“Pope Attacks Pathologies of Faith and Reason!” – ANALYSIS

On the site of the American Spectator my friend the great Samuel Gregg, of Acton Institute, has a piece about Pope Benedict which I bring to your attention with my emphases and comments.

Benedict XVI: In No One’s Shadow

By Samuel Gregg on 5.6.11 @ 6:08AM

It was inevitable. In the lead-up to John Paul II’s beatification, a number of publications decided it was time to opine about the direction of Benedict XVI’s pontificate. The Economist, for example, portrayed a pontificate adrift, “accident-prone,” and with a “less than stellar record” compared to Benedict’s dynamic predecessor (who, incidentally, didn’t meet with the Economist’s approval either).

It need hardly been said that, like most British publications, the Economist’s own record when it comes to informed commentary on Catholicism and religion more generally is itself less than stellar. And the problems remain the same as they have always been: [NB:] an unwillingness to do the hard work of trying to understand a religion on its own terms, and a stubborn insistence upon shoving theological positions into secular political categories. [Rem acu, Samuele, tetigisti.  He put this very well.  Though we often will borrow terms such as “right v. left” in our own churchy talk, we do so with a difference.  MSM does not.]

Have mistakes occurred under Benedict’s watch? Yes. Some sub-optimal appointments? [Finally someone else who uses sub-optimal!  I hope he got it from WDTPPS.] Of course. That would be true of any leader of such a massive organization.

But the real difficulty with so much commentary on this papacy is the sheer narrowness of the perspective brought to the subject. If observers were willing to broaden their horizons, they might notice just how big are the stakes being pursued by Benedict. This pope’s program, they may discover, goes beyond mere institutional politics. He’s pursuing a civilizational agenda[I have said that Benedict’s program revolves around the restoration of Catholic identity.  There are ad intra and ad extra dimensions.  Within, we have to shore up our understanding and acceptance of doctrine.  To do that the first step is liturgical worship.  When it comes to works of mercy, they must be done for true charity, etc.  As far as the world is concerned, if we don’t know who we are, then we have little to say in the public square and no one will bother to listen to us if we are unsure.  At stake is the lost of the identity of the West, especially in Europe, whose heart and soul must be Christian if Europe is to remain Europe and not, as the last Oriana Fallaci quipped, Eurabia, or something else.  My thoughts turn back constantly to the Pope 2006 Message for the World Day for Peace as an important signal about what he is doing… or trying to do.  Let’s see if Gregg and I are on the same track.  Perpend…]

And that program begins with the Catholic Church itself. [That’s the ad intra dimension I mentioned above.] Even its harshest critics find it difficult to deny Catholicism’s decisive influence on Western civilization’s development. It follows that a faltering in the Church’s confidence about its purpose has implications for the wider culture[So far so good!]

That’s one reason Benedict has been so proactive in rescuing Catholic liturgy [Say da magic woid, win a hunned dahlahs.] from the banality into which it collapsed throughout much of the world (especially the English-speaking world) after Vatican II. Benedict’s objective here is not a reactionary “return to the past.” Rather, it’s about underscoring the need for liturgy to accurately reflect what the Church has always believed — lex orandi, lex credendi — rather than the predilections of an aging progressivist generation that reduced prayer to endless self-affirmation.

This attention to liturgy is, I suspect, one reason why another aspect of Benedict’s pontificate — his outreach to the Orthodox Christian churches — has been remarkably successful. [Benedict XVI is the Pope of Christian Unity.] As anyone who’s attended Orthodox services knows, the Orthodox truly understand liturgy. Certainly Benedict’s path here was paved by Vatican II, Paul VI, and John Paul II. Yet few doubt that Catholic-Orthodox relations have taken off since 2005.

That doesn’t mean the relationship is uncomplicated by unhappy historical memories, secular political influences, and important theological differences. Yet it’s striking how positively Orthodox churches have responded to the German pope’s overtures. They’ve also become increasingly vocal in echoing Benedict’s concerns about Western culture’s present trajectory.  [Not only. The Orthodox also are pressed on many sides.  They have far few resources and reach in most of the world and, in their diaspora, they struggle to maintain their identity, which is tied in part to ethnic concerns in the context of highly-heated melting pots.  This sounds more negative than it is intended to sound, but the principle is the same: the enemy of my enemy is my friend.  To whom will the Orthodox turn in their own struggle against the incursion of Islams in Orthdox regions and the prevailing dictatorship of relativism in the West?]

But above all, Benedict has — from his pontificate’s very beginning — gone to the heart of the rot within the West, a disease which may be described as pathologies of faith and reason. [Well said.]

In this regard, Benedict’s famous 2006 Regensburg address may go down as one of the 21st century’s most important speeches, comparable to Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s 1978 Harvard Address in terms of its accuracy in identifying some of the West’s inner demons.

Most people think about the Regensburg lecture in terms of some Muslims’ reaction to Benedict’s citation of a 14th century Byzantine emperor. That, however, is to miss Regensburg’s essence. It was really about the West. [Excellent.]

Christianity, Benedict argued at Regensburg, integrated Biblical faith, Greek philosophy, and Roman law, thereby creating the “foundation of what can rightly be called Europe.[Keep in mind that years before his election Ratzinger had a book called, in Italian at least, Una svolta per l’Europa… a Turning point for Europe.] This suggests that any weakening of this integration of faith and reason would mean the West would start losing its distinctive identity. In short, a West without a Christianity that integrates faith and reason is no longer the West. [Bingo.]

Today, Benedict added, we see what happens when faith and reason are torn asunder. Reason is reduced to scientism and ideologies of progress, thereby rending reasoned discussion of anything beyond the empirical impossible. Faith dissolves into sentimental humanitarianism, an equally inadequate basis for rational reflection. [Remember my comment about “true charity”?  Cf. Caritas in veritate.  This is also why the Holy See is starting to crack down on the organization Caritas.] Neither of these emaciated facsimiles of their originals can provide any coherent response to the great questions pondered by every human being: “Who am I?” “Where did I come from?” “Where am I going?”

So what’s the way back? To Benedict’s mind, it involves affirming that what he recently called creative reason lies at the origin of everything. [I think it starts with liturgical renewal.]

As Benedict explained one week before he beatified his predecessor: “We are faced with the ultimate alternative that is at stake in the dispute between faith and unbelief: are irrationality, lack of freedom and pure chance the origin of everything, or are reason, freedom and love at the origin of being? Does the primacy belong to unreason or to reason? This is what everything hinges upon in the final analysis.”  [This is why when I write about liturgical worship I hammer away at the concept of mystery.]

It’s almost impossible to count the positions Benedict is politely assailing here. On the one hand, he’s taking on philosophical materialists and emotivists (i.e., most contemporary scholars). But it’s also a critique of those who diminish God to either a Divine Watchmaker or a being of Pure Will. [Modernism?]

Of course none of this fits into sound-bites. “Pope Attacks Pathologies of Faith and Reason!” is unlikely to be a newspaper headline anytime soon. [But it has in the blogosphere.  Thanks, Mr. Gregg.] That, however, doesn’t nullify the accuracy of Benedict’s analysis. It just makes communicating it difficult in a world of diminished attention-spans and inclined to believe it has nothing to learn from history.  [Again, as part of my own liturgical reflection, I note that we are dominated by distraction,and at the root of that distraction is timor mortis, which Augustine calls our hiems cotidiana.  The focus on the Cross is what cracks that distraction and brings us into touch with the mystery which both terrifies and attracts.  If liturgical worship doesn’t accomplish this over time, it has failed.]

So while the Economist and others might gossip about the competence of various Vatican officials, [A distraction.] they are, to their own detriment, largely missing the main game. Quietly but firmly Benedict is making his own distinct contribution to the battle of ideas upon which the fate of civilizations hang. His critics’ inability to engage his thought doesn’t just illustrate their ignorance. It also betrays a profound lack of imagination.

Well done, Mr. Gregg.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Alan Aversa says:

    There is an excellent article in The Latin Mass Magazine about how this inseparable, “threefold ‘amnesia'” needs to be overcome. It consists of:
    1. The attenuation or negation of traditional liturgy;
    2. The downplaying of integral Catholic social teaching; [e.g., that Christ is King]
    3. The dismissal of Saint Thomas Aquinas as Common Teacher. [viz., a correct understanding of faith and reason]
    I have always wondered why EF Mass goers are more likely Thomists. Dr. Kwasniewski explains that well in his article. Pope Benedict XVI is fighting this “three-front war,” and he must be doing it well if others are noticing, too.

  2. Random Walk says:

    Wow… just… wow.

    This guy truly gets it. In one article, he managed to uncover the very root of what’s going on throughout Western Civilization, and manages to nicely bring it into sharp focus.

    The greatest danger to the Western world isn’t from outside, but from inside. After all, why should young Islamic immigrants assimilate into the European culture, when the Europeans themselves (in general) are busily trying to cast it off themselves? IMHO, far too many conservative writers (err, secular political conservatives), paint horrific images of a penetrating horde, when in reality, it’s something quite different. I submit that while immigrants themselves will usually cling to their traditions, the young, who usually strike out and assimilate themselves into the culture of the new land, simply don’t – because they see (rightly or wrongly) nothing there worth assimilating into . They see nothing because their friends, neighbors, and new countrymen are too busy trying to dismiss that culture themselves.

    The proof is there that some aspects of assimilation do happen: buying cars, following secular fashions (at least among the men), a slow but inexorable change in food preference… but religion? Even most of their non-Islamic neighbors openly mock Christianity as (in their opinions) ‘dated’ and ‘stifling’… Coupled with a fierce tradition that Islam itself has, and there’s little wonder that there’s no interest among new immigrants seeking an identity different from their parents’.

    Very eye-opening, that post was… thank you for reposting it.

  3. Thomas G. says:

    “Faith dissolves into sentimental humanitarianism . . .”

    I thought that the Pope’s issue with faith divorced from reason is that it dissolves into fideism, or the position that all truths can be extracted from the content of faith, e.g., scientific truth included. This leads, for example, to literalistic readings of Genesis that insist that creation occurred in six days.

  4. Brooklyn says:

    Thank you so much for posting this, Father. What an amazingly important article. It really brings out how truly insightful the Holy Father is, and how alarmed he is at what is happening not just to the Church, but to the entire world. But then again, as goes the Church, so goes the world. Just this morning I was reading the The Catechism of the Council of Trent in regard to the sacrament of Confession, and I came across this:

    Another advantage of confession, which should not be overlooked, is that it contributes powerfully to the preservation of social order. Abolish sacramental confession, and that moment you deluge society with all sorts of secret and heinous crimes — crimes too, and others of still greater enormity, which men, once that they have been depraved by vicious habits, will not dread to commit in open day. The salutary shame that attends confession restrains licentiousness, bridles desire and checks wickedness.

    Truly, save the Liturgy, save the world – quite literally.

  5. Tom Ryan says:

    I hope the US bishops were listening when Benedict mentioned in Regensburg the dangers of trying to de-Hellinize the Faith

  6. Martial Artist says:

    @Tom Ryan,

    Your observation is spot on, if what I have heard from Catholic speakers on EWTN (particularly Walid Phares and, IIRC, Fr. Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute) in re the de-Helenization of Islam. According to those I heard, it was the triumph of the Islamic anti-Helenists over their pro-Helenist fellows centuries ago that has radicalized Islam. Faith and Reason are complementary, and both are given us by God to use. In the denial of that complementarity lies the path to a kind of insanity.

    Pax et bonum,
    Keith Töpfer

  7. DHippolito says:

    After all, why should young Islamic immigrants assimilate into the European culture, when the Europeans themselves (in general) are busily trying to cast it off themselves? IMHO, far too many conservative writers (err, secular political conservatives), paint horrific images of a penetrating horde, when in reality, it’s something quite different.

    Really? Then how do you explain Lepanto, Vienna and Tours?

    Your statement reminds me of these assertion from Alain Besancon, a French-Catholic scholar who wrote about the nature of Islam in the May 2004 edition of Commentary Magazine:

    Contributing to the partiality toward Islam is an underlying dissatisfaction with modernity, and with our liberal, capitalist individualistic arrangements…. Alarmed by the ebbing of religious faith in the Christian West, and particularly in Europe, these writers cannot but admire Muslim devoutness…. Surely, they reason, it is better to believe in something than in nothing, and since these Muslims believe in something, they must believe in the same thing we do.

    An entire literature favorable to Islam has grown up in Europe, much of it the work of Catholic priests…

    Catholicism has lost any sense of moral discernment when it comes to Islam, as the recent “controversy” over celebrating bin Laden’s death demonstrated. Catholicism has embraced what Besancon called the “indulgent ecumenism” of the age. Benedict talks a great game. Wake me up when he actually does something….

  8. Dirichlet says:

    Wow, Father, wow. This is one of the best posts I’ve read ever since I started coming here regularly (some 3 months?).

    Thank you. I’m sending this to my family and friends.

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