A cynical view of the next pope

Hope springs eternal — and so there is speculation, as there was after John Paul II died, that finally we might have a more liberal pope and/or a pope who represents the vast Third World population that is the real foundation of Roman Catholicism today. I’m happy to be proved wrong, but I think such predictions are unlikely to bear out.

As for a liberal pope, that’s basically impossible, given that the last forty years have been one long effort to squelch the much-lauded “spirit of Vatican II” while maintaining plausible deniability. Essentially all the cardinals who will be electing the next pope have been appointed by the two popes who have spearheaded that effort, and I don’t expect they’ll suddenly have a change of heart.

On the topic of a Third World pope, that strikes me as more plausible (i.e., not absolutely impossible), but still a long-shot. Is a group composed of the same brilliant strategic thinkers who elevated Benedict, along with new recruits directly appointed by Benedict, really going to take a major risk?

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Hobbes’s critique of the European Union

This Thursday, Shimer College hosted a lecture by Bob Keohane, a Princeton professor of international relations (and an alumnus and member of the Board of Trustees). The lecture started from Hobbes (which Shimer’s Social Science 2 students were reading just before the lecture) and discussed ways that liberal realists have attempted to develop international organizations to turn the international sphere into something other than a “war of all against all” even in the absence of any realistic prospect of a global sovereign. It was an engaging and interesting lecture, and the juxtaposition of Hobbes and contemporary international relations got my mind churning on a weird question: What would Hobbes think of the European Union?

It occurred to me that we do have one point of reference for Hobbes’s view of “international organizations,” given his extensive discussion of the one truly international institution of his time: the Roman Catholic Church. Read the rest of this entry »

Why is birth control the Catholic Church’s last stand?

To many observers, the Catholic hierarchy’s opposition to birth control seems nonsensical — they might as well oppose ice cream. It seems like a win-win: the liberals are happy that women get reproductive freedom, but meanwhile if you’re anti-abortion, it seems like avoiding unwanted pregnancies in the first place is the best possible solution. What’s not to like? Or more to the point: why are they making this, of all the many Catholic moral teachings, the cross they’re willing to die on, even as the laity has long since stopped caring?

I don’t think we can explain this simply through misogyny or fear of feminine sexuality, etc., because there are plenty of misogynists in the world who don’t make a point of picking a fight with the president of the United States over birth control. This birth control issue seems to be almost exclusively a Catholic “thing,” so it has to have a Catholic-specific explanation. I propose that the answer can be found in a historic compromise set forth by one of the most influential thinkers you’ve never heard of: namely, Clement of Alexandria, a second-century Christian philosopher.

In the history of the Catholic Church, Clement’s compromise was arguably almost as defining a moment as Paul’s declaration that Gentile Christians were not obligated to meet Jewish ritual requirements. Read the rest of this entry »

The US Council of Radical Orthodox Bishops?

I’d like to highlight a post by Br. Dan on the Elizabeth Johnson affair that others have already recommended in comments. In it, he connects the attitude of the bishops with Radical Orthodoxy, taking as an example a recent book by Chicago’s own Cardinal George in which he repeats the “Scotus ruined everything narrative,” citing nothing but standard Radox authorities like Milbank and Pickstock. The whole post is worth reading, and here I’ll snip the conclusion:

As I said above, one way to read the report on Johnson’s book is to see another iteration of the Radical Orthodoxy movement’s concerns articulated as: contemporary theological engagement with the social and natural sciences as suspect, distrusts modern (and postmodern) philosophical resourcing and seeks to re-appropriate medieval articulations and formulae for today’s usage.

The committee doesn’t like the place of evolution and science in Johnson’s theology, finds the Kantian qualities of Johnson’s modern theological project problematic and seeks to reiterate Thomas (notice the report’s only footnotes are from the Summa). This is not about the problems with Elizabeth Johnson’s theology, this is about problems with the entire purpose of theology and what a certain group of people in the last twenty or so years thinks theology should look like.

Elizabeth Johnson Under Attack

Feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson’s book Quest for the Living God has been denounced by the US Council of Catholic Bishops. The bloggers at Women in Theology have been following this story closely and promise to continue to address it in detail — I strongly recommend checking out their ongoing defense of Johnson’s important work against an apparently ill-conceived attack.

Saint Vincent College and the Illusion of Pedophilia

I’m a graduate of Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, PA.  I often credit my work ethic, my writing, and my preparation for graduate school based on the rigor and richness of my academic experience there.  I have many good memories of Saint Vincent inside and outside of the classroom, and I have kept in touch with many of my professors.  I was deeply influenced by the spirituality of the Benedictines, even if I rebelled against it while trying to emphasize my Protestant identity as an undergraudate, and I credit the Benedictine tradition of having a fine library to my discovery of radical theology in the underground stacks in the center of campus.  (I got locked into the library one night, and that night I discovered Altizer’s books.)  Saint Vincent isn’t a place most people know about beyond it being the site of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ training camp, but it was a formative place for me and I have many fond memories.

This has been discussed on this blog before:  the number of colleges requiring a faith statement or a particular denomination affiliation for hire.  Catholic colleges have taken the lead with this, mostly as a result of Vatican statements on higher education from the turn of the century; however, there is something to be said legitimately about preserving the Catholic voice on the contemporary theological scene and Catholic colleges wishing to promote Catholic thought.  The problem is, I think most of us would agree, that what gets defined as “Catholic” is often very narrow and ecclesiastical rather than upper-case “Catholic” in spirit. Read the rest of this entry »

The Dictatorship of Relativism

Early in his papacy, Benedict XVI put a new rhetorical spin on a familiar conservative trope, claiming that we are living under a “dictatorship of relativism.” The fear of moral relativism, however, disguises our real problem, which is that the guiding moral imperative of our era is all too clear: either make money or serve someone who can.


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