The Theology of Papa

You really should read Br. Will’s post on Ross Douthat’s recent op-ed.  The comment thread is a particularly interesting read and is also highly recommended.  The link to Ross’ column is here.

Ross’ column details Pope Benedict’s recent missive allowing what we might call a greased (or at least fairly frictionless) path for inclusion of Anglicans into the Roman Catholic Church while keeping their Anglican heritage.  A kind of Anglican Rite within the Roman Catholic Church not unlike The Eastern Rites within the Catholic Church (except this is a Western Rite).  Benedict’s predecessor Pope John Paul II had written an encyclical in 1995 called “Ut Unum Sint” (That All May Be One, a direct quotation from the Gospel of John) which basically called for the exact structure that Benedict is now putting into place.

As personal disclosure, I should remind everyone of my religious affiliations here–I was raised Roman Catholic (actually from Southern German Bavarian stock like The Papa himself, though obviously in my case of immigrant US extraction).  I grew up in the city (as I recall) with the almost largest Oktoberfest outside of Germany in the world.  I spent four years with the Jesuit order, a religious order not exactly high on Pope Benedict’s (and formerly as Cardinal Ratzinger) favorites list.  I then left the Roman communion for the Anglican communion (colloquially described as swimming to Canterbury) about 5 years ago.  So I’m pretty well placed to know about Anglican-Roman Catholic exchanges.

So the formal idea of Ross’ op-ed is on the meaning and implications of the Pope’s decision.  But he goes from there towards the end into some more controversial waters:

But in making the opening to Anglicanism, Benedict also may have a deeper conflict in mind — not the parochial Western struggle between conservative and liberal believers, but Christianity’s global encounter with a resurgent Islam.

Here Catholicism and Anglicanism share two fronts. In Europe, both are weakened players, caught between a secular majority and an expanding Muslim population. In Africa, increasingly the real heart of the Anglican Communion, both are facing an entrenched Islamic presence across a fault line running from Nigeria to Sudan.

Where the European encounter is concerned, Pope Benedict has opted for public confrontation. In a controversial 2006 address in Regensburg, Germany, he explicitly challenged Islam’s compatibility with the Western way of reason — and sparked, as if in vindication of his point, a wave of Muslim riots around the world.

By contrast, the Church of England’s leadership has opted for conciliation (some would say appeasement), with the Archbishop of Canterbury going so far as to speculate about the inevitability of some kind of sharia law in Britain.

There are an awful lot of Anglicans, in England and Africa alike, who would prefer a leader who takes Benedict’s approach to the Islamic challenge. Now they can have one, if they want him.

Now I know Ross wants to dismiss the “parochial struggle between conservative and liberal believers” so he can get to the real juice (Islam), but the practical effect of Benedict’s announcement is very likely only going to have substance in basically England and Wales, with groups of disaffected very conservative Anglo-Catholics.  And, if personal experience and lifelong immersion in a sub-culture is any form of persuasive evidence, I can tell you that conservative Anglo-Catholicism–at the clerical level–is totally dominated by gay men.  Mostly repressed.  What used to be called when I was in seminary, the pink mafia.  And the thing that is the initial trigger for this decision is the upcoming very likely to happen decision to ordain women as bishops in the Church of England (there have already been women priests there for about 15 years or so).  Which has a certain irony in this case.  If these Anglo-Catholics join the Roman Communion they can join up with very conservative Roman Catholic groups like Regnum Christi and The Legionaries of Christ, also totally dominated by closeted gay fellows.  You don’t need to be Sigmund Freud to see the awesome tragic humor in a bunch of non-wife having grown men wearing pink dresses (and in the Pope’s case super expensive fabulous Prada shoes!!!) telling everybody else they shouldn’t be gay.

But anyway onto Ross’ other arguments:

Regarding the European portion of this statement, Ross has made a number of mistakes (quite serious ones in my opinion).

The Muslim population of Europe can be said to be expanding, but this is at best a very unhelpful way of describing it.  And at worst plays into the myth of the coming Islamicization of Europe–aka Eurabia.  The kind of thing you would read about from Pat Buchanan and/or Mark Steyn about the end of Western Christian civilization.  Except that the demographics of immigrant Muslims in Europe within two generations (as is the usual case pretty much everywhere) are falling to basically the statistical norm.  Europe will continue to be a largely secular (including both those from formerly Christian and Muslim upbringings).

So there are a couple of ways to deal with that from the religious point of view.  One would be for Christians and Muslims to duke it out.  Second would be for Christians and Muslims to form bonds opposed to secularity.  A third would be to promote the idea of a post-secularism society where both secular and religious minded folk share common goals around the common good in the public square.  And a fourth option would be to try to change the philosophical culture of contemporary European society by arguing that its foundational principles in reason include (and are predicated upon) religious faith.

The Pope in his now infamous Regensburg address was actually doing the fourth not the first (contra Ross).  I think it’s an option that isn’t really going to go anywhere.  Kind of a quixotic long shot to put it mildly. But that is what the Pope was trying to do.

Some quotations from Papa Benedict’s speech to prove my case:

A profound encounter of faith and reason is taking place here, an encounter between genuine enlightenment and religion. From the very heart of Christian faith and, at the same time, the heart of Greek thought now joined to faith, Manuel II was able to say: Not to act “with logos” is contrary to God’s nature.


This inner rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry was an event of decisive importance not only from the standpoint of the history of religions, but also from that of world history – it is an event which concerns us even today. Given this convergence, it is not surprising that Christianity, despite its origins and some significant developments in the East, finally took on its historically decisive character in Europe. We can also express this the other way around: this convergence, with the subsequent addition of the Roman heritage, created Europe and remains the foundation of what can rightly be called Europe.

And his conclusion:

And so I come to my conclusion. This attempt, painted with broad strokes, at a critique of modern reason from within has nothing to do with putting the clock back to the time before the Enlightenment and rejecting the insights of the modern age. The positive aspects of modernity are to be acknowledged unreservedly: we are all grateful for the marvellous possibilities that it has opened up for mankind and for the progress in humanity that has been granted to us. The scientific ethos, moreover, is – as you yourself mentioned, Magnificent Rector – the will to be obedient to the truth, and, as such, it embodies an attitude which belongs to the essential decisions of the Christian spirit. The intention here is not one of retrenchment or negative criticism, but of broadening our concept of reason and its application. While we rejoice in the new possibilities open to humanity, we also see the dangers arising from these possibilities and we must ask ourselves how we can overcome them. We will succeed in doing so only if reason and faith come together in a new way, if we overcome the self-imposed limitation of reason to the empirically falsifiable, and if we once more disclose its vast horizons. In this sense theology rightly belongs in the university and within the wide-ranging dialogue of sciences, not merely as a historical discipline and one of the human sciences, but precisely as theology, as inquiry into the rationality of faith.

The point that is remembered, the point that created the controversy was a quotation of a line of from a 14th century Greek Byzantine text that claimed that violence is incompatible with religion.  A point also made in the Quran–which Benedict also quotes by the way though that part was forgotten sadly.

Either way the point was that he was not explicitly arguing for an Islamic tradition contra the Western faith cum reason tradition.  Or at best Benedict was not intentionally explicitly saying so.  The Pope’s rather obvious shock and lack of a PR guy at the later eruptions that the talk gave would I think sufficiently establish that point.**

Or this from Benedict’s speech:

Here I would like to discuss only one point – itself rather marginal to the dialogue as a whole – which, in the context of the issue of “faith and reason”, I found interesting and which can serve as the starting-point for my reflections on this issue.

The Pope, then Cardinal Ratzinger, had previously just a few years earlier (2004 I believe) had a public dialogue with Jurgen Habermas (later published), the thinker behind option #3 (post-secularism).  I think it’s fair to say Herr Ratzinger has the same opinion and promotes it that he later does in the Regensburg lecture, but the fact that it took place suggest some openness to that point of view (even if not his preferred one).

My own critique of the Pope’s ideas in the Regensburg lecture is that they only assume ancient/medieval and modern philosophy and essentially altogether ignore postmodernism.  He is well known for being critical of multiple forms of modern philosophy and theology–particularly Marxism and Marxist-influenced forms of theology (e.g. liberation theology).  He critiques the process of what he calls de-Hellenization of the Christian theological tradition, attacking elements of the Reformation, 19th century Liberal Modernist Theology, and by implication modernist fundamentalism.  He is also takes his shots at secularized modern European philosophy:

Behind this thinking lies the modern self-limitation of reason, classically expressed in Kant’s “Critiques”, but in the meantime further radicalized by the impact of the natural sciences. This modern concept of reason is based, to put it briefly, on a synthesis between Platonism (Cartesianism) and empiricism, a synthesis confirmed by the success of technology. On the one hand it presupposes the mathematical structure of matter, its intrinsic rationality, which makes it possible to understand how matter works and use it efficiently: this basic premise is, so to speak, the Platonic element in the modern understanding of nature. On the other hand, there is nature’s capacity to be exploited for our purposes, and here only the possibility of verification or falsification through experimentation can yield decisive certainty. The weight between the two poles can, depending on the circumstances, shift from one side to the other. As strongly positivistic a thinker as J. Monod has declared himself a convinced Platonist/Cartesian.

This gives rise to two principles which are crucial for the issue we have raised. First, only the kind of certainty resulting from the interplay of mathematical and empirical elements can be considered scientific. Anything that would claim to be science must be measured against this criterion. Hence the human sciences, such as history, psychology, sociology and philosophy, attempt to conform themselves to this canon of scientificity. A second point, which is important for our reflections, is that by its very nature this method excludes the question of God, making it appear an unscientific or pre-scientific question. Consequently, we are faced with a reduction of the radius of science and reason, one which needs to be questioned.

All of which is correct from the history of philosophy but has also been radically critiqued (I think quite persuasively) by the rise of the linguistic turn in philosophy–aka postmodern philosophy.  Whether of the Continental or post-Quine post-empiricist Analytic tradition.  Basically a critique of the inner Cartesian/Kantian subject who either introverts into truth or extroverts into scientific procedures absent frames of reference, linguistic worlds, and the like.  Now I understand that the kind of thinking The Pope discusses (especially in scientific circles???) has not taken very seriously the critiques of say a Feyeraband or Kuhn.  Still to the degree that The Pope has discussed postmodernism it seems to me it has generally been to label it “relativism” and therefore noxious.  Not exactly helpful.

As an example of some postmodern thought The Pope might have considered is Baudrillard’s understanding of the iteration.  Basically the original context and meaning can’t hold (which has all kinds of consequences, some of which are negative) and what is not intended can become the intended.  Or to put it more concretely, a largely throw away line about Islam in a speech really about something else becomes the entirety of the speech.  Even to the point where The Pope’s defenders/admirers (e.g. Ross Douthat) think that is what he intended.

All of which is kinda hard to get into an op-ed.  Which is why I think op-eds suck as a forum in this day and age, but there it is.  I was going to discuss the African context Ross mentions, but this post has spun way out of control and taken on a life of its own.  Maybe another day for that one.  All I’ve hope to achieve in this post is problematize this idea that Benedict is directly going after Islam in Europe.  It’s much more complicated than that in my opinion.

*For the insiders on this one:  The only non-Latin Western Rites I can think of still in (very limited) use are the Ambroisan Rite and The Mozarabic Rite.  I would generally describe myself as a non-Latin Rite Western Catholic.  I think the loss of the non-Latin Western Rites was a real loss for the Western Church (esp. Gallican and Celtic Rites).  Actually my liturgical and theological heritage is arguably a kind of Western version of Orthodoxy.  Or perhaps more simply, I’m Patristic and I think The Reformation was aimed (correctly) at the Medieval Church but then ended up (incorrectly) basically trying to reform within the model of the Medieval church.

**For anyone who cares:  What the Pope was actually pointing towards was the philosophical position underlying mainline Sunni Asharite theology.  Asharite theology came eventually be dominant in the Sunni (read: Sunni not Shia hence not “Islam” en toto) world.  There are some political reasons for this ascendancy.  Asharite theology aruges, in a very simplistic way of saying it (admittedly), is that in every moment God creates and re-creates the entirety of the universe from scratch.  The tradition Benedict is drawing upon (with roots in Platonic and Aristotelian thought) talks about God working within the bounds of a natural order God created.  Beings are therefore not overrun by an overly dominant divinity.  Hence a fear of violence in the human sphere as legitimated by a “violent” or forceful deity.

Which I think is a fair criticism of Asharite theology.  It’s also one that Fazlur Rahman and other reform oriented Muslim philosophers and theologians have made.  So as always in these debates, its hard to tease out the dominant form that is taught and what is indeed possible or could be taught (or may be taught in a minority setting).  A non-Asharite Muslim theology would easily I believe fit Benedict’s call for the dialogue of civilizations and cultures (position #2, not #1).

It’s not entirely clear though that contemporary Islam is built around a theological agenda–much as many forms of Christianity are not.  They are more secularized, political, group identity formation, and/or built around experiential type events.

*** For anyone crazy enough to still be reading this:  I was seriously considering titling this post Mein Papa but that would have likely caused its own controversy.  I would have meant as a playful teasing of the (otherwise dumb) notion of Benedict as The Panzer Pope while at the same time playing upon the fact that said (I think) dumb moniker is in ways being hinted at or even lauded by various pro-Benedict types.  As a sort of Trickster move.  But a la Baudrillard, that would have iterated into I think The Pope is a Nazi (which I don’t).  This medium is not a good one for such multivalently intended meaning.

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15 thoughts on “The Theology of Papa

  1. Dierkes,

    You don’t really explain why “the practical effect of Benedict’s announcement is very likely only going to have substance in basically England and Wales, with groups of disaffected very conservative Anglo-Catholics.” Care to? Your sentences on gayness seem besides any point.

    As far as the first versus the fourth, it is not clear to me why both can’t be at play. In fact, it seems to me that the fourth would act as a bolster the first.


  2. Most of what you say I agree with. And it is a very nice piece, thanks. But I disagree that we have any reason to take postmodernism seriously, and that there is a meaningful difference between postmodernism and blatantly pernicious (and false) forms of relativism. The arguments were never there for it. It is hard to decisively take down a moving target – and I do think postmodernists are a moving target – but here are two good, free, online critiques that, as far as I can see, have remained unanswered:

    I am not of course expecting a response, but I would be interested if you’d like to provide one. Thanks again for the nice post.


    • J4,

      I think ultimately postmodernism does fall into self-contradiction. That is to the degree I or anyone can label such a thing as postmodernism and describe it as a whole. I don’t think that means though that is just gets labeled relativism and should be ignored altogether. I think (from a different pov), there is a good deal that can be learned from them, if jettisoned of the ultimate mistakes.


      • Chris,

        Thanks for the reply. I think we basically agree. There are definitely important truths talked about by people writing in the postmodern tradition. But first, don’t you think that the good lessons might be better learned if unbundled from the bad ones? And second, while I’m not sure how you’d sort the good from the bad, I am also disinclined to think that the tenets of modernism are flawed so much as not lived up to. That is, I don’t think the important truths known by postmodernists are inconsistent with modernism, rather than supplemental to it.

        So while I think critiques are in general good, and it is especially good to be aware of the ways in which one might be led into irrationality, bias, prejudice, etc., arguing that rationality is impossible, bias unavoidable, certain prejudices (“local knowledges”) to be exalted, etc. does not seem like a good way to do this. To be clear, I don’t think that these are necessarily the good lessons you have in mind. The point I want to make is that 1) it isn’t clear to me that modernism is flawed, and 2) if it is those flaws would be much more effectively exposed if their exposes weren’t packaged with other claims that just don’t stand up to scrutiny.


  3. the change is a result of requests by dissident Anglicans – already having left Canterbury – to enter the Church. These requests have come from the TAC (Australia, Asia Africa parishes) and the US (apparently the Diocese of Pittsburg). Does not seem to be aimed at picking up English Anglicans (who do seem to have an inordinate fondness for lace) and certainly not a girding of the loins against the Moors.


    • Cecelia,

      Do you have a link what you’ve heard? I could see Pittsburgh, even potentially Forth Worth Diocese as both Robert Duncan and Jack Iker have had their sights (imo) on leading this new Anglican Province in North America but seem not to have gotten others on board with that idea.

      Australia and Africa? That’s interesting as the churches that are largely angered by the current goings on (e.g. Diocese of Sydney) are from the evangelical wing (in the case of Sydney ultra-evangelical) and I have a hard time imagining them going for Roman authority. But it is the evangelicals in the Anglican church now pushing for more episcopal centralized authority so weirder things have happened I suppose.

      Inordinate fondness for lace wouldn’t be a stumbling block to Rome. At least the current Roman leadership. As a random factoid in this context, a goodly number of the Anglo-Catholic churches would wear cassocks wear Roman (not traditional Anglo) style ones.


  4. Also, Anglo Catholics in the US have no shortage of…repressed sexuality either.

    Massive nitpick: As a cradle Episcopalian turned Orthodox turned Byzantine Catholic turned Orthodox turned secular/bi/poly/kinky trans woman, the correct term is “Eastern Catholic Churches,” not the
    “Eastern Rite Catholic.” Many of the Eastern Catholic Churches are particular churches in their own right.

    The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, for example, uses the Byzantine *Rite,* but is a particular sui generis church in its own right. Using the term “Eastern Rite Catholic” instead of “Eastern Catholic Church” denigrates the independence of those particular churches and implies that they are merely appendages of Rome.

    *Goes back to Bay Area left wing queer radical mode*


  5. Pope Benedict’s invitation to dissatisfied Anglicans to come home, is not based on agreement.

    I think however the Holy Spirit is at play here this move may have unseen consequences not only for the Anglican Communion, but also for the Roman Catholic Church. Time will tell not crystal ball gazing under whatever mantle.


  6. Oh, how perspicacious. Winking in an obsene way, ex-Jesuit comments on supposed proclivities based on various subjective signals and perhaps internal derangement.

    Incidentally, you cogniscenti sure are long on rhetoric and short on making a sound case for whether or not modern philosophy has anything to say to anyone.

    I suppose if you’re comitted to it, having read the books and done some thinking, but thankfully, most people aren’t very interested.


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  8. A few myths have emerged over recent days. As I understand the Vatican’s statement, unless corrected by the Apostolic Constitution itself, when it finally appears, it is only the POSSIBILITY of Personal Ordinariates being established. Each group will have to request this of the Vatican, through the local Catholic Bishops’ Conference. I’m not sure that the majority of Catholic bishops in England & Wales will be very enthusiastic about this, perhaps influenced by the alleged comment of ther late Cardinal Hume: “We don’t do coach-loads!” One or two Anglican parishes attempted a corporate conversion, trying to retain the use of their previous church building, but such ventures failed. Here in England, Wales might be a different case since the Anglican Church there is ‘disestablished’, any attempts to bring their church buildings with them would pose all sorts of legal difficulties unless a property was not technically owned by a Church of England Diocese.
    A couple of other ‘myths’ relate to the use of Anglican liturgical tradition. Most of the Anglo-Catholics who reject the priesthood and episcopate of women and who want to come over to Rome would not know the Book of Common Prayer or more contemporary authorised forms of Anglican liturgy, if you hit them with them! In some places they use the English Missal translation of the Tridentine Rite, in others, the Novus Ordo of the Roman Rite is used, perhaps with a nod to the Anglican calendar. Another myth is that with such departures, the Church of England, or the Amnglican Communiion as a whole, will lose the Catholic presence. There are plenty of Catholic minded Anglicans who celebrate the full ministry of women as well as the rich diversity of human sexuality, and who will remain Anglicans. Some of Roman Catholics have more in common with them, than we do with their ultra-montane comrades in faith.


    • Martin,

      Thanks. Yeah actual old school Anglo-Catholics (rather than Anglicans whose liturgy looks like Reformed post Vatican II RC liturgy and are generically called “Catholic” like Anglicans) often use other liturgical rites. There is an Anglo-Catholic church here in Vancouver where I live that still uses an essentially Tridentine Rite. So weirdly they would be closer (liturgically) one might argue to the recently invited back in to the Roman church groups that previously had split over the use of the vernacular in worship.

      Although here in Canada we have what’s called the BAS (Book of Alternative Services) which is basically like CoE’s Worship. It came in the 80s and is roughly in sync with all of the ordo liturgical reforms that took place since Vatican II.

      There’s a group (fairly smallish but somewhat vocal) who oppose the BAS for the BCP, called The Society for the Preservation of the Prayer Book. And here anyway (and somewhat weirdly) it has a strong Anglo-Catholic presence. Even though the Prayer Book’s theology is evangelical and the BAS’ theology is much more “Catholic.” Maybe that’s not the same in UK?

      Also, that’s a good point about the property issues. My understanding is that any church/parish (or potentially even a diocese as there are some rumblings in the US of such a thing potentially occurring) would lose all their church property. That may very well put a hamper on too many groups joining up.

      As someone whose church is in the midst of property disputes over various arguments and counterarguments of defection, it’s ugly. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.


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