Wednesday, 21 April 2010

The Pope: 'romantic orthodoxy'

There is a very nice article in The Guardian by Adrian Pabst which defends Pope Benedict XVI from charges of being a reactionary.  Much of it is a discussion of Hans Kung's attack on the Pope, but it goes a long way to articulating the Pope's underlying philosophy and how it contrasts with that of his attackers.

Here are some key extracts:

"Five years after succeeding Pope John Paul II on 19 April 2005, Benedict is confronting the worst crisis of his papacy. The ongoing abuse scandal undermines the church's credibility and reinforces all the usual stereotypes about the Vatican under his reign – a medieval theocracy ruled by an absolute autocrat who is reactionary and intolerant.


This view is not just bandied by atheists like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens. Besides these usual suspects, prominent Catholics are also using the abuse scandal as a pretext to attack the pontiff. In an open letter to all Catholic bishops published on Saturday, the Swiss theologian Hans Küng blames Benedict for the "church's worst credibility crisis since the Reformation"....

Not unlike much contemporary atheism, Küng's tirade owes more to ideology than to reason. His division of Catholicism (and other faith traditions) into a liberal, progressive and a conservative, reactionary wing is a modern, secular distinction....instrumentalising religion in the service of a dubious morality that amounts to little more than "being nice to each other"...

[Kung] also fails to understand the long, intellectual tradition which the pope seeks to preserve and extend – a kind of Romantic orthodoxy that eschews much of the modern Reformation and Counter-Reformation in favour of the patristic and medieval legacy shared by Christians in east and west. [And this is the point on which many traditionalists and neo-cons alike, intent on preserving the legacy of Trent, the counter-reformation, and modern philosophy depart from the Pope.] This legacy concerns the teachings on the church fathers and doctors like St Augustine, Dionysius or St Thomas Aquinas on the unity of nature and the supernatural against the modern separation of the natural universe from divine creativity and grace. In short, Benedict rejects the modern dualism of nature and grace or faith and reason – as spelled out in his controversial 2006 Regensburg address....

The pope's argument is that these modern dualisms have paved the way for the disastrous separation of reason from faith, an opposition that underpins the increasingly bitter conflict between the absolute reason of extreme secularism (and atheism) and the blind faith of religious fundamentalism....
Nor does Benedict merely look back with nostalgia to the foundational creed and the councils of the early church. On the contrary, he links the patristic and medieval legacy to modern Romanticism with their shared emphasis on natural intimations of the divine and on human, artistic activity. It is this Romantic tradition that has helped sustain and create the high culture which the pope champions. That's what underpins his defence of traditional liturgy (including the Tridentine mass) against the onslaught of "sacro-pop" – "parish tea party liturgies and banal 'cuddle me Jesus' pop songs", as Tracey Rowland so aptly writes in her book Ratzinger's Faith.

Beyond the liturgy, Romanticism is also key to saving secular culture from itself. By rejecting both absolute instrumental reason and blind emotional faith, the Romantic tradition outwits the contemporary convergence of soulless technological progress and an impoverished culture dominated by sexualisation and violence. More fundamentally, it opposes the complicit collusion of boundless economic and social liberalisation that has produced laissez-faire sex and an obsession with personal choice rather than objective (yet contested) standards of truth, beauty and goodness – a concern shared by the archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams in his seminal book Lost Icons.

Questions remain about how to translate Benedict's vision into a radical overhaul of the curia and relations between Rome and Catholic bishops. But far from being nostalgic or reactionary, this pope is an unreconstructed romantic who is bringing about an intellectual and cultural renaissance of Catholicism.

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