Sunday, March 3, 2013

Two Columns

In the wake of Pope Benedict's resignation, religion is once again front and center in the media. Today's NY Times features two columns about the Church. The first, by Maureen Dowd, vents what one has typically come to expect from certain quarters. It's based on the thoughts of  Irsh author, Colm Toibin, author of an offensive one-woman play about the Blessed Virgin Mary,
The Testament of Mary - the sort of work which, if written about Mohammed would spark riots around the world. Toibin's disdain for the Church is so petty that he even attacks the Pope for - of all trivial things - leaving Rome by helicopter rather than by car!
The second column, by Ross Douthat does what religious journalism ought to do more of. It offers an evaluaiton of Pope Benedict XVI's lasting legacy to the Church. It starts with what one hears constantly about how the Church is in crisis - according to some, the worst since the French Revolution or even the Reformation. Douthat does not deny that there are problems - both culture-wide Western problems ("the rise of spiritual indiviudalism, the inlfuence of the so-called new ahteism, the gap between traditonal Christian sexual ethics and present-day relaities") and Church-specific problems ("scandals ... and a communications strategy apparently designed to win the news cycles of 1848").
But then Douthat does what many others do not. Rather than assessing Benedict's legacy by comparing the Church today with some left-wing fantasy Church that never existed and never will, he compares it to the situation in the Church in the 1970s. It has been Ratzinger's mission - first as Cardinal, then as Pope - "to re-establish where Catholicism actually stood," reasserting the Church's essential doctrines and the Church's core conviction "that its doctrines are compatible with reason, scholarship and science."
Douthat acknowledges that this has "disappointed or wounded" many who can't reconcile the Church's teachings with the way they live - or want to live - their lives. Nor does it "solve the broad cultural challenges facing institutional Christianity in the West." (My own sense is that that is where analysts on the outside start from. Operating out of the politiclaly correct presuppositions of the intellectual class, they naturally see the contemporary Church as a failure - as if it were the Church's job uncritically to reconcile its teachings with the way we live today).
Douthat's point is that  Pope Benedict's approach has stabilized Catholic life. The Church still has problems galore, of course; but Douthat compares it favorably to "Christian denominations that did not have a Ratzinger- those churches that persisted in the spirit of the 1970s and didn't reassert a doctrinal core." He makes the obvious point that "it is difficult to pick out a major religious body where the progressive course urged by so many of Ratzinger's critics has increased vitality and growth."
Of course, that doesn't mean that the Church's internal and external problems aren't real or that they will just go away without appropriate action - what Douthat calls "some unexpected synthesis of tradition and innovation, that would serve Catholicism well." The point, however, is that the failed approaches of the 1970s, which are still being propounded in certain circles and remain the politically correct default position of the intellectual class, remain (as they essentially always were) spiritually bankrupt.  My guess is that whatever new (spiritually healthy) directions may arise to move the Church forward will emerge from those places where the Church is strongest - what we used to call the "third world," what is now better known as "the Global South."
Meanwhile, Pope Benedict deserves the Church's gratitude for having steered the ship back on course.

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