One of the reasons why I failed to make an extended post on John Paul the Second, but not Great – are the people who want to call him that going to call JP1 John Paul the Less, which would be logical, but tough on someone who appears to have died mysteriously after asking to go over the Church’s accounts? And is therefore perhaps a martyr to the virtue of financial probity? But I digress as I so often do – is that I suspected that in due course I would need to post extensively on his successor.
There is a sense in which I am more glad than otherwise that they went with Ratzinger, because it means one can attack Roman Catholic obscurantism without being accused of racism, as would have happened if it had been the Nigerian guy, with Ratzinger advising him. On the other hand, I am truely appalled by the sycophancy with which the world’s media, and most of the other churches, are treating the accession of this appalling man.
Let us start with the business of his membership of the Hitler Youth. Apologists are rightly saying that membership was compulsory at the time and to have refused would have been to condemn himself at thirteen to serious consequences. No-one can retrospectively ask that of a person, his apologists say.
And the simple answer is, of course not. And the more complicated answer is that, when you let someone off the hook like this, you have to ask certain other questions about what that implies. Cardinal Ratzinger, Pope Benedict, is a man with a lot of intransigent positions about faith and morals which he believes to be absolute and non-negotiable truths. Many of those positions have real world consequences which condemn a lot of thirteen-year-olds male and female to various sorts of misery and death. If, say, the use of condoms or the absolute wrongness of homosexuality or quietism in the face of oppressive fascist regimes, rather than forming political alliances with Communists, are non-negotiable positions, then so is giving passive consent to the rule of the Nazi party at a point when it was engaged in the Holocaust. As he is so fond of pointing out to the rest of us, we cannot pick and choose and the duty to bear witness to absolute truth is incumbent on all of us at all times.
I am similarly shocked by the way that people insist on giving respect to his intellectual positions. You may not agree, the line goes, but you have to admire his rigour.
No, you don’t.
For several reasons.
One of these is that his central claim is that we are faced with the dictatorship of relativism, that it is important to testify to absolute truth, of which he is in sole possession. I am not a great believer in absolute truth, or rather, in anyone’s possession of it, but one thing I do know, and that is that he is wrong.
The central doctrine of the gospels is, very precisely, that our duty is to love God, and to love our neighbour as ourself. I am not convinced about the first part, but one of the principal merits of Christianity has always been that it tried, inchoately, to do the latter. A man who does not apply to his own past the rigour he applies to everyone else is in no position to claim absolute insight into how to love one’s neighbour as oneself. ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’ is one of the bits of Christianity that still means something important to me.
Benedict has always held that the prestige of the Church as guardian of the truth is more important than any good which might be done in the short term by backing down on a particular position on which it might be wrong, not that, in his eyes, it is. The logic of this position, of course, is that the Church should never have backed down on the structure of the Universe, or the claim to temporal sovereignty, including the right to impose the death penalty – not you understand because any of these things are necessarily right and true, but because the Church’s ability to do good depends on its being seen as unchanging.
This is not brilliant rigour; it is the higher absurdity.
There are important areas in which the Church has had to accept it was wrong, and there are other areas in which it may yet do so. Or rather, find a way of spinning retreat so that it can go on pretending to being unchanging. And questions like clerical celibacy and women priests and the absolute wrongness of homosexuality and contraception are clearly among those areas.
A lot of Benedict’s absolute positions depend on Aquinas’ statements about natural law, and Aquinas’ positions derive in large part from Aristotle, who backed up his description of the moral universe we inhabit with examples from the actual material world which were based on false interpretations of evidence. If, for example, Aristotle is incorrect, as he is, about the fundamentals of human biology, then the analogies he draws from those fundamentals to construct a moral universe are no longer privileged with authority. If Aquinas uses Aristotle, both on ‘scientific truth’ and the construction of theology by analogy with it, and the assumption that ‘as above so below’, that truth is of a piece and internally recursive and self-reinforcing, falls along with it.
Which is part of the reason why the Renaissance church, and the Lutherans as well, were so very worried by Copernicus’ demolition of the Ptolemaic universe. They felt the ground shifting under their intellectual constructs, but went on claiming that some aspects of them could be retained.
If there are moral absolutes, they depend on very simple principles of loving-kindness, not on elaborate systems of doctrine about the implicit order of the universe. We find meaning by constructing it from decent behaviour to other people, because the universe is vast and random in its nature, and it does not care about us. Or, if you are a believer in God, God gave us each other as we are as a way of constructing our moral absolutes, and set us adrift and cold in a world in which there is only ourselves, and perhaps Him, to care.
Various Christians of other denominations are keen to suck up to Benedict and praise him and hope that dialogue will continue. It is clearly the case, as it basically was with JP2, that he does not believe for a second that any branch of Christianity is in possession of any degree of truth save in the extent to which they are prepared to accede to Rome and seek reintegration with it on its terms. The belief that Benedict is interested in anything we might call ecumenism is a delusion.
To a greater degree, any belief that he has any respect for the intellectual probity of non-Christian believers, or secular humanists, is a delusion. There is little point in dialogue save by making clear our absolute rejection of much of what he stands for. It will be kinder in the end.
The Church does, and will go on doing, much good in the world, and much harm. We must be very clear about which is which, and not shilly-shally about pointing out both the objective good and harm and the intellectual nonsense and folly which underlie much of the latter.
Benedict claims, for example, that clerical celibacy was always in force, from the earliest days. This is, for what it is worth, fairly clearly untrue; it was an option which some felt drawn to and inspired by. Other Christian churches look at the evidence of the early years and draw very different conclusions, either rejecting the notion of compulsory celibacy altogether, or restricting it to the higher offices.
By establishing it as compulsory in the Middle Ages, and as a high ideal to fall away from which was to sin deeply, the Roman Catholic Church created many of its own current problems. Once a priest has realized that he is a sexual being, and incapable of adhering to the demands made of him by the Church, there is a serious risk of his drifting not only to despair, but to the belief that he might as well sin deeply as at all. The epidemic of sexual abuse of children is a consequence in part of the absolute demand for celibacy.
One of the first acts of Benedict’s papacy is going to have to be to argue that, as a head of state, he does not have to obey the subpoena to appear before an American court to explain the Church’s protection of various abusers.
I find this amusing, in a sardonic way, but I wonder how he spins it to himself in terms of an aboslute morality.
In a sense I welcome his accession to the papacy, because it makes it far easier to hope that the Catholic church as we have known it will dissolve in schism and rancour. Some prophesies regard him as the Pope of the End Days; let us hope that they are wrong and that he is merely the last.