Benedict XVI: The metaphysical pope

and the historical church

by John Mackrell

from Signs of the Times, No. 23 - Oct 2006

Benedict XVI's lecture on the role of reason in religion has upset many people, not just Muslims. It would be churlish to deny that the Pope delivered a brilliant philosophical discourse, which will reverberate for years to come in specialist journals. Whether this self-contained exposition bears any relationship to religion itself is very questionable.

It is a dangerous illusion for anyone - particularly the Pope - to believe that he possesses a monopoly on the truth. Benedict XVI is certainly at odds with his illustrious predecessor, John XXIII, on this, and indeed on other points. John XXIII, it will be remembered, was reluctant to admit a Jewish boy into the Church for fear of upsetting the boy's orthodox Jewish parents. He clearly believed, alongside the 16th Century Guillaume de Poitiers, and many others, that there are many paths to God and many ways of pleasing him. And among those paths to God, many will include Islam. It was extraordinarily insensitive of Benedict XVI to condemn Muslims with scant qualification for believing in jihad , the holy war, to which only a tiny minority of Muslims subscribe. Instead of effectively cheering on the cohorts of Bush and Blair, a person of broad sympathies for others would have made allowance for Muslim violence in the light of the unjust way in which they have been treated and still are being treated by Christians today. That is not to endorse the persecution of Christians in many Muslim countries today. Psychologists, to whom the Pope seems to take particular exception, could inform him that the first rule in resolving disputes is for the parties to listen to each other's grievances.

In focusing on what the Pope says in his erudite discourse, it is easy to fail to see what he does not say, which is far more revealing. He does not say, for instance, that Jesus Christ emphasized behaviour over belief, love over self-righteousness. Benedict XVI will doubtless continue to inspire metaphysicians. To understand the Roman Catholic Church as a living organism many will find historians more instructive. What is immediately apparent to the historian is that attitudes, practices and beliefs were very different at various times in the past. At one time it was unthinkable that a totally Jewish Church should include gentiles, who now comprise almost all its members. Today the Roman authorities are obsessive in keeping the priesthood a preserve for celibate men. Yet, before the institution of the priesthood - and indeed afterwards - church leaders were drawn from both sexes and were sometimes married. More recently, some women were ordained priests behind the iron curtain to circumvent persecution by the communist authorities, while even today married Protestant vicars have been welcomed into the Catholic Church in Britain. In these and other areas attitudes and practices are seldom frozen, except when caught in a time warp, as at present.

Where can the historians be seen at work? In countless writings by Hans Küng and others. Perhaps, modesty should preclude it, but may I take the liberty of introducing you to another humbler source, the newly re-launched website of Catholics for a Changing Church - Many of the articles there have a direct bearing on the structure of the Roman Catholic Church. After a brief introduction to CCC's activities and raison d'être, and links to other societies, such as your own, there follows a section on the Church's Government and Misgovernment. An article on Conciliarism by John Challenor sets the scene. Councils are shown to be the predominant form of government during the first millennium, only for the papacy to usurp their position in the course of the second millennium. The Vatican Council under Pope John XXIII brought the two sides together, with pope and council working harmoniously together. Subsequently, the Roman Curia, with its vested interest in manipulating the papacy, succeeded in undermining the Council and in restoring the comparatively recent ultramontane papacy. 'The Roman Curia: contemporary role of a medieval court' is a devastating critique by Michael Winter, who observed that farcical organisation at close quarters from his vantage point as a professor at the Beda College in Rome.

The articles on the clergy follow the same line, but are far more supportive. After all, it is the structures which need to be reformed, while those trapped in them deserve sympathy and encouragement. On seminaries Michael Winter again writes perceptively, as one who has taught both in Roman Catholic and Church of England seminaries. The comparison is, you will hardly be surprised to learn, in favour of the latter. Michael found that roughly the same amount of material was taught over twice as many years in the Roman Catholic seminaries. This was not primarily because the students were less able, though that may well have been the case. The main reason was to keep Roman Catholic ordinands out of the clutches of predatory women, until they were considered - sometimes wrongly - to be mature enough to deal with them! As for 'the second sex', the papacy itself unsurprisingly claims to be the ultimate authority. In 'The sexual fantasies of John Paul II', Elizabeth Price explores material from the Pope's own writings - published, but really more suitable for regurgitation on the psychoanalyst's couch.

Structures in the Roman Catholic Church are supported by attitudes, often shaped in earlier eras very different from our own. Among many articles, which I hope will interest members of MCU, two stand out. Under 'Theology' at the bottom of the website, there is an article by Adrian Smith on 'Science versus Religion: the case of Original Sin'. It should surely send a cold shiver down the spine of any evangelical imprudent enough to read it. Adrian demonstrates that the doctrine of Original Sin, as based on Genesis, is totally at variance with what is known about mankind's evolution. The other article is profound in its simplicity. Dr Jack Dominian, the well-known psychiatrist and author, has written 'Evangelisation and Humanisation' in which he takes the Roman Catholic Church to task for failing to minister to the emotional needs of its members. His case, which may possibly apply to the Church of England as well, is that the many admonitions to love God and one's neighbour are seldom accompanied by any practical advice. Jack discusses movingly how marriage, friendship and work can be deemed forms of prayer, which help to sanctify the individual, while conveying love and emotional support in the most effective ways.

The Catholic Church puts on a fine show in Rome, but is more alive in the minds of some of its dissident theologians. Perhaps it is time to put the Protestantism back into Catholicism!

John Mackrell is a retired lecturer in French History and a member of Catholics for a Changing Church.