Spring 2008, Vol. 11, No. 1

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Sally Gets Religion

God and Mammon on the Web

Off with their Head Scarves

Playing Godless

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Letter to the Editor


From the Editor:
by Mark Silk 

Benedict XVI has come and gone, with mostly good notices from journalists and professional Catholics alike. Viva il papa! Surprise!

In his wake, there did come from the Catholic Left a certain amount of nanny-nanny-boo-boo directed toward the Catholic Right. Fears that the former Enforcer of Orthodoxy would slap some serious academic wrist evaporated when the pontiff delivered his address to Catholic educators April 17. 

“None of us heard anything that was the least bit scolding,” Sister Janet Eisner, president of Emmanuel College in Boston, told the Boston Globe.

“He very clearly said that he affirmed and respected academic freedom,” Thomas J. Reese, S.J. (who was pushed out of the editorship of the Jesuit magazine America because of what the Vatican considered an excessively liberal view of homosexuality) informed the readers of the Chronicle of Higher Education. “That was something that a lot of people in academia were concerned about. It’s a speech that academics can live with.”

Rising to the bait like a hungry bass, George Weigel, S.F. (that’s Senior Fellow, Ethics and Public Policy Center) growled that the pope had given progressives plenty, plenty to answer for. “The facts, to put it gently, suggest something rather more complicated,” Weigel wrote in The Tidings, and proceeded to quote liberally from the more monitory of Benedict’s pronouncements.

Employing classic Vaticanese, Benedict gave everyone enough to seize upon in order to prove that yes, the pope is really on our side, not yours.

Academic freedom yes: “In virtue of this freedom you are called to search for the truth where careful analysis of evidence leads you.” And no: “Yet it is also the case that any appeal to the principle of academic freedom in order to justify positions that contradict the faith and the teaching of the Church would obstruct or even betray the university’s identity and mission.”

You’ve got to figure that, wise as they are in the ways of Rome, Weigel and company were less than entirely pleased with the pope’s performance. But because they are ideologically bound to embrace whatever the papacy says and does, they don’t get to complain in public the way the liberals do—as the biblical scholar John Dominick Crossan did in the Washington Post’s On Faith blogathon: “The Pope’s problem is not just that he has a growing rift with the clergy and laity of America but that he has a growing rift with the God and Christ of the New Testament.” Smack.

For us outsiders too, the papal via media has its frustrations. What does the professorial Bishop of Rome—who, by all accounts, would much rather curl up with a theological tome and  his pet cat than bask in the cheers of the populus dei—really think about, oh, the proper relationship of church and state in the 21st century? Like a bad editorial, there’s an awful lot of on the one hand, on the other.

Coming to America, Benedict gave every indication of having consulted the right proof texts. He quoted Washington’s Farewell Address and invoked the name of Tocqueville. He complimented the United States on having separated church and state the right way—“with a positive concept of secularity, because this new people was composed of communities and individuals who had fled from the State Church....But the State itself had to be secular precisely out of love for religion in its authenticity, which can only be lived freely.”

Did this mean that, in his zeal to revive Catholic practice in Western Europe, the Holy Father was disposed to recommend the American model? Well, no. “In Europe we cannot simply copy the United States: We have our own history.” Even though “here in America, unlike many places in Europe, the secular mentality has not been intrinsically opposed to religion.” Though of course today the United States itself is suffering “the attack of a new secularism, quite a different kind of secularism,” the kind that “drives a wedge between truth and faith.” And so on.

The good folks at Commonweal expressed the wish that the pontiff had made some acknowledgement of “how decisive” the experience of Catholics in America was in changing Rome’s mind on religious liberty: “Before the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), the church had long taught that the separation of church and state was impossible, that ‘error had no rights.’ It is an irony worth pondering that Benedict’s praise of religious liberty would have been condemned by the church a mere fifty years ago.”

Irony does not seem to be the present pope’s strong suit, however. Reading through the corpus of allocutions made during the visit, one begins to feel suffocated by the seamless garment of pontifical prose, by the sense that whatever the virtues of free inquiry and religious liberty, the last thing Benedict wanted was to do was to give vent to any hard questions.

What happens, for example, when free inquiry bumps up against the teaching of the church? As in, when John Courtney Murray, S.J. was silenced by Rome for advancing the very ideas on church and state that prevailed at Vatican II (and which were just so enthusiastically articulated by Benedict XVI)?

Or when members of the hierarchy or others acting in the name of the church inject themselves into a political campaign by disciplining or otherwise attacking Catholic candidates or their prominent supporters deemed to be causing scandal by their non-compliance with Catholic doctrine? Such as by making a show of denying them communion?

In his April 18 address to the U.N. General Assembly, Benedict averred that if “the religious sphere is kept separate from political action, then great benefits ensue for individuals and communities.” It was a nice thought, expressed in the passive voice.

Check out Spiritual Politics, Mark Silk's blog on religion and the election, and for commentary and exit polling on local elections, State by State .


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