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April 19, 2005

Avignon on Ratzinger

For the second time in a week, I have found a reason to read some cat named GK Chesterton. Good. The latest spy stories I've picked up are a bore, and I am really looking hard for a source of new ideas to perk me up. Recently I've grown tired of today's domestic affairs. Here we have a nation of dimwits incapable of arresting the retarded regression that is the gaping mediocrity of Tom DeLay, and yet within 17 days we have seen the transition of the Catholic Church from pope to pope. It is a miracle of limited democracy, even if the smoke isn't quite the right color (and I thought Italians were fairly good pyrotechnicians).

Be that as it may I have found the most succulent tidbits of Ratzinger's ideas written by a thoughtful Amazon reviewer by the name of Nathaniel Avignon. Suddenly my admiration for the new pontiff has moved into the realm of excitement. This only prods me further to communicate my meditations on Servitude & Mastery. And so I will underscore my premonitions about his conservative philosophy as exemplified in the following:

In an age when Truth has come under unceasing brutal assault, he has become a target of attack worldwide. He is routinely caricatured in the worldwide media as the new Grand Inquisitor, unthinking and dictatorial. This book will discomfit his enemies. It shows a deeply learned man moving carefully and deliberately across all the issues of the "Canon of Criticism," forthrightly defending the Church. It shows a man with a keen understanding of our present age and the ideologies that animate it.

The Roman Church is contemptible to so many precisely because it stands in unabashed reproof of so much of what passes as wisdom today, including the central "truth" of our post-modern era: that only truth is that there is no Truth. This reminds us that the Church is now, as always, a scandal. But it is necessary, Cardinal Ratzinger reminds, us to distinguish between the "primary" scandal and the "secondary" scandal. "The secondary scandal consists in our actual mistakes, defects and over-institutionalizations . . .." (124) The Church is made up of men who are subject to all the frailties to which flesh is heir. But the Church aspires for more. That she occasionally fails should not surprise us. That she aspires for more should inspire new generations of saints. Yet the very idea that man is not naturally good and should aspire for more through self-abnegation is a deep offense to the modern mindset that man is good and is always, inexorably, getting better. This makes the Church an object of contempt and, in time, hatred.

"[T]he primary scandal consists precisely in the fact that we stand in opposition to the decline into the banal and the bourgeois and into false promises. It consists in the fact that we don't simply leave man alone in his self-made ideologies." (124) Substitution of transitory political ethics for Christian ethics leads to despotism, the exaltation of a mere man as God: Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Ho Chi Min. "We can say with a certainty backed up by empirical evidence that if the ethical power represented by Christianity were suddenly torn out of humanity, mankind would lurch to and fro like a ship rammed against an iceberg, and then the survival of humanity would be in greatest jeopardy." (227) "For this reason . . . the Catholic Church is a scandal, insofar as she sets herself in opposition to what appears to be a nascent global ideology and defends primordial values of humanity that can't be fit into this ideology . . .." (124)

"[I]f we give up the principle that every man as man is under God's protection, that as a man he is beyond the reach of arbitrary will, we really do forsake the foundation of human rights." (204) The sacred tradition of the Church is arrayed in defense of the dignity of mankind. Contrary to fashionable caricature, the Church is not an ossified tree, subject to being felled by the latest gale. It changes, but slowly, deliberately, organically. "[T]here are various degrees of importance in the tradition [of the Church] . . . not everything has the same weight . . . [but] there are . . . essentials, for example, the great conciliar decisions or what is stated in the Creed. These things are the Way and as such are vital to the Church's existence; they belong to her inner identity." (207-208) As to its essentials, its First Principles, or everlasting verities, the Church is powerless to change even in face of popular demand.

Ratzinger was Avignon's choice at least 3 years ago, and I find him drawn to the same kind of rationale as I in centering the eternal verities of Christianity in human destiny. Importantly, he is an enemy of post-modern relativism. In this I daresay he has many allies.

Within the past two years, I have encountered two Orthodox Christians whose thinking has impressed me. If indeed this Benedict will make some adjustments and bring Catholicism closer to Orthodox Christianity, it will be something extraordinary in the history of the world.

Here is the great clincher and it represents to me the very essence of conservatism.

Bringing to mind Edmund Burke and G.K. Chesterton, Cardinal Ratzinger reminds us that "the Church lives not only synchronically but diachronically as well. This means that it is always all - even the dead - who live and are the whole Church, that it is always all who must be considered in any majority in the Church. . . . The Church lives her life precisely from the identity of all the generations, from their identity that overarches time, and her real majority is made up of the saints." (189) Our present age cannot cavalierly discard the wisdom of this great communion of the living and the dead, of one hundred human generations of the Church, confident that it has somehow achieved superceding wisdom. Instead, it must, as must all generations, submit to the essentials of the Church, to revelation and the Church's sacred tradition. "Every generation tries to join the ranks of the saints, and each makes its contribution. But it can do that only by accepting this great continuity and entering into it in a living way." (189) The Church does not need additional "reformers" of institutions. "What we really need are people who are inwardly seized by Christianity, who experience it as joy and hope, who have thus become lovers. And these we call saints." (269)

Love it.

Posted by mbowen at April 19, 2005 03:30 PM

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Cobb, I agree wholeheartedly with what you said about the Catholic Church. All the people objecting to the conservatism of the new Pope don't seen to understand what the role of the church is. The church has to be conservative. It has to be about tradition and continuity. Those who really hate it can leave it. The rest make the adjustments that people have always made, there is always a difference between the ideal and the real. Have you noticed that the people who say that the new Pope is bad for Catholics never make the same objection about Islam, which is far more conservative and "exclusive" than Christianity has been for centuries. That is precisely what Muslims value about their religion, its constancy. People want rules, principles, and ethics, even if they don't always follow them.

Posted by: Anita at April 22, 2005 07:47 AM