated, having been swept up in the excitement of the news business after an internship at the now-defunct New Orleans States-Item. He made his journalistic name in 1988 at the Chicago Tribune as part of a three-person team that won a Pulitzer Prize in investigative reporting with stories about corruption in the Chicago City Council.

The Washington Post likewise sticks to the journalistic details. This is not surprising. Journalists are supposed to be able to do their jobs and be fair to people on both sides of hot issues — such as the legality of abortion on demand. Do we need to dig into their religious beliefs?

Howard Kurtz at the Post did offer this interesting note about John Carroll, the departing editor in Los Angeles. Back in 2003,

Carroll . . . made news that year with a leaked memo that criticized the “apparent bias” of one of his reporters on an abortion story, writing that he wanted to challenge “the perception — and the occasional reality — that the Times is a liberal, ‘politically correct’ newspaper.” Like most big-city editors, he has struggled with declining circulation, which dipped 6.5 percent earlier this year, to 908,000.

Well, that’s interesting. It sounds like it might have been good to ask the new L.A. editor a few questions about moral and cultural issues.

So, should there be a religious test for journalists? Should there be a religious test for justices?

You probably know where I am going to come down on this — the more information the better. Let’s look for ideological diversity and ask lots of questions, on both sides of these cultural divides.

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The rage of The Economist

I had to read this dispatch by a Rome correspondent for The Economist a few times to see if I had missed anything: some hint of parody or that refined British sense of irony perhaps. Alas, the report was just as humorless, shrill, and petulantly PC as I had thought.

The subject is author Oriana Fallaci, famed Italian journalist and author of a few books that challenge the prevailing notions of Islam (“religion of peace”; “a few extremists don’t speak for the vast body of believers”; etc.). Fallaci is subject to prosecution under an Italian law against insults to religion, and she has been embroiled in similar disputes in France and elsewhere. So now pay careful attention to how the writer chooses to frame the story:

There is nothing al-Qaeda would like more than for Europeans to turn on Muslims in their midst, uniting fundamentalist militants with those who are neither fundamentalist nor militant. In that sense, Osama bin Laden won yet another victory this week with the publication of another hate-filled, anti-Islamic diatribe by an Italian writer who has become noted for such diatribes: Oriana Fallaci. Over the past three years, the 76-year-old Ms Fallaci has carved out a role as the voice of what might be a new European racism — were race, not religion, her primary cause.

Lest readers think I’m yanking it out of context, that’s how the piece begins. And it ends with a shot across the bow to anyone who would have the audacity to reframe this as a free-speech issue:

Some support for her is purely libertarian, based on the right to express opinions even if they are offensive, incendiary and blasphemous. But a lot also reflects sympathy with her views. Paradoxically, such sympathy is often expressed by the same people who were most impressed by Britain’s measured reaction to the London bombings. And yet that reaction reflected in large degree a belief in the virtue of the same multiculturalism that Ms Fallaci and her friends so despise.

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Somewhere, Thomas More is sighing

ThomasMore3Jonathan Turley is troubled, in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, by how Supreme Court nominee John Roberts reportedly answered a question by Sen. Dick Durbin. Durbin is, like Roberts, a Catholic, but one who has no trouble ignoring his church’s teachings on abortion while he serves in the Senate.

Turley describes Durbin as asking Roberts this howler of a theoretical question: What would Roberts do if “the law required a ruling that his church considers immoral”?

Rather than dismissing the question as assuming too much about what the law requires, Roberts attempted an answer.

Turley picks up the narrative:

Renowned for his unflappable style in oral argument, Roberts appeared nonplused and, according to sources in the meeting, answered after a long pause that he would probably have to recuse himself.

It was the first unscripted answer in the most carefully scripted nomination in history. It was also the wrong answer. In taking office, a justice takes an oath to uphold the Constitution and the laws of the United States. A judge’s personal religious views should have no role in the interpretation of the laws. (To his credit, Roberts did not say that his faith would control in such a case).

Turley makes a fair point when he says Roberts is among “a new generation of post-Bork nominees, young conservatives who have been virtually raised on a hydroponic farm for flawless conservative fruit. They learned to confine their advocacy to legal briefs so that their true views are only known to the White House and to God.”

He also writes:

This is not a question driven by ideology. I favor some of the conservative changes that Roberts is expected to bring in doctrine, and I believe that he has excellent qualifications for the position. I also believe that the president is entitled to such a conservative nominee.

The question of recusal raised with Durbin reflects a serious and important debate occurring within the Catholic community, in which I also was raised. It is the classic Sir Thomas More conflict of trying to serve both God and king. However, these are questions not just for a nominee to ponder but for senators.

Turley argues his points well, though I do not share his confidence that “The burden may now have shifted to the White House” to answer the question of “Who is John Roberts?”

The more interesting question is why Durbin’s impertinent question would be taken as honest political discourse — much less associated with a saint who died for keeping his priorities clear.

Update: The indispensable David Kirkpatrick of The New York Times reports today that a spokesman for Durbin has taken issue with Turley’s description of the Durbin-Roberts meeting. Turley maintains that his description came directly from Durbin.

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The gods of style struggle with abortion

I decided to look in the Reporter’s Holy Book, by which of course I mean the AP Stylebook, to see what those gods of style have to say. The entry for abortion reads: “Use anti-abortion instead of pro-life and abortion rights instead of pro-abortion or pro-choice.

I guess only one side gets to choose their name. Not fair. Not balanced. . . .

Posted by Stephen A. at 9:05 pm on July 25, 2005


Thanks for jumping back to the question at the heart of the original post. These language issues show up in the press all the time, often with bizarre results.

Right now, the media has two options under the AP bible. Like I said, anti-abortion and pro-abortion rights are imperfect terms, but they are certainly better than the even worse spin that was in place in the 1980s — anti-abortion and pro-choice. Click here to see David Shaw’s classic Los Angeles Times series about that era.

Now, you can take a magazine approach and use pro-life and pro-choice, indicating that these are the terms the groups apply to themselves. This is a fair approach, but still does not unpack the terms in any way. It still leaves us with only two camps.

My point, concerning Jane Roberts, is that at some point — on left and right — the press has to move past the easy labels and discuss what people actually believe. Yes, she is anti-abortion. But that is not all she is. If this topic is going to hit the Hill linked to her husband and the U.S. Supreme Court, the hearings ought to dig beneath the stereotypes, and the MSM will have to cover that. This will require a more nuanced approach to language.

The Rev. Jerry Falwell is not Pope Benedict XVI.

For the matter, the Rev. Jim Wallis is not the Rev. Carter Heyward.

Joe Lieberman is not Barney Frank. And who knows WHAT Hillary Clinton is these days, although I think we know where her heart is.

Registered Democrats who are opposed to abortion on demand are not the same as old-guard Republicans, when it comes to issues related to health care, education, jobs and other issues related to, well, the agenda of a group such as Feminists for Life. The press is going to need to do some stretching.

One gets the impression that, for most MSM journalists, this is the only issue that matters. As that great Catholic theologian Maureen Dowd once quipped, the cultural right is trying to repeal Woodstock. Abortion rights is the ultimate safeguard of the sexual revolution.

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