Spring 2005, Vol. 8, No. 1

Table of Contents
Spring 2005

Quick Links:
Articles in this issue

From the Editor:
What's In a Name?

Getting Right with the Pope

Why Moral Values Did Count

What Athens Has To Do With Jerusalem

Evangelicals Discover the Culture of Life

Sin and Redemption in Atlanta

The Faith-Based Initiative Re-ups

Same-Sex Toons



From the Editor: 
What's in a Name?       

by Mark Silk

After Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger emerged as Pope Benedict XVI from the conclave he stage-managed, observers speculated on the significance of the new pontiff’s choice of name. The two previous Benedicts who seemed most pertinent were Benedict XV, whose papacy coincided with World War I, and Benedict of Nursia, the sixth-century abbot whose Rule became the basic charter
of Western monasticism. 

For laboring heroically but fruitlessly to end the Great War, Benedict XV personified the pope as peacemaker—an example, perhaps, for the era of the War on Terror. As for Benedict of Nursia, he helped keep the lamp of Christianity lit in a dark age, such as anyone concerned about churchgoing in contemporary Europe might consider that continent to be undergoing again.

I would nominate in addition (if a numerical antecedent is admissible) the last papal “XVI,” Gregory by name, who served the servants of God from 1831 to 1846. Like the sixteenth Benedict, Gregory XVI was a professional theologian who came to the throne of Peter from a high position in the Roman curia. And, like Benedict, he had made his mark by decrying the latest developments in Western civilization. A book he published in 1799 carries the title, Triumph of the Holy See and the Church against the Assaults of Innovators.

Gregory’s inaugural encyclical, Mirari Vos (1832), represents the first great papal blast against the modern world. In it, the new pope attacked the separation of church and state, condemned the “insolence of science,” insisted that the common people trust and submit to princes, and assailed religious “indifferentism”—the idea that any religion can get you into heaven provided it upholds morality. Such a view, Gregory proclaimed, is a “pestilence” that “gives rise to that absurd and erroneous proposition which claims that liberty of conscience must be maintained for everyone.”

Benedict XVI’s nuanced views on the political order, scientific inquiry, and liberty of conscience are, it should be stressed, far removed from the reactionary clarity of Mirari Vos. But it’s no stretch to see his denunciation of the “tyranny of relativism” (the most widely quoted phrase from his allocution at John Paul II’s funeral) as the lineal descendent of Gregory’s assault on the pestilence of indifferentism.

From indifferentism to relativism, Rome’s stance on the wages of modernity has served as the main story line for Roman Catholicism since the French Revolution. It has been a long and winding road.

Gregory’s successor, Pius IX (1846-78), is the poster pope for hostility to the modern world. In 1864, Pio Nono promulgated a Syllabus of Errors that condemned 80 modernist propositions on subjects ranging from pantheism to marriage, concluding with, “The Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilization.”

Pius was followed by Leo XIII (1878-1903), who, while hardly a liberal democrat, undertook a campaign to (as one recent historian has put it) “bring the papacy and the church into a more cordial relationship with the modern world.” Leo earned the eternal affection of progressive Catholics for supporting the right of workers to organize to protect themselves against predatory capitalism—though whether this constituted more cordiality towards the modern world depends upon your point of view.

In any event, after Leo, Pius X (1903-14) resumed the hard line, using a succession of decrees and encyclicals to denounce all the ways and means of modernism, which he defined as a “synthesis of all heresies.” Rooting out any hint of modernism from the thinking of members of the Catholic clergy was a particular passion of his.

This rejection of all efforts to reconcile the church to contemporary civilization was moderated, to a modest degree, by the three popes who followed—the aforementioned Benedict XV (reportedly on his predecessor’s hit list of “modernists”) and the eleventh and twelfth Piuses. Pius XII (1939-58), in particular, is notable for his appreciation of science and technology and his sanctioning of the text-critical approach to Bible scholarship.

But it fell to Pope John XXIII to bring the church up to date. Across a broad front, he sought to bring the Vatican into greater harmony with the modern state system and secular society, even seeking accommodation rather than confrontation with the communist bloc. Above all, by calling the Second Vatican Council, he put Catholics on the road to establishing cordial relations with those of other faiths, to recognizing the rights of conscience, and to creating a measure of spiritual democracy within the church itself.

Paul VI, who presided over the latter part of Vatican II, put the brakes on such aggiornamento—most notably by declining to follow the recommendation of his appointed experts that the church abandon its opposition to “artificial” birth control. Paul was a gray and ambivalent figure compared to his flamboyant predecessor, and he was no less so compared to the remarkable John Paul II. 

While vigorously flourishing the banner of Vatican II’s opening to those of other faiths—especially the Jews—John Paul represented something of a throwback to the anti-modernist popes of the past in his reining in of liberalism in the church and his centralization of papal power. If he is most widely celebrated for facing down communism in his native Poland, and if communism represents the reductio ad absurdum of the modern idea of the supremacy of man, then here John Paul II was at his anti-modernist height.

As this lightning overview suggests, the papacy has been about the business of calibrating and recalibrating its posture towards the modern world for a couple of centuries. For its part, the modern world has over that period been assumed to be, at least from the papacy’s standpoint, a relatively constant thing.

To be sure, it has manifested itself in fundamentally different forms of government, from the democratic to the totalitarian. But its basic nature remains the same: a commitment to science and reason, a determination to emancipate itself from the moral and political guidance of religious authority, a preoccupation with the things of this world. In a word, it is an enterprise of secularism.

And yet, when the next volume of the history of the popes is written, the significance of John Paul II’s papacy may lie less in how the latest pope approached the modern world than in how the modern world began to approach the papacy.

For world leaders, all roads led to Rome in April of 2005 not merely because John Paul II had been a powerful and attractive personality who went everywhere and met everyone who was anyone. Between the Iranian Revolution, which took place a year after he took charge of the Holy See, and the reelection of George W. Bush a few months before he died, John Paul assumed the role of spiritual leader of a postmodern world in which religion counted in the affairs of nations as it hadn’t counted since, well, the French Revolution. It was a role that needed to concede nothing in the way of political importance to any other world leader.

From political Islam in the Middle East to political evangelicalism in the Americas, from a liberated Eastern Orthodoxy throwing its weight around the former Soviet bloc to the vigorous contest between Christianity and Islam in Africa, religion is on the march across the globe. Old Europe may still be caught in the throes of modernism, but just about everywhere else, Benedict XVI has inherited a radically different world than his predecessor did. This won’t be your grandfather’s papacy.



Hit Counter