The purpose of the pope

Aside from his various theological and administrative roles, the pope serves as the public face of the Roman Catholic Church. In that connection, his job is to shore up the loyalty of his members and burnish the reputation of the Church in the broader world. After Benedict, both were in question, particularly outside conservative circles. I have no doubt that Francis’s liberal statements and gestures are sincere, but there is a reason the College of Cardinals elected a man who was sincerely inclined to do such things — they needed to get liberal Catholics back on board and forcefully reassert the Catholic Church’s relevance to the contemporary world.

In this regard, the pope’s job is political, and that means that there is going to be a certain level of apparent incoherence and opportunism. A gesture like going along with the sainthood of a brutal colonial figure is likely a sop to right-wing elements in the Church that are increasingly alienated by the Nice Pope routine. And right-wing elements need coddling because they are much more likely to turn schismatic rather than (like liberals) just tune out.

I’ve written before that the same kind of pressures produced Catholic Social Teaching. I think it’s telling that people are made uncomfortable by the fact that Francis’s views are so much more consistently left-wing than previous popes’ — that kind of coherence threatens the ability of the Church’s random grab-bag of political statements to appeal to as broad and incoherent a range of Catholics and sympathizers as possible. In no case should such statements be read as policy recommendations, because Francis is not a politician in that sense. But they are political statements in another sense, insofar as they are a bid to increase loyalty to and esteem for the Church in previously alienated populations.

Personally, if Pope Francis emboldens policy-makers to do more left-wing things, I’m all for it. No, he’s not a perfect left-wing exemplar, and yes, he has said some Bad Things from the left-wing perspective, particularly related to sexuality. But maybe the left can take a cue from the papacy and be a little more opportunistic in forging political alliances.

A cynical view of the next pope

Hope springs eternal — and so there is speculation, as there was after John Paul II died, that finally we might have a more liberal pope and/or a pope who represents the vast Third World population that is the real foundation of Roman Catholicism today. I’m happy to be proved wrong, but I think such predictions are unlikely to bear out.

As for a liberal pope, that’s basically impossible, given that the last forty years have been one long effort to squelch the much-lauded “spirit of Vatican II” while maintaining plausible deniability. Essentially all the cardinals who will be electing the next pope have been appointed by the two popes who have spearheaded that effort, and I don’t expect they’ll suddenly have a change of heart.

On the topic of a Third World pope, that strikes me as more plausible (i.e., not absolutely impossible), but still a long-shot. Is a group composed of the same brilliant strategic thinkers who elevated Benedict, along with new recruits directly appointed by Benedict, really going to take a major risk?

Continue reading “A cynical view of the next pope”

Hobbes’s critique of the European Union

This Thursday, Shimer College hosted a lecture by Bob Keohane, a Princeton professor of international relations (and an alumnus and member of the Board of Trustees). The lecture started from Hobbes (which Shimer’s Social Science 2 students were reading just before the lecture) and discussed ways that liberal realists have attempted to develop international organizations to turn the international sphere into something other than a “war of all against all” even in the absence of any realistic prospect of a global sovereign. It was an engaging and interesting lecture, and the juxtaposition of Hobbes and contemporary international relations got my mind churning on a weird question: What would Hobbes think of the European Union?

It occurred to me that we do have one point of reference for Hobbes’s view of “international organizations,” given his extensive discussion of the one truly international institution of his time: the Roman Catholic Church. Continue reading “Hobbes’s critique of the European Union”

Why is birth control the Catholic Church’s last stand?

To many observers, the Catholic hierarchy’s opposition to birth control seems nonsensical — they might as well oppose ice cream. It seems like a win-win: the liberals are happy that women get reproductive freedom, but meanwhile if you’re anti-abortion, it seems like avoiding unwanted pregnancies in the first place is the best possible solution. What’s not to like? Or more to the point: why are they making this, of all the many Catholic moral teachings, the cross they’re willing to die on, even as the laity has long since stopped caring?

I don’t think we can explain this simply through misogyny or fear of feminine sexuality, etc., because there are plenty of misogynists in the world who don’t make a point of picking a fight with the president of the United States over birth control. This birth control issue seems to be almost exclusively a Catholic “thing,” so it has to have a Catholic-specific explanation. I propose that the answer can be found in a historic compromise set forth by one of the most influential thinkers you’ve never heard of: namely, Clement of Alexandria, a second-century Christian philosopher.

In the history of the Catholic Church, Clement’s compromise was arguably almost as defining a moment as Paul’s declaration that Gentile Christians were not obligated to meet Jewish ritual requirements. Continue reading “Why is birth control the Catholic Church’s last stand?”

The US Council of Radical Orthodox Bishops?

I’d like to highlight a post by Br. Dan on the Elizabeth Johnson affair that others have already recommended in comments. In it, he connects the attitude of the bishops with Radical Orthodoxy, taking as an example a recent book by Chicago’s own Cardinal George in which he repeats the “Scotus ruined everything narrative,” citing nothing but standard Radox authorities like Milbank and Pickstock. The whole post is worth reading, and here I’ll snip the conclusion:

As I said above, one way to read the report on Johnson’s book is to see another iteration of the Radical Orthodoxy movement’s concerns articulated as: contemporary theological engagement with the social and natural sciences as suspect, distrusts modern (and postmodern) philosophical resourcing and seeks to re-appropriate medieval articulations and formulae for today’s usage.

The committee doesn’t like the place of evolution and science in Johnson’s theology, finds the Kantian qualities of Johnson’s modern theological project problematic and seeks to reiterate Thomas (notice the report’s only footnotes are from the Summa). This is not about the problems with Elizabeth Johnson’s theology, this is about problems with the entire purpose of theology and what a certain group of people in the last twenty or so years thinks theology should look like.

The Dictatorship of Relativism

Early in his papacy, Benedict XVI put a new rhetorical spin on a familiar conservative trope, claiming that we are living under a “dictatorship of relativism.” The fear of moral relativism, however, disguises our real problem, which is that the guiding moral imperative of our era is all too clear: either make money or serve someone who can.

Christian Social Teaching and the Politics of Money: Attempt at Liveblogging

The proceeding being the attempt at liveblogging the Centre of Theology and Philosophy’s (Dept of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Nottingham) conference “Christian Social Teaching and the Politics of Money” (July 9th-10th). I’ll try to post on the interesting bits. Do hope this doesn’t mess with everyone’s RSS feeds.

Continue reading “Christian Social Teaching and the Politics of Money: Attempt at Liveblogging”

Dan Brown the Symptom

Ross Douthat’s column on Dan Brown is getting a decent amount of attention today, with theology blogging mega-star Halden quoting it approvingly. There are some cheap shots — as Yglesias points out, the claim that no one could advance conspiracy theories about Judaism and Islam and get away with it elides the fact that the Roman Catholic Church really is structured in a way that invites conspiracy theories, whereas Judaism and Islam are decentralized — but that’s not what I want to address. The problem with this article is its central premise, which poses cheesy eclectic “religiousness” against presumably more authentic religions:

In the Brownian worldview, all religions — even Roman Catholicism — have the potential to be wonderful, so long as we can get over the idea that any one of them might be particularly true. It’s a message perfectly tailored for 21st-century America, where the most important religious trend is neither swelling unbelief nor rising fundamentalism, but the emergence of a generalized “religiousness” detached from the claims of any specific faith tradition.

I would contend that the problem with “Brownian” religion isn’t a lack of truth claims — instead, the problem is that it’s nothing but truth claims. It’s an overflow of purported knowledge about the real story behind Jesus, or in the case of an eclectic fascination with “world religions,” about the deeper truths expressed by all faith traditions. The distinction between “Brownian” religion and Roman Catholicism, for example, isn’t that the former has no truth claims while the latter offends our postmodern sensitivities by insisting that we take our medicine of truth claims — rather, it’s that the former is made up of truth claims that undermine loyalty to any particular institution (and implicitly reinforce a kind of generic “going with the flow”), while the latter is made up of truth claims that underwrite loyalty to a specific institution.

The accusation that eclectic “religiousness” is uncomfortable with truth claims in general acts as a smokescreen to avoid dealing with the real problem: namely, that religious institutions have consistently betrayed the trust of their constituents, making them open to anti-institutional conspiracy theory literature. What’s more, the people who most loudly claim to be loyal to the institution tend not to be the types of people you want to imitate — for instance, outside of a small hard core group, I doubt anyone found the anti-Obama/anti-abortion protestors at Notre Dame to be an admirable bunch, and I don’t think it was because they were offending postmodern sensibilities by standing up for truth claims.

(And I would add: what is more postmodern than standing up for the idea of strong truth claims in general? To the one who sees nothing but nihilism in the contemporary world, the great temptation is an “at least it’s an ethos” mindset — which is itself the most dangerous form of nihilism.)

I admit that I share Douthat’s distaste for generic “religiousness” or “spirituality,” but for a different reason: fundamentally, it’s not serious. Most of the time, it’s just a kind of vague curiosity that makes people into boring conversation partners full of spiritual platitudes. At its best, it can become a kind of stress-relief technique, which is certainly important and necessary — though perhaps not what the great religious traditions of humankind have been aiming at. But at the end of the day, much of what our great religious institutions are offering us is difficult to take seriously as well.

Ratzinger’s tin ear

On the level of substance, it seems to me, John Paul II and Benedict XVI are essentially the same. What makes Benedict so controversial while John Paul was more broadly liked is not their teachings, but their gestures. John Paul was the master of the token gesture, which led many to believe there was something more and better going on beneath the rhetoric — but Benedict’s most famous gestures seem to indicate that he is somehow even worse than his public statements indicate.

The question of whether this is an unintentional “tin ear” problem or a reflection of John Paul’s more “catholic” attitude as opposed to Benedict’s preference for a “righteous remnant” is left as an exercise for the reader.