The Pope’s Anti-Capitalist Streak

Benjamin Dueholm highlights it:

While staunchly, even aggressively re-asserting Catholic teachings on homosexuality and birth control, he preached a recognizably left-wing version of economic justice. And while reiterating the special status of his church and his faith, he opened his rhetoric—much more than his predecessor did—to the reality of a pluralistic, secular Europe.

In countless speeches and letters, Benedict expressed an economic ethic that Fox News would label socialistic. In just that one address to the diplomatic corps, for instance, Benedict stressed the importance of universal education; the need for “new rules” stressing ethics over balance sheets to govern the global financial system; and the importance of fighting climate change in tandem with global poverty.

But this has been true of every Pope in modern times, including John Paul II whose brutal critique of communism was always accompanied by a dismay at the materialism of capitalism.

The Lost Promise Of Joseph Ratzinger

Pope Benedict XVI Visits Erfurt

In an essay on Pope Benedict’s legacy in America, Michael Sean Winters highlights these words from his World Day of Peace message just six weeks ago:

It is alarming to see hotbeds of tension and conflict caused by growing instances of inequality between rich and poor, by the prevalence of a selfish and individualistic mindset which also finds expression in an unregulated financial capitalism. In addition to the varied forms of terrorism and international crime, peace is also endangered by those forms of fundamentalism and fanaticism which distort the true nature of religion, which is called to foster fellowship and reconciliation among people.

That’s an authentic Catholic message – and it’s what lies behind my own concern with fundamentalism (which is not faith – but a form of neurosis) and with the moral limits we must impose on capitalism to remind ourselves that human beings are always ends in Christianity. They are never means. Winters adds:

Imagine, for a moment, the outcry if President Barack Obama had lumped “unregulated financial capitalism” with “terrorism” and “international crime” in the same paragraph as threats to world peace! But because many of Pope Benedict’s American fans do not share his clear, unequivocal suspicion of markets, these teachings tend to be ignored …

In another mark of his distance from what Americans consider conservative orthodoxy, Benedict has earned the title of “Green Pope.” He is the first pontiff to articulate a clear theology surrounding the moral obligation to care for the environment, and to link that teaching to the Church’s traditional concern for the poor. In an environmental catastrophe, the poor are usually hit the hardest. Many make light of the Vatican becoming a “carbon neutral” state, seeing it as mere symbolism. Of course, Catholics do not ever qualify the noun “symbolism” with the adjective “mere.”

Indeed. And you can see in his handling of these matters the rudiments of what could have been a transformative, prophetic papacy, one that responded with urgency and grace to the most pressing issues of our day. For a Church that is dying in Europe and for an American religious landscape increasingly marked by the rise of agnostics and the “nones,” the ability to speak to young people about environmental catastrophe and a financial collapse that came into being just as they reached adulthood held much promise.

And yet when it came to his brutal enforcement of rigid theological orthodoxy, his callous treatment of women, his unstinting opposition to the aspirations of gay and lesbian Christians, and his weak, corrupt handling of the child rape scandal, Benedict squandered this opportunity. This is all the more tragic given Benedict’s prodigious learning and theological acumen – he could have been a messenger not just for the continued relevance of the love Jesus witnessed to on every page of the Gospels, but a sophisticated, erudite, intellectually credible messenger for that vision.

I’ve already noted the false hopes of his brilliant encyclical, Deus Caritas Est. Sadness at what might have been is given further impetus when you read his early theological works, and realize how much of his thinking was forged by the reformist and incredibly innovative work that helped spur the Second Vatican Council.

Here’s one anecdote that sticks in the mind, taken from his memoir Milestones, about the symbols he chose to mark his appointment as Archbishop of Munich and Freising:

The first of [these symbols] was the shell, which first of all is simply a sign of our pilgrimage, of our being on the road: “We have here no lasting city.” But it also reminded me of the legend according to which one day Augustine, pondering the mystery of the Trinity, saw a child at the seashore playing with a shell, trying to put the water of the ocean into a little hole. Then he heard the words: This hole can no more contain the waters of the ocean than your intellect can comprehend the mystery of God. Thus, for me the shell points to my great master, Augustine, to my own theological work, and to the greatness of the mystery that extends farther than all our knowledge.

And then there’s this, from his relatively early work, Introduction to Christianity:

[B]oth the believer and the unbeliever share, each in his own way, doubt and belief, if they do not hide from themselves and from the truth of their being. Neither can quite escape either doubt or belief; for the one, faith is present against doubt; for the other, through and in the form of doubt. It is the basic pattern of man’s destiny only to be allowed to find the finality of his existence in this unceasing rivalry between doubt and belief, temptation and certainty. Perhaps in precisely this way doubt, which saves both sides from being shut up in their own worlds, could become the avenue of communication.

These words, read from the present day, are haunting. Could there be a more wrenching image of a man “shut up in his own world” than the aging Benedict in the Vatican? Somehow, the young theologian who praised doubt as an “avenue of communication” between believer and unbeliever became the “Vicar of Orthodoxy” and “God’s Rottweiler.” My own view is that the tragic moment in Ratzinger’s career was his elevation from theologian to the enforcer of orthodoxy. His austere Augustinianism – his deep sense of the way in which God enters our lives and has entered our world regardless of our will or desires – created a beautiful, if perhaps too beautiful – theology. But with a catch, when truth became allied with ecclesiastical power:

His bleakness, while theologically a way in which the extremity of grace can be radically described, is — once in power — a recipe for authoritarianism. The same view that holds that man is hopeless and needs the mystery of God holds that man is hopeless and needs the discipline of authority. For these reasons, the elevation of Ratzinger to the prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was a particularly fateful decision. The very same theology that could describe the mystery of God, His unknowability, His radical gift of grace, could be used to justify the lack of any trust in the work of the Church below, and the necessity to maintain absolute conformity to the mysterious dictates received from above. What Ratzinger’s elevation unleashed—the wild card in Ratzinger’s development—was the factor of power. His theology did not change. But its new context was to transform the purity of its intent.

Somehow, the prelate who compared the mysteries of God to the vastness of the ocean aided and abetted the forces of reaction in the Church. Somehow, the thinker who urged readers to recognize “the truth of their being” became the foe of gay and lesbian Christians who wanted to do just that. There was equally a blindness to the revolution in women’s freedom that occurred in his lifetime. You will notice that his abdication begins, “Dear Brothers …” Sisters are not among those he addresses as equals:

Ratzinger describes women, in The Ratzinger Report, as the receptacles “of motherhood, of gratitude, of contemplation, of beauty.” His challenge to women in the 1980s is to live up to the virtues of the Virgin Mary. In itself, that is hardly objectionable to a Catholic. But what is remarkable is how much is left out. No other avenue of achievement or self-fulfillment is countenanced. The implication is that there is nothing of value for the Christian view of women in the work, creativity, or independence that women in the West now partly enjoy. On the contrary, women have paid

“the highest price to the new society and its values. . . . What is the woman to do when the roles inscribed in her biology have been denied and perhaps even ridiculed? If her wonderful capacity to give love, help, solace, warmth, solidarity has been replaced by the economistic and trade union mentality of the “profession,” by this typical masculine concern?”

Is Ratzinger really saying that any form of “professional” work is destructive of the “roles inscribed in [female] biology”? And does the massive moral experience of working women, who have also struggled to lead Catholic lives, have nothing to say to this judgment? Is “solace” incompatible with a mother who devotes herself in part to a world other than the family? Is love a capacity necessarily destroyed by work? Has Ratzinger any evidence to support such claims?

Of course he didn’t. By that point – and further on – he asserted and demanded obedience. He was meticulous in his scrutiny of the church’s theologians and helped stamp out the very debate he once helped pioneer. The slightest scintilla of heresy could be detected from Rome, publicized and disciplined. Thousands of cases of child rapes – all of which he saw from 2001 onwards? Not so much. He insisted on total and utter secrecy within the church and no cooperation with civil authorities. He allowed a monster like Maciel to carry on.

Perhaps once he abdicates the papacy the full extent of Joseph Ratzinger’s transformation can be understood and, if not explained, then more fully grasped. And then, maybe, a Church that so desperately needs renewal, and a world that needs Jesus’ message of love and grace more than ever, finally can move forward and speak with credibility to the modern world. It is difficult to know how that can happen apart from coming to terms with the forces, within and without the Church, that are personified by the brilliant young German theologian who became Pope. A Pope who, in the end, gave up, when faced with the enormity of the corruption and degeneracy his papacy did so little to counter and the Western faithless he failed to engage.

(Photo: Pope Benedict XVI leads morning mass at Domplatz square in front of the Erfurter Dom cathedral on September 24, 2011 in Erfurt, Germany. By Carsten Koall/Getty Images. My entire 1988 essay on Ratzinger is now online at The New Republic. )

Benedict’s Radical End

[Re-posted from earlier today]

A resignation is truly a big deal. Since it hasn’t happened in 600 years, it changes the institution. It’s not outside the rules. The last Benedict to resign was Benedict IX (1032-45), “after selling the papacy to his godfather Gregory VI.” I’m unaware of any evidence of that kind this time around. John Paul II drew up contingency plans to resign if he became incapable of performing his functions – and yet he hung on for a very long time indeed.  Tom Reese:

In Light of the World, Pope Benedict responded unambiguously to a question about whether a pope could resign: “Yes. If a Pope clearly realizes that he is no longer physically, psychologically, and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office, then he has a right and, under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign.”

On the other hand, he did not favor resignation simply because the burden of the papacy is great. “When the danger is great one must not run away. For that reason, now is certainly not the time to resign. Precisely at a time like this one must stand fast and endure the situation. That is my view. One can resign at a peaceful moment or when one simply cannot go on. But one must not run away from danger and say someone else should do it.”

That was published a little over two years ago. And yet in his resignation letter, this is the rationale:

In today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.

I do think his reference to the world “being shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith” is a critical qualifier here. He seems to recognize that the challenges the Catholic church now faces – its intellectual collapse in the West, the stench of moral corruption revealed by the decades of child-rape and cover-ups, and the resort to the crudest forms of authority and reactionaryism in response to new ideas, discoveries and truths about human nature – have now overwhelmed his physical and mental strength. At some point, the sheer human energy required to try and impose a moral authority already lost must have seemed hopeless.

And the damage has been enormous.

Look at Benedict’s legacy in Germany, his home country:

Since Benedict’s election in 2005, the number of people leaving the Catholic Church in Germany has more than doubled, and it’s been the highest most recently in Ratzinger’s former Archdiocese of Munich and Freising. Only 30 percent of Germans are still Catholic today.

In Ireland, the collapse has been close to total. At the start of his papacy, Benedict declared his intent to bring Catholicism back to intellectual life in Europe. He didn’t just fail; he failed catastrophically, accelerating the Church’s demographic, spiritual and moral decline in the West. Key pillars of the Wojtila-Ratzinger counter-reformation – like the Legion of Christ, the creation of the repeat child rapist and drug trafficker, Marcial Maciel  – crumbled to dust. Key enablers of abuse were given rewards – Boston’s Cardinal Law springs to mind; other minor figures – including the monster who raped over 200 deaf children, Father Lawrence Murphy – were allowed a quiet retirement with no serious punishment;  I called for the Pope’s resignation two years ago, as the full extent of his complicity in the child-rape crisis came into closer view:

Ratzinger can no more be separated from John Paul II than Bush can from Cheney. And the cult of authority was John Paul II’s and Benedict XVI’s key contribution to the modern church. Now we see how this cult of authority was directly connected to enabling the church to enable, hide and defend the rapists of children … there is no escaping the verdict of history.

The Pope must resign. He has no moral authority left. And a new Pope needs to be selected who represents an end to the euphemisms, an end to any tolerance for this, and who will seek to restore the balance of authority achieved by the Second Vatican Council.

For me, the great tragedy of Benedict was his panic after the Second Council. There is no disputing the elegance of his mind or the exquisite meticulousness of his perfect, orderly German theology – and his work alongside the more consistently modernist Hans Kung will stand the test of time. But his post-1960s theology had as much relationship to the real challenges of the 21st Century as the effete, secluded German scholar, embalmed in clerical privilege for his entire adult life. And his early promise as a theologian calcified into the purest form of reaction and fear when given the power to enforce orthodoxy, which is what he essentially did for well over two decades. It was excruciating to watch such a careful, often illuminating scholar turn into a Grand Inquisitor. It was revealing that a bureaucrat who never missed even a scintilla of heresy was able to turn such a blind eye to the monstrous rapes of so many children. I wrote once:

Reading Benedict for a struggling gay Catholic like me is like reading a completely circular, self-enclosed system that is as beautiful at times as it is maddeningly immune to reasoned query. The dogmatism is astonishing. If your conscience demands that you dissent from some teachings, then it is not really your conscience. It is sin. And if all this circular dogmatism forces many to leave the church they once thought of as home? So be it.

When he was actually elected Pope, I was horrified by what it implied about the future. Back in 2005, I wrote:

I was trying to explain last night to a non-Catholic just how dumb-struck many reformist Catholics are by the elevation of Ratzinger. And then I found a way to explain. This is the religious equivalent of having had four terms of George W. Bush only to find that his successor as president is Karl Rove. Get it now?

I read much of Ratzinger’s theology back in the 1980s, as he assumed the power of Papal enforcer of orthodoxy. Here’s an extract from my 1988 TNR review of Ratzinger’s thought (alas, not online):

The metamorphosis of Joseph Ratzinger from Augustinian theologian to Augustinian policeman, and finally to policeman, may in part be due to the metamorphosis of the Church itself. The forces of change have been so great in the Church during the past two decades that some form of simple assertion of authority may have a prudential justification. John Paul II, however, has balanced Ratzinger’s zeal with a more humane approach. Together, they have played a “good cop, bad cop” routine with recalcitrant faithful. Ratzinger’s great gift to a Church all too easily distracted by the world is to call the faithful back to the fundamentals. But it is difficult not to feel dismayed by the way in which his earlier inspiration has ceded to the dictates of coercion, and his theological distrust of fallen man has translated so easily into disdain for Christians trying to live obediently in modernity. The man who might have guided the Church through reason has resorted to governing by force.

Ed Kilgore summarized the piece:

Sullivan’s take on Ratzinger back then was that he represented the marriage of the German Augustinian tradition (the same tradition that produced great Protestant theologians from Martin Luther to Karl Barth) with papal power, along with an unhealthy attitude about sex and gender. It’s a very toxic combination, producing a very political agenda in the guise of the non-political sovereignty of the Church. That’s why Andrew ultimately compared Cardinal Ratzinger then, and compares Benedict XVI now, to Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor: a man driven by the logic of theology to, and perhaps beyond, the limits of Christianity itself.I hope Sullivan is wrong about the new pope, but there are unsettling analogies in his Catholic analysis of Ratzinger to the strangely un-Christian tendencies recently apparent in so many conspicuously Christian U.S. religious and political leaders.

I don’t think, alas, that I was wrong. And the desert in which the church has wandered since has been bleak but not without oases of new thought and eruptions of real grace and persistence of real faith. Those of us who have hung in must now pray for a new direction, a return to the spirit of the Second Council, a Pope of reform after an era of often irrational reaction and concealment of some of the worst evil imaginable. It can happen. Perhaps Benedict XVI finally grasped that. And finally did what he was never ever capable of doing before: let go and let God take over.

May the sunlight now come in; may accountability be taken; may a new fearlessness, guided by the Holy Spirit, give the church new life when its strength and vitality are in such profound crisis. May we see real punishment for the enablers of child rape; may we see more married priests and a serious discussion about women priests. May we see a return to the core truths of our faith: that God exists, that God is love; that this love became incarnate to rid us of the dead-end of worldliness into the wonderment of caritas. This is a chance for renewal. And repentance … as Lent inexorably approaches and Easter finally beckons.

Know hope.

Benedict’s Greatest Encyclical

Not a hard choice. My 2006 take on “Deus Caritas Est”:

It’s a beautifully written document: humane, outward, subtle and exactly, in my view, what the Church needs right now.

It’s a reminder of our basis as Church – in the love that Jesus brought into the world and commanded us to live. Benedict’s Augustinian realism that heaven on earth is impossible, that ideologies that pretend to solve all human suffering are lies, that we should not attempt “what God’s governance of the world apparently cannot: fully resolve every problem” – all these are profound truths at the center of our faith.

I’m struck, however, by the near-complete absence in the document of the love of “amicitia,” of friendship. It is far more central to the Gospel message than eros, and under-estimated in our current culture, to our great detriment. I also, obviously, share Benedict’s wonder at conjugal love. I see no conflict between the love of two homosexual men or women for each other and the mystery of heterosexual love. One day, it would be wonderful to see this doctrine of love extend to all God’s creatures. But these are brief, provisional comments. Amy Wellborn has a very insightful short essay on the Enclyclical. So does Rocco Palmo…  And yes, this does surprise me somewhat. It is not as extreme or as repressive as Benedict’s well-earned reputation. It is a sign, one hopes, of a papacy that can change and grow and concentrate on the central truths, not peripheral obsessions.

For that, a great sigh of relief. And, even, yes, hope …

Quote For The Day


“Even if eros is at first mainly covetous and ascending, a fascination for the great promise of happiness, in drawing near to the other, it is less and less concerned with itself, increasingly seeks the happiness of the other, is concerned more and more with the beloved, bestows itself and wants to “be there for” the other… The contemporary way of exalting the body is deceptive. Man himself becomes a commodity‚ he now considers his body and his sexuality as the purely material part of himself, to be used and exploited at will‚ as a mere object that he attempts, as he pleases, to make both enjoyable and harmless‚ it is more or less relegated to the purely biological sphere. The apparent exaltation of the body can quickly turn into a hatred of bodiliness,” – Pope Benedict XVI.

Ratzinger’s Anti-Gay Fixation

<> on June 2, 2012 in Milan, Italy.

Jim Burroway reviews it:

Pope Benedict XVI has been an anti-gay crusader of long standing. In a 2007 message for World Peace Day, in which the  Pope had a whole range of worldly ills which stand as a barrier to peace, he singled out gay marriage as “an objective obstacle on the road to peace.” This, while the Vatican opposed a UN resolution on decriminalization of homosexuality and the removal of the death penalty for those countries which impose it. While the Vatican is credited for exerting its influence against Uganda’s Anti-Homosxuality Bill in 2010, the Pope last December met with Parliament Speaker Rebecca Kadaga, the bill’s supporter, while she was in Italy for, ironically, a human rights conference.

Should he be selected, Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson could be even worse. Ratzinger’s 1986 letter on the “objective disorder” of gay people combined with his subsequent attempt to ban all vocations from homosexuals in entering seminaries was eloquent enough about his own sexual panic.

(Photo: the infamous red Prada slippers, by Getty Images.)

The Stench He Leaves Behind

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I can’t imagine I’m alone in wishing Hitch were still here to comment on Pope Benedict’s abdication – the video above certainly indicates he’d relish the time between the Pope’s resignation taking effect and the appearance of white smoke in Rome, when no one on earth could claim to be infallible. Though Hitch’s passing means we’ll miss his real-time observations, we still have his writings. Slate just republished this piece of his from 2010, in which he decried the Church’s handling of the child rape scandal – and found the Pope to be at the heart of the institution’s corruption:

Very much more serious is the role of Joseph Ratzinger, before the church decided to make him supreme leader, in obstructing justice on a global scale. After his promotion to cardinal, he was put in charge of the so-called “Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith” (formerly known as the Inquisition). In 2001, Pope John Paul II placed this department in charge of the investigation of child rape and torture by Catholic priests. In May of that year, Ratzinger issued a confidential letter to every bishop. In it, he reminded them of the extreme gravity of a certain crime. But that crime was the reporting of the rape and torture.

The accusations, intoned Ratzinger, were only treatable within the church’s own exclusive jurisdiction. Any sharing of the evidence with legal authorities or the press was utterly forbidden. Charges were to be investigated “in the most secretive way … restrained by a perpetual silence … and everyone … is to observe the strictest secret which is commonly regarded as a secret of the Holy Office … under the penalty of excommunication.” (My italics). Nobody has yet been excommunicated for the rape and torture of children, but exposing the offense could get you into serious trouble. And this is the church that warns us against moral relativism!

And here’s this, from another essay of Hitch’s from around the same time:

Almost every week, I go and debate with spokesmen of religious faith. Invariably and without exception, they inform me that without a belief in supernatural authority I would have no basis for my morality. Yet here is an ancient Christian church that deals in awful certainties when it comes to outright condemnation of sins like divorce, abortion, contraception, and homosexuality between consenting adults. For these offenses there is no forgiveness, and moral absolutism is invoked. Yet let the subject be the rape and torture of defenseless children, and at once every kind of wiggle room and excuse-making is invoked. What can one say of a church that finds so much latitude for a crime so ghastly that no morally normal person can even think of it without shuddering?

It’s interesting, too, that the same church did its best to hide the rape and torture from the secular authorities, even forcing child victims (as in the disgusting case of Cardinal Sean Brady, the spiritual chieftain of the Catholics of Ireland) to sign secrecy oaths that prevented them from testifying against their rapists and torturers. Why were they so afraid of secular justice? Did they think it would be less indifferent and pliable than private priestly investigations? In that case, what is left of the shabby half-baked argument that people can’t understand elementary morality without a divine warrant?

Earlier today, I asked if lawsuits could proceed against the Pope himself, once he no longer is shielded from legal accountability as a head of state. Not surprisingly, Hitch was there first:

The case for bringing the head of the Catholic hierarchy within the orbit of law is easily enough made. All it involves is the ability to look at a naked emperor and ask the question “Why?” Mentally remove his papal vestments and imagine him in a suit, and Joseph Ratzinger becomes just a Bavarian bureaucrat who has failed in the only task he was ever set—that of damage control. The question started small. In 2002, I happened to be on Hardball With Chris Matthews, discussing what the then attorney general of Massachusetts, Thomas Reilly, had termed a massive cover-up by the church of crimes against children by more than a thousand priests.

I asked, why is the man who is prima facie responsible, Cardinal Bernard Law, not being questioned by the forces of law and order? Why is the church allowed to be judge in its own case and enabled in effect to run private courts where gross and evil offenders end up being “forgiven”? This point must have hung in the air a bit, and perhaps lodged in Cardinal Law’s own mind, because in December of that year he left Boston just hours before state troopers arrived with a subpoena seeking his grand-jury testimony. Where did he go? To Rome, where he later voted in the election of Pope Benedict XVI and now presides over the beautiful church of Santa Maria Maggiore, as well as several Vatican subcommittees.

In my submission, the current scandal passed the point of no return when the Vatican officially became a hideout for a man who was little better than a fugitive from justice. By sheltering such a salient offender at its very heart, the Vatican had invited the metastasis of the horror into its bosom and thence to its very head. It is obvious that Cardinal Law could not have made his escape or been given asylum without the approval of the then pontiff and of his most trusted deputy in the matter of child-rape damage control, then cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

Well, a legal case against him and his decades of abetting child rape is now a possibility. He is no longer a head of state.

The Fundamentalist Pope


Russell D. Moore offers an evangelical take on Benedict, championing his stance on social issues:

Benedict has stood against the nihilism that defines human worth in terms of power and usefulness. He has constantly spoken for those whose lives are seen as a burden to society: the baby with Down syndrome, the woman with advanced Alzheimer’s, the child starving in the desert, the prisoner being tortured. These lives aren’t things, he has said, but images of God, and for them we will give an account. When society wants to dehumanize with language: “embryo,” “fetus,” “anchor baby,” “illegal alien,” “collateral damage,” and so on, Benedict has stood firmly to point to the human faces the world is seeking to wipe away.

Can someone point me to a moment when the Pope reproved the United States for endorsing and practicing torture? He uttered not a squeak when visiting the US. And where has he been on universal healthcare? We know where his bishops were: ignoring one vast moral leap for their usual sexual obsessions.