A church for a new dark age? Pope John Paul II was, by many standards, a hardline conservative, but next to Benedict XVI, he's downright cuddly. As I learn more about the Cardinal formerly known as Ratzinger, the less hope I have that the Catholic church will maintain whatever relevance it has in the world, much less that it'll be a force for real Christ-ian justice. In my more hyperbolic moments, I fear Ratzinger is leading the Church into a new dark age—one where "faith" is determined not by how you live but by how well you follow the rules. Both Benedict's past and his first days in the papacy seem to bear these fears out.

The new pope kicked things off by getting political: he condemned the government of Spain for a likely-to-be-passed law that will allow homosexuals to marry and adopt children, calling it "iniquitous." Of course, political terrain isn't unfamiliar to him. A memo Ratzinger, John Paul's longtime orthodoxy cop, sent was made public last July, and it was immediately linked to Catholic candidate John Kerry. It stated that any Catholic who supports abortion shouldn't be granted Communion. (Very few of us pro-choice advocates "support" abortion, by the way; we do, however, support reproductive choice for women.) The memo even delved into moral relativism: despite the "Culture of Life" clan's claims of the "sanctity of life," Ratzinger made it clear: some lives are more sacred than others.
Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion.

While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.
His statement, especially by its timing, seems to exonerate George W. Bush, who, were he Catholic, could serenely munch Communion wafers despite the fact that he broke records for executions while Texas governor and waged a war that killed tens of thousands on widely discredited evidence of weapons of mass destruction. So much for "Thou shalt not kill," eh?

But, for Ratzinger, that's just icing on the cake. He believes that once-widespread liberation theology, a spiritual and political movement of and for the poor, especially in Latin America, "constitutes a fundamental threat to the faith of the Church." He's unequivocally stated there will be no debate on issues such as the ordination of women, the possibility of married priests, reproductive rights, and homosexuality. He's refused to budge on contraception, even as a way of preventing AIDS/HIV. In a 37-page Vatican document, he accused the feminist movement of an "ideology based on sex" and "denial of the biological differences between men and women," adding that women are "naturally good at listening, welcoming others and waiting." And waiting is what they'll do if they want to be priests; he's called the ordination of women a "serious attack on the unity of the Church."

Ah, unity.

I'm starting to wonder if the unity he's seeking is a tiny unity. A unity of the straight, the male, the conservative, the wealthy, and the unquestioning. Perhaps I'm over-reacting. But the Church I embrace, the only one that keeps me clinging by my fingernails to the Catholicism of my youth, is one that is radically Christ-like. That is, inclusive, forgiving, focused on the poor, and oriented toward resurrection, not merely crucifiction. And Ratzinger's take and mine don't seem to match.

I haven't read the papal encyclicals and I'm not a hobbyist in exegisis, but my sense is that the Church will dwindle under the leadership of those like Ratzinger. People like me will bolt. Anyone considering filling the increasingly empty convents, rectories and monasteries will think twice. And the Catholic church—which will be only catholic in name—will wither.

Then again, we've got a president not so different from Ratzinger. Fifty-one percent of voting Americans supported the guy with the unnuanced thinking—the faith-based, with-us-or-against-us zealot. The guy with the nerve to wag his finger at the "Axis of Evil" while waging "preemptive" war, harboring a variety of political and corporate crooks, and seeking to sell off much of America, from ANWAR to Social Security, to his cronies in business. The man with disdain for the entire "reality-based community." Perhaps Ratzinger isn't ushering in a dark age. Maybe he's just in the right place at the right time.

Earlier: The "panzer pope's" Hitler youth and burying an investigation into pedophilia. And: Divinity for the reality-based community.

[Is that the new Vatican flag? Above: Untitled (Snake Flag) (2005) by Reuben Lorch-Miller.]


Anonymous said...

Preemptive in quotes because Bush's war didn't preempt anything?

Paul Schmelzer said...

In fairness, read this New York Times article, which confirms some of what I said in my post, but offers a more nuanced portrait of Ratzinger. Hans Kung sums up Ratzinger pretty well when he says that, "in theological terms, we are quite different. He was defending the old paradigm of the medieval church. I was defending the postmodern paradigm."