In the September 15 issue of the National Catholic Reporter, long-time Vatican watcher John Allen notes that “Benedict XVI is not a PC pope [ . . . ] he simply does not allow his thinking to be channeled by the taboos and fashions of ordinary public discourse”.
Allen observes, for instance, that “any PR consultant would have told the pope that if he wanted to make a point about the relationship between faith and reason, he shouldn’t open up with a comparison between Islam and Christianity that would be widely understood as a criticism of Islam, suggesting that it’s irrational and prone to violence.”
“Yet,” says Allen, “that is precisely what Benedict did in his address to 1,500 students and faculty at the University of Regensburg . . . citing a 14th century dialogue between the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and a learned Persian. News headlines immediately focused upon the Pope’s use of the term jihad and its implied swipe at Muslim-influenced terrorism, shaping up as something of a replay of the Danish cartoon controversy.”
Yet according to Allen, the Pope “brought up the dialogue between Paleologus and the Persian to make a different point. Under the influence of its Greek heritage . . . Christianity represents a decisive choice in favor of the rationality of God. While Muslims may stress God's majesty and absolute transcendence, Christians believe it would contradict God's nature to act irrationally. [The pope] argued that the Gospel of John spoke the last word on the biblical concept of God: In the beginning was the logos, usually translated as word, but it is also the Greek term for reason.”
An important aim of the Pope’s lecture, titled “Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections,” was, says Allen, to warn against “an artificial truncation of human reason in the West.” Reason, according to the Pope, cannot disregard theology and metaphysics. “Attempts to construct an ethic from the rules of evolution or from psychology and sociology, end up being simply inadequate,” argues the Pope.
Yet it can also be argued that when an ethical stance (such as the Church’s stance on homosexuality) is formulated without the ongoing input and insights of sciences such as psychology and sociology, it is equally inadequate.
As Joseph O’Leary has perceptively noted, “Church discourse on gay people is heavily reliant on dehumanising objectifications, referring constantly to ‘objectively disordered tendencies’ or ‘dispositions’ or ‘inclinations’ and to ‘objectively immoral acts’. When Vatican documents seek to give themselves an air of scientific respectability, as they tell gay people the ‘objective truth’ about their sexual identities, they parody the jargon of old-fashioned homophobic psychoanalysts, who had never learned to listen to their ‘patients’ or to let them speak from their own lived experience.”
“In these utterances there is no respect shown to the freedom and intelligence of the addressee’s moral conscience,” says O’Leary.
Such “utterances” imply that the Pope and the magisterium have “the Truth”, and that the task of the rest of us is to make sure our lives and relationships conform to this Truth. Such a model reflects a static notion of revelation. Truth has been revealed, once and for all. Our experiences of God, mediated through our lives and relationships, simply don’t count.
In his lecture the Pope condemned “positivistic reason,” and lamented the exclusion of “the divine from the universality of reason.”
“A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures,” says the pope, “is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures.”
Yet the question has to be asked: Who is really being deaf to the presence of the divine within the contemporary Catholic Church and the wider world?
As O’Leary points out: “It is taken for granted [by the Vatican] that gay people have no moral insights of their own which could enrich and correct church tradition. Any questioning is dismissed a priori as stemming from an erroneous conscience, which is seen as having no right to express itself (whatever Vatican II may have said on the matter.)”
Clearly, the Pope’s “universality of reason” does not encompass or welcome the experiences and insights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgenger (LGBT) people.
Indeed, as British theologian James Allison has noted, in the eyes of the Vatican, LGBT people “are only a ‘they’ – objects referred to.”
Allison is convinced that this is not simply “a cosmetic failure” with regards various Vatican documents. Rather in the official view, LGBT people “are not, strictly speaking, reasonable subjects who might have something to say” on matters affecting them and the wider Church.
“We are not capable of being subjects by virtue of our having ‘come out’, our having come to regard being gay or lesbian as part of our lives to be welcomed,” says Allison. “The only ‘homosexual’ persons who might be subjects in such discourse are those who accept that their ‘inclination’is a ‘more or less strong tendency’ towards acts which are ‘intrinsically evil’, and must therefore itself be considered ‘objectively disordered’.
Doesn’t sound very reasonable, does it?
Of course, there are some commentators who think the Pope’s championing of what he calls “the universality of reason”, is really an attempt to promote his own reactionary ideology and agenda, one which, according to Peter Schwarz, constitutes “a broadside against the enlightenment”.
Of the German media’s coverage of the Pope’s visit to Bavaria, Schwarz is left to wonder: “What about the rights of the members of other churches and non-believers, who are made to feel thoroughly intimidated by the unrelenting propaganda offensive for the Catholic Church?”
“German state television has made a mockery of every journalistic principle by uncritically propagating feudal obscurantism and singing the praises of Benedict XVI,” says Schwarz. “[T]he two main German state television channels function as little more than subsidiaries of Radio Vatican, [and] are clearly violating the statutory independence of public broadcasting and the constitutional separation of church and state.”
This recent ruckus can be seen to serve as one more example of the need for religion to break free from various medieval and supernatural beliefs that presently stifle it. As Don Cupitt argues in his 1984 book, The Sea of Faith, a transformation is taking place and needs to take place: a transformation that will see Christianity practiced without dogma, as a spiritual path, an ethic, a way of giving life to all.
Although ultimately, there will always be a mystery dimension of life, one that neither science nor theology will ever be able to fully explain or articulate, the transformed Christianity which Cupitt and others foresee, will be open to the insights of all and will not fear being shaped by such insights or, for that matter, by the findings of science. Faith and reason will be in dialogue, not opposition.
Recently, I heard historian and theologian Paul Collins say that a true leader is someone who assists and takes people from a place they’re at to a place they want and need to be – with relative ease, encouragement, and joy. The Catholic Church is obviously in a period of transition, of transformation – as is the wider Christian community. My prayer is that Benedict XVI may yet prove to be a leader in such a journey.
Assuming such leadership does not mean that the Pope needs to become “PC”, just open to the voice of God in the experiences and insights of others.
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
A Dangerous Medieval Contention
What the Vatican Can Learn from the X-Men
Casanova-inspired Reflections on Papal Power – at 30,000 ft.
Celebrating Our Sanctifying Truth
In Search of a Global Ethic
Reflections on the Primacy of Conscience