HOW OTHERS SEE US

Lent and Easter bring out the usual rash of news stories about Christianity, and especially about the Catholic Church. If it’s not the promotion of the latest Gnostic gospel or secret about Mary Magdalene, it can be, like this year, the alleged discovery of Jesus’ ossuary or of some other dubious archaeological curiosity. More serious assessments of religious questions are also standard fare. Although the theologically informed often find the limitations of newspaper or magazine journalism exasperating, even articles that betray a certain animosity or religious illiteracy are not without their value. It is always instructive, and usually humbling, to learn how others see us, and that is as true for a church as it is for a person.

Of particular note in this regard were two lengthy articles that appeared this Easter Season. On Easter Sunday, the New York Times Magazine’s cover story, written by Russell Shorto, was titled, “The Anti-Secularist: Can Pope Benedict XVI Re-Christianize Europe?” Not long before in the New Yorker, Jane Kramer opined on “The Pope and Islam: Is There Anything That Benedict XVI Would Like To Discuss?” (April 2). Of the two, Shorto’s article, while hardly revelatory, was the more careful and fair-minded. Kramer’s supercilious tone, combined with a number of gaffes, left the impression that she had only a passing familiarity with, and little but suspicion for, her subject. Kramer turns John Paul II from a bishop into a peritus at Vatican II, while describing Karl Barth as a “progressive” and the community of Sant’Egidio as a “New Age” movement. Incredibly, she claims that “John Paul was not popular with the church hierarchy.” And of course there is the obligatory reference to then Cardinal Ratzinger as the “Grand Inquisitor at the Holy Office.” Among the many clichés about Catholicism that Kramer assiduously recycles is that Jesuits are the voice of reason and cosmopolitan élan in an otherwise authoritarian, anti-intellectual institution.

All of that said, Kramer’s basic thesis is hard to dispute. Benedict, she writes, has no interest in reforming traditional Catholic practice, least of all rethinking church teaching on sexual morality. More important, he is both deeply skeptical of interreligious dialogue and convinced that secularism is a threat to the church as well as to the survival of European civilization itself.

The Times Magazine story makes many of the same points, though in a more irenic fashion, and amusingly also turns to a Jesuit (Thomas Reese) to help clinch its argument. Russell Shorto demonstrates a real feel and respect for Benedict’s thinking on cultural questions. “Secularism may be one of the great developments in history,” Shorto writes, paraphrasing the pope, “but the secularism that holds sway in much of the West-that is, in Western Europe-is flawed; it has a bug in its programming. The mistaken conviction that reason and faith are two distinct realms has weakened Europe and has brought it to the verge of catastrophic collapse.”

Shorto draws a sympathetic picture of the resiliency of Christianity in Europe and of spiritual longing among the continent’s unchurched and uncatechized millions. He is also perceptive, if not very theological, in his understanding of Benedict’s passionate desire to see Europe acknowledge and return to its Christian roots.

The articles end on a similar note. Each writer asks if there is room in the pope’s critique of secularism for a reciprocal critique of the church. Shorto reminds his readers, for example, that the Vatican has yet to accept any direct responsibility for the clergy sexual-abuse crisis. That is a half-truth. Still, there is no doubt that the systematic cover-up of sexual abuse has done immeasurable damage to the church’s credibility and authority. As a result, those outside the church often perceive the pope to be loudly condemning all manner of moral failings in the larger culture while countenancing much the same in his own house. If there is one thing the Shorto and Kramer pieces should bring home to those sympathetic to Benedict’s effort to reevangelize Europe, it is how secular culture balks at the very notion that the church has some privileged access to moral truth.

Shorto and Kramer’s criticisms are hardly irrefutable. Obviously, there are important truth claims made by the church on which it cannot compromise. Still, there is also a hierarchy of truths as well as the development of doctrine. Benedict’s often admirable clarity about the limits of secular rationality, ecumenism, and interreligious dialogue, however, seems to be communicating another, less helpful message. If Shorto and Kramer are at all representative, many listening to the pope think the church is confident that it has almost nothing to learn from secular culture or from other religions. Presumably that is not what the pope means, but it is what many he is trying to reach are hearing.

Published in the 2007-04-20 issue: 
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