The purpose of the pope

Aside from his various theological and administrative roles, the pope serves as the public face of the Roman Catholic Church. In that connection, his job is to shore up the loyalty of his members and burnish the reputation of the Church in the broader world. After Benedict, both were in question, particularly outside conservative circles. I have no doubt that Francis’s liberal statements and gestures are sincere, but there is a reason the College of Cardinals elected a man who was sincerely inclined to do such things — they needed to get liberal Catholics back on board and forcefully reassert the Catholic Church’s relevance to the contemporary world.

In this regard, the pope’s job is political, and that means that there is going to be a certain level of apparent incoherence and opportunism. A gesture like going along with the sainthood of a brutal colonial figure is likely a sop to right-wing elements in the Church that are increasingly alienated by the Nice Pope routine. And right-wing elements need coddling because they are much more likely to turn schismatic rather than (like liberals) just tune out.

I’ve written before that the same kind of pressures produced Catholic Social Teaching. I think it’s telling that people are made uncomfortable by the fact that Francis’s views are so much more consistently left-wing than previous popes’ — that kind of coherence threatens the ability of the Church’s random grab-bag of political statements to appeal to as broad and incoherent a range of Catholics and sympathizers as possible. In no case should such statements be read as policy recommendations, because Francis is not a politician in that sense. But they are political statements in another sense, insofar as they are a bid to increase loyalty to and esteem for the Church in previously alienated populations.

Personally, if Pope Francis emboldens policy-makers to do more left-wing things, I’m all for it. No, he’s not a perfect left-wing exemplar, and yes, he has said some Bad Things from the left-wing perspective, particularly related to sexuality. But maybe the left can take a cue from the papacy and be a little more opportunistic in forging political alliances.

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?

Read the rest of this entry »

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.

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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