Tuesday, September 21, 2010


Coincident with his official visit to the UK, an article has appeared in ‘The [London] Times On-line’, reprinted from the [London] ‘Times Literary Supplement’.

The piece is by the religion editor of the TLS, Rupert Shortt, who reviews a rather upbeat book entitled “Benedict XVI: A Guide for the Perplexed” by one Tracey Rowland.

Rowland’s rather upbeat approach to the subject provides an opportunity for Shortt to take the downbeat approach in his review, which he does. He’s nice enough about it, and comprehensive – and it is that very comprehensiveness that offers me an opportunity to make some comments about Shortt’s review and the general trend of Things Catholic since the close of the Second Vatican Council in 1965, now 45 years ago.

First, Shortt notes that in Benedict’s own volume of memoirs, published in 2000 and covering the years from his birth (1927) to his elevation to the Archbishopric of Munich (1977) then-Ratzinger did not mention the Holocaust or “the Jews” (Shortt’s term) even once. While a person’s memoirs are his own, and perhaps reflects an un-Correct set of personal priorities, it is a bit much to say that Ratzinger “leaves a sour taste in the mouth” because “given an ideal chance to deplore a catastrophe in which he had been a blameless bystander, [Ratzinger] instead chose to emphasize Hitler’s persecution of Catholics”.

But by 1977 the Israeli Realm had mastered the use of the Holocaust for its own purposes, and the American media had amplified that whole subject exponentially. But Shortt may be giving away a trade-secret of Correctness by taking Ratzinger to task for not Correctly putting himself on the record and – basically – ticking off that box on the Correct checklist.

And given his own religious background, Ratzinger is surely on solid ground by sharing his concern for Catholics. In fact, given that members of the Jewish faith had been historically given difficulties in pre-1933 Europe (although, especially in Wilhelmine and Weimar Germany and in the Polish and Russian territory they had developed a robust and comprehensive culture and in Germany had become rather deeply enculturated) it was probably more of a historical anomaly that the Catholics were persecuted.

(And, just to add a poignant note, recall that in the mid-1930s, as the Nazis tried to establish their hegemony over stubbornly recalcitrant Catholic Bavaria and the German South, Goebbels had tried to engineer a public-relations coup by having the State Prosecutor there bring charges against an entire monastery full of Catholic religious on charges of – wait for it – child sexual abuse.* The sturdy Bavarians refused to take that seriously and Goebbels had to back down, no doubt on the orders of a Hitler who realized that he wasn’t going to be changing a millennium-old religious culture of belief overnight. The man was not a complete fool.)

But as I indicated in the immediately previous Post, any totalizing State’s pretensions put it on a collision course with the ancient teaching of the Catholic Church, the essence of which is that there is a God and His Higher Law to which all States and monarchs and governments must conform and by Whom they all stand under judgement. And while in the course of human events national Catholic hierarchies tend to take the side of their national flocks and – alas – their nations, right or wrong, YET the core of the genuine foundational teaching of the Universal Church remains solid as a rock.

And that is gall and wormwood to State-friendly interests, especially when they are especially State-dependent. And this, nowadays, would include both the National Nanny-Regulatory State of the current Left as well as the National Security-Invasion State of the Rightists. (See the immediately previous Post.) So you can see where the Catholic Church is pretty much bound to dissatisfy a whole lotta powerful interests in the modern West, no matter which way it turns, unless it simply takes the ‘mainline Protestant’ approach of diluting itself into some form of a goo-goo religious Chowder-and-Marching-Band Society, spreading ‘liberation’ either in the form of self-indulgent ‘luv’ or in the form of democracy-by-bayonet-and-God's-Will.

And for those wondering where ‘liberation theology’ fit into all of this, it is that by the 1960s the Church became verrry leery of ‘revolution’ given its experience of the Soviet and Nazi revolutions (although Hitler had indeed taken dictatorial power legally, the Nazi and Stalinist Modus Operandi were similar in many vital, insidious, and bloody respects). And when the revolutionary Content and Method arose again, ‘baptized’ – its proponents imagined – by the Good Purpose and Good Intentions of ‘the poor’, the Church hierarchy, functioning as much as a keel and rudder as a sail**, worked to rein that horse in before it took the wagon (and the poor) over yet another revolutionary cliff, as had befallen the hapless Russian people in October of 1917 and subsequently.

Shortt won’t have any of this. Benedict, he says, made two big mistakes. First, “his discussion ignored the largely supine response to the Nazis of both clergy and laity”. Rather true, but grossly incomplete. Western clergy, laity, and commentators never had to face directly a brutal and bloody dictatorship on its own ground. There existed every possibility that if you stood up you – AND your family – would have suffered immediate and awful consequences.

Worse, for any prelate charged with responsibility for his flock, there existed the very real danger that the Nazis would simply start taking ANY members of an offending religious faith-group and use them as hostages or – as the Nazis (and the Kaiser’s forces before them) did in Occupied countries – shoot a bunch to shut-up the rest. Gandhi did not have to face this in the far more respectful – if not indulgent – British rule of India; there were no Gandhis or Martin Luther Kings in Nazi Germany because they would have been taken and executed long before they could work up to speed (as happened to the greatest of the resistant German churchmen, Dietrich Bonhoeffer).

So it’s not an impressive gambit for a later commentator to tar the Nazi-era German religious leadership and congregants as “supine” (although there were, as ever among humans, a few who went along to get along). A bishop or prelate or leader who declared opposition to the Nazis was risking not only his own life but the lives of his flock – men, women, and children – to State reprisals … and in the Nazi State, ‘reprisal’ tended to be on the extreme and bloody end of that term’s definitional range.

Secondly, says Shortt, Ratzinger “drew the highly contentious lesson that the Church can only resist dictatorships effectively when run as a very tight ship”.

Yeah, well, phooey.

First, the lesson is “contentious” only because there are a number of persons who – for any number of reasons, not to exclude political agendas and a reliance on sentimentality rather than rational deliberation – don’t like ‘tight ships’. And many of them are in the U.S., which in the years 1963-1968 experienced the Second Vatican Council, the success of the first-phase of the Civil Rights Revolution, the increasing failure (in so many respects) of the Vietnam War, the Summer of Love, the urban riots, three hugely significant assassinations (JFK, MLK,RFK), and – with an eye to the happy-face ‘success’ of Mao’s youthy and creatively-destructive ‘Cultural Revolution’ – a general sense of gaga over the positive possibilities of wide-ranging and free-range ‘revolution’ (radical feminism being the most organized fruit of Mao’s poisonous tree).

And it’s hugely significant that Shortt makes this classic objection to the Roman Catholic Vatican-heavy mode of governance: the ‘liberal’ Catholics of the Sixties were quite certain that ‘liberal democracy’ could work as well for the Church as it had for America itself. Which assumption seemed back in those days to be reasonable; America was a creative profusion of ‘democratic’ impulses and fever-dreams.

But now, given the inevitable (though never fully predictable) mutations and permutations imposed by almost half a century of vigorous History, there stands the awful Question: has American democracy been done in by too much Boomery, radical, fevered ‘democracy’? Is there any ‘there there’ any longer when you speak of ‘American society’ or ‘the American people’ as anything more than a geographically-defined term? Even Obama is trying to solve a problem he doesn’t dare admit exists: identity politics has shattered the American polity and any sense of common weal or common purpose, and enabled all sorts of ancient demons (Wealth (capital-W) being the most hoary of all) to return.

And – really – can you ever have a ‘radical democracy’?

If the Consequences of the Sixties are expressing themselves only now, half a century later, then perhaps the Church – and Benedict – will be proven right: that without some amount of serious guidance, very large bodies of folks are not going to be able to hold themselves together and sustain any effective sense of national identity. (Look at the mainstream Protestant churches in this country, for example, and ask yourself if they really remain vibrant and vital and distinctive religious communities of Christian belief.)

But of course, this comment of Shortt’s (did Benedict actually use the ‘tight ship’ image himself?) also emphasizes a verrry substantial difference in world view. A ‘ship’ is a constructed machine carrying a burthen of ‘souls’, a human community; moreover it requires a certain knowledge and skill to operate the ship safely, especially since its very reason for being is to traverse a very unpredictable and potentially lethal medium: the ocean, which is itself a potent brew of wind and weather and water – lots and lots of each.

THIS image captures many – but not all – of the major elements of the Church’s vision of humanity’s passage through History. You need a skilled and competent captain and crew to see this thing through, even as the passengers themselves conduct – within the parameters of the ship – their own lives and business.

But can you have a genuinely ‘democratic’ vision of humanity’s presence in this life and in human History and still subscribe to the ‘ship’ image? Surely not since 1968 or so, in the West, and certainly not in the U.S. ‘Total autonomy’ and the post-modern axiom that NOBODY can claim to really know what they’re doing to the extent that they can impose it on anybody else … you can’t very well run a ship and still remain congruent to current trends.***

But perhaps Human life together is neither a Ship nor a Garden, but just a ‘democracy’ of everybody doing what they can get away with and getting what they can get by ‘organizing’ and ‘pressuring’ for themselves and their preferred ‘group’ or ‘identity’ and figuring that there is no larger identity, no larger life, no Larger Life and no Larger Presence or Authority or Being. That’s a Flattening and ultimately enslaving and most surely dis-empowering approach, but in the short-run it sure LOOKS like a liberation … and if the Boomers loved anything more than not ever again being said No-to, they loved surfaces and appearances – since in their youthy salad days they hadn’t been around long enough to have to deal with the ‘bummer’ and ‘downer’ of Consequences and Limits and Reality (which last, by the by, post-modernism helpfully denies exists). Wheeee!

The question remains open at this point. But – if Benedict has bet on the right horse – humanity is still very much at sea on a storm-tossed ocean of existence, and in dire need of competence in order to stay afloat (in the metaphysical and moral, even more than the financial, sense).

Shortt’s conclusion is that the Pope’s memoir gives “the unintended impression … that its author, though urbane and intelligent, lacks common sense”. Which, come to think of it, could be the epitaph of an awful lot of elite commentators nowadays.

In the alternative, I would submit the very real possibility that the Pope’s wisdom – as the songster saith – “sank beneath them like a stone”. To use an image from the Cargo-Cult era of World War 2 in the South Pacific, when you know there are radio-waves, and are talking to South Seas Islanders who don’t even suspect the existence of such a dimension of reality and who are busily devising the best ritual for bringing the big silver birds filled with lotsa nice stuff, then your vision of how the world works is going to be lost on even the most elite of the native leaders.

I suppose there are innumerable modern elites who would take umbrage at being compared to Cargo-Cult natives, but there it is.

Ditto when Shortt then goes on to judge Benedict personally un-ambitious but still a “very ambitious promoter of his own model of church government”.

First, the whole idea underlying Identity Politics – especially in the Postmodern era – is that you promote your own visions and versions of how the world is supposed to work with gimlet-eyed, almost fanatical, resolve.

Second, Shortt seems to think that Benedict’s vision is just his own, personal, Benedict’s-eye-view of how the Church should operate. Perhaps Shortt confuses the Protestant polities with the Roman Catholic Church. But Benedict is standing-tall for the historic Roman Catholic vision, and also for the prudence that says If you’re going to change the foundations of a standing and occupied skyscraper, you really have to do so verrrrrry carefully and with a lot of serious thought; because even if in theory your changes will work, the consequences of your being wrong will wreck an awful lot of irreplaceable and vital human structure. (A thought that proved – alas – a Bridge Too Far for the eager churchy-embodiments of the post-Vatican 2 Boomers.)

Shortt goes on to accuse – gently – the Pope of “legerdemain” in his memoirs: from being a scholar who looked for more rational and reformed changes in the era before Vatican 2, Benedict went to being a rather careful (may I suggest ‘prudent’?) man in the era following Vatican 2’s termination in 1965. Shortt sees this as some form of conceptual inconsistency, and intentional at that. Although you could spend a whole lotta time with a Cray supercomputer trying to find the conceptual consistency in the agendas of today’s assorted Identities or even within each Identity; so, for example, trying to rationally harmonize the many sets, sub-sets, alter-sets, and oppositional-sets of overall Feminism at this point would be like trying to find conceptual consistency in the assorted Mensehivik, Plekhanovite, right-deviationist, left-deviationist, Old Bolshevik and New Bolshevik factions of Communism in the 1910s.

I can imagine Benedict’s thought as quite rational and reasonable: he saw opportunities for substantive reform but then realized that – given the tenor of the 1960s (not at all evident when the Council was conceived by John XXIII in 1959 nor even when it was convened in 1962) – the whole ‘change thing’ was going to go into frenzied overdrive and threaten to vibrate so violently as to wreck the whole structure. Like a car stuck in overdrive and rocking its own motor off the mounts.

So too Shortt thus accuses the author of the book here as subscribing to a “fantasy” – i.e. that Benedict has been fully consistent. To the extent that any serious thinker is ‘fully consistent’ over the course of decades, and to the extent that any serious thinker tries to adapt his presentations of his basic ideas to an idiom of expression suitable to the times in which he finds himself, and to the extent that his basic vision of things has remained steady and stable – to that extent I’d say that Benedict has been very respectably consistent, and far more so than an awful lot of ‘cutting-edge’ and ‘transgressive’ and even ‘progressive’ thinkers on the world scene today. (Which statement is not my commercial for pre-Vatican 2 Catholicism in every single aspect of practice.)

Perhaps Shortt here is simply trying to offer a counter-toned review of Rowland’s upbeat book.

Shortt notes that in the late 19th century, “Enlightenment rationalism was now to be answered with a Catholic counter-rationalism”. He refers to the deep embrace by the Church of Thomas Aquinas’s comprehensive – and I mean that in the fullest, pre-Modern and pre-Postmodern sense – attempt to rationally comprehend the vision of Humanity and its World as created by a loving God yet accessible to humans’ splendid Gift of a capacity for Thought and Self-Reflection that would guide the more universally mammalian Instinct and the unique, vital, but hard-to-master human Emotions.

The Catholic approach has always been an effort to deploy Mind in the service of a Soul that constitutes the most genuine reality of being a Human (Emotions indispensably a part of it as well), all the while understanding that the Human consisted not only of Mind and Emotion but also of a very real Soul, which was created in the image and likeness of a God Who actively seeks nothing less than a relationship-to-genuine-fulfillment with each Human and all Humans.

That’s quite a vision – and I challenge anybody to come up with as comprehensive a Model as Aquinas came up with (himself building upon both ancient Greek and early Christian thinkers). Indeed, while they have individually come up with interesting insights, the whole corpus of Western philosophers and thinkers since the beginning of the Modern Era (1600 or so) can be looked at as a whole bunch of players with their individual instruments trying to play, or even conceive of, a symphonic piece without reference to a Composer or Conductor. Would you pay good money (so to speak) to listen to an evening full of THAT at your local philharmonic hall?

And you always have to factor in – especially these days – a certain selective straw-man approach to commentary on the Church: you pick out what you don’t like, claim that the Church has been doing nothing but that all along, and then triumphantly claim that therefore the Church has to go (or at least ‘change’) in precisely the way you’d like to see. This is evident not only in the matter of deep philosophical and theological discussion but also in such more politically-driven and socio-cultural matters as the ordination of women, the morality of abortion, and the current fixation with a sex-abuse that – however much it may have been an active issue decades ago – appears to have been addressed with some real success (few newly-committed cases are to be found, certainly compared to the lurid intimations you find in the press).

Ratizinger, as Shortt notes, has always been concerned with “structural reform”. Good for him. That isn’t to say ‘foundational change’, but as a professional churchman Ratzinger has always been concerned with preserving the foundations, updating the structural elements that transmit the vitalities of the foundational elements to successive long-ages of human history, and effectively communicating, proclaiming, and sharing the vitality of the Church’s vision with all Humanity. Oh, and that presumes, of course, that you have to maintain a certain consistency of institutional identity. Oh, and that presumes that in the Church’s reality, God is always breathing Genuine and Ultimate Life into her so that she can continue to perform her God-given Mission.

It was for that complex of reasons that Ratzinger – and he was hardly alone – “decided that the liberal genie had to be returned to the bottle” after Vatican 2 began to gyrate wildly off the rails.

Genies – as anybody familiar with fairy-tales knows (at least if the tales haven’t been gutted by the mavens of Correctness) – are notoriously unreliable beings: you think you have formulated a reely reely great Wish, but then the Genie gets going on it and the next thing you know you’ve got what you asked for … but it’s somehow creating a whole mess of trouble that you never imagined but that the Genie helpfully instructs you were consequences contained logically within your dream-wish in the first place. (And can you say Iraq War?)

Or, to look at it another way, Benedict – like a shrewdly experienced emergency services director – realized early on that no matter how great the ‘emergency’ to which you must respond, you can’t drive an ambulance (or a dozen ambulances) at 120mph on crowded city streets.

At this point I’d like to propose something.

For all the decades since 1965 the appearance, if not so often the substance, of Great and Good Change has been maintained in the example – set forth to the world – of the United States: immensely rich and powerful, able to Change every old which way and still be Number One. In that context the Church’s rather prudent caution (she’s seen a lot of Change breed frakkulent unimagined consequences over the course of 2000 years) could easily be spun as stodgy, fuddy-duddy and worse – oppressive, hateful, insensitive, and you-name-it.

But it’s 2010, and 1965 was 45 years ago. And the United States – especially to eyes not soused by rah-rah American media ‘reporting’ – has come a substantial cropper. Its economy is a shambles and may never recover, its economic primacy is gone for good, and domestically its polity is riven and wracked by Identity Politics and the cumulative wrack of many decades of many revolutions; while in foreign affairs its ability to shape events is hugely reduced.

So too with American ‘liberals’ of the post-Vatican 2 era of the 1960s: whatever they demand now, the background context of ‘ever-changing and always-growing Success’ has dissolved into wrack and ruin.

This is NOT simply to say that some sort of neutral Hegelian thesis-antithesis dynamic is doing its inevitable thing. It is, rather, to say that so very much of what was embraced after 1968 or so has proven itself to have borne some awfully lethal poisonous fruit and that damage has now been done that may never be fully repaired. And that – in the eyes of future (read: unbiased) historians, the 21st century may now appear to them as similar to the West’s experience after the 6th century A.D., after the fall of Rome’s hugely advanced level of civilization and culture. (I read somewhere once that after Rome’s fall in the 500s,the average European ‘peasant’ did not achieve an equivalent level of living until the 1800s.)

We are not merely witnessing, perhaps, the end of a ‘change cycle’ and the counter-reaction. We are, I am saying, facing the cumulative Consequences of what can only be seen as the West’s self-destruction. Not through one huge series of world wars, such as World War 1 destroyed the achievements of late-19th century European civilization and culture. Rather, it has been a self-destruction through whackulently embraced Deconstruction.

Khrushchev did not bury the West. Rather, the West buried itself – and, in a hell-hot irony – it was precisely the collapse of the Soviet State that lured the U.S. into its most virulent frenzy of self-deconstruction (those years burbled by feministicals to be the flowering of their success under the benevolent aegis of Billary).

The Church has watched this as she once watched Rome herself slide down into the 500s.

You can imagine, then, why frenzied American criticism, liberal and progressive or fundamentalist, doesn’t make as much impression upon her as the American organizers would like. As National Nanny State – worshipping the fatuous frakkulence of ‘total individual autonomy’ – or as National Security State – worshipping the national government as a god (if only Bush had a horse to make a Senator!) … the Church has seen this sort of thing before. Been there, seen that.

Atheism – the presumption either that there is no God or that there are many gods (which is really a form of the old paganism) – is just a flicker of distracting energy on the surface of a dying thing.

This, I think, is a profound reality with which most Americans have not yet come to grips. But it is truly the key operative dynamic of history in Our time and for the forseeable future.

What resources – philosophical, theological, maturational – America and Americans possess to deal with this reality … now THAT is an interesting question.

But the Church, I would say, will draw on 2000 years of experience and on a Resource that is not dependent on the material world … and, if I were a betting person, will help shape whatever comes after Us.


*One article reports as an outrage the following: there are in the UK priests who have been convicted of some form of child sexual-abuse and served at least one year in prison and who are still carried on their diocesan rolls and listed in the comprehensive directory of priests. And this despite “recommendations” made by the sentencing judges that the convict be “laicized”.

A couple of thoughts. First of all, in this day and age it doesn’t take a lot to get charged or even convicted of sexually abusing a child (which, let me say, is NOT to imply that some of those convicted did not commit outrageous, genitally or otherwise seriously invasive acts with children). And if you were to draw a one-year sentence on such a conviction, that would seem extremely low, opening up the very real possibility that the conviction was for a relatively low-grade act.

Second, you can be an ordained priest and yet not practicing ministry and still be carried on the official rolls. You can even be barred by your bishop from any public ministry and still be carried on the rolls, although to all appearances you would be living as a ‘lay person’.

Third, it is then quite possible that a bishop took pity on a priest – perhaps of advanced years – who is released from prison and at this late stage in life, especially given the specific nature of priestly training and the job market in all the Western countries nowadays. And thus the bishop might decide that the Church still owed him some modest support, and carries him on the rolls to ensure health insurance or a stipend to see him through his remaining years.

This, to the professional advocacies, is gall and wormwood and – perhaps taking a page from Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals” – provides yet another opportunity to keep the flames fanned: they want the priest – who has now not only lost his life’s occupation but also any possibility of livelihood AND has completed (and physically survived) a prison sentence – to be cast into the outer darkness.

This is rather a bit too much of a muchness. And it is not a judge’s place to be ‘recommending’ religious disciplinary action to the Church. The State’s legal process has been carried through, a sentence imposed and completed, and that’s as far as the State’s writ runs.

I imagine that if the offender-priest had been ‘defrocked’ the established advocacies would then declare their ‘outrage’ that he is still allowed to receive the sacraments and hasn’t been excommunicated (the Church punishment of being completely thrown out of the Church, which can be imposed upon any Catholic if the bishop sees fit). That gambit would fit rather well with Alinsky’s pointers on technique: always keep the issue on the front burner no matter how much you have to change your agenda to do so.

I would also point out that the technicalities of the statutes as most are written do not conform to the formal and official psychiatric manuals’ diagnoses: a ‘pedophile’ is compulsively attracted to prepubescents, whereas it is quite possibly that a number of these convicted priests were actually found guilty of an offense in regard to an adolescent or at least someone under the age of majority (usually 16 or 18).

**On a sailing ship, the keel serves to reach down deep into the water and stabilize the hull as it responds to the pressure exerted by the sails’ catching the wind and tends to heel over to one side or another; the rudder steers the moving ship. The sails high up on their masts and yards are designed for the opposite – or, better, complementary - purpose of catching the wind and harnessing its power to create movement. Both forces are necessary and complementary: the keel and rudder control motion while the sails provide it.

***And as I so often say, how then can you run an actual Navy of ships in the current Correct post-modern era?

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