Fellow patheos author The Anchoress Elizabeth Scalia recently posted several quotes from former Pope Benedict on the event of his 88th birthday. She wanted to show appreciation for someone who rose to the highest position in Christendom (due respect to Protestants…). That having been said, Benedict was reviled by the secular community. John Paul II earned at least some praise for expanding reforms of Vatican II and being ecumenical and worldly in his approach. Pope Francis has been praised for openness to atheists and gays. Francis recently ended a Benedict-led inquisition of US Nuns. Whether such praise is warranted is up for debate but there has been at least some praise. Benedict seemed to have no redeeming qualities and an ugly history, rising through the Inquisition (literally) and being directly connected to pedophiles. But as the Christians say, everyone can be saved. And as we humanist say, all people have inherent worth and dignity. It’s important to see people for who they are, but it’s worth the exercise to look for everyone’s good qualities. So let’s see what The Anchoress has to say:
(note: these are all excerpted as fairly as I can. I encourage everyone to read the full quotes not just at The Anchoress but in the original source, to the extent you wish to have the full context.)
1. “If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? … When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return.”
This is pretty fundamental Christian teaching, but it reads as shaming (selfishness) and false promises. When those ‘hundredfold’ returns aren’t realized, it’s just God’s plan. Excuses instead of accepting reality.
2. “The underlying truth is that each person is meant to exist. Each person is God’s own idea.”
While this is an empty statement from an atheist perspective, this is something that seems to be inspiring from a Christian perspective. Thumbs up.
3. “ If I have no contact whatsoever with God in my life, then I cannot see in the other anything more than the other, and I am incapable of seeing in him the image of God. But if in my life I fail completely to heed others, solely out of a desire to be “devout” and to perform my “religious duties”, then my relationship with God will also grow arid. It becomes merely “proper”, but loveless. Only my readiness to encounter my neighbour and to show him love makes me sensitive to God as well.”
I didn’t really understand the quote excerpted at The Anchoress so I checked the full context to ensure I understood – full text here. What is above is the quote at The Anchoress with one sentence before and after that for me better clarifies the meaning of “heed”. I think this quote is a good example of what I like to call the ‘Godless test’. If this statement didn’t refer to God would it be moral? And there are many religious statements that, without god, would be perfectly nice things. the message above says that one must have God to appreciate other people. That’s just bigoted and wrong. But looked at another way, Benedict is saying that believers should leverage their belief in God to appreciate and connect with other people. Not only that, but if they fail to do so or worse use their ‘great piety’ to adhere to godly law in a way that makes them disrespect or disdain human connection, then they are ignoring God. In that sense, the sentiment is something that humanists and other nonbelievers can appreciate. The encouragement to connect with and appreciate other people is a good one. People shouldn’t need God to do that but it’s certainly a noble expression of faith to use God to appreciate and respect other people.
Straightforward call to protect the innocent and suffering. That is certainly noble. The sentiment rings a bit hollow under the domed palaces of Catholicism but it sounds nice on the surface.
5. “By relying on truth, does not politics, in view of the impossibility of attaining consensus on truth, make itself a tool of particular traditions that in reality are merely forms of holding on to power?”
I looked for additional context on this quote as well but didn’t find it, so I’ll read it as is. It seems Benedict is implying that truth only comes from God, and he’s God’s representative so political leaders should bow to him. I’m making a few leaps there, but that’s the distinct impression I get. In terms of ‘forms of holding on to power’, it just sounds like the pot calling the kettle black.
6. “It is theologically and anthropologically important for woman to be at the center of Christianity.”
Again, on the face of it, we have a nice sentiment: equal rights for women. And as soon as women have equal rights in Catholicism, then we can give Catholics credit. Until then, it’s just doublespeak that serves to continue the patriarchy of Catholicism.
7. “The truth comes to rule, not through violence, but rather through its own power”
This last quote (again, just an excerpt of the excerpt at Anchoress) is one I really like. I was looking for a redeeming quality of Benedict, and in this, I think we’ve found one. One of the most powerful criticisms of religion is that believers set aside truth in favor of dogma and faith. They declare that nothing would change their minds and that belief itself is preferable to truth. That is a terribly dangerous idea. Benedict here, if we’re a bit charitable, cautions against certainty, trusts that truth will come to the forefront, and advises that we all seek truth first. Now obviously he sees truth in Catholicism and that seems to be a long way from truth in my experience. But if we can agree that we are seeking truth, whatever it may be, then that’s common ground we can celebrate.
I still see Pope Benedict as having been the chief padarest, homophobe, sexist, and tyrant of the Catholic church. These words would never change the policies and actions of the church especially under his watch. But everyone has inherent worth and dignity, even him, and in order to be fair with our criticisms or our praises of anyone, we must see the whole person.
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