Benedict XV1: Regurgitating the myopic mistakes of the 16th Century Council of Trent in 2007 Print E-mail
Monday July 16 2007

Pope Benedict's mistake


By James Carroll  |  

WHEN THE likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, or Christopher Hitchens, citing insights of science or the rise of sectarian violence, denounce the very idea of God, fundamentalists strike back by attacking pillars on which such modern criticism stands. In this mode, Pope Benedict XVI last week issued two unexpected decrees, restoring the atavistic Mass of the Council of Trent and resuscitating an outmoded Catholic exclusivism -- the notion of a pope-centered Catholicism as the only authentic way to God.

In these reactionary initiatives, Pope Benedict inadvertently shows that he shares a basic conviction with Dawkins et al. -- that religion is a primitive impulse, unable to withstand the challenge of contemporary thought.

Yet, instead of feeling intimidated by secular or "scientific" criticisms of religion, a believer can insist that faith in God is a fulfillment of all that fully modern people affirm when they assent to science -- or object to violence. At the same time, a believer can advance the Dawkins-Harris-Hitchens critique to say that most articulations of traditional religion of all stripes fall far short of doing "God" justice.

The God whom atheists aggressively deny (the all-powerful, all-knowing, unmoved Mover; the God of damnation, supernatural intervention, salvation-through-appeasement, patriarchy, puritanism, war, etc.) is indeed the God enshrined in propositions of the Council of Trent, and in its liturgy. But this God is also one whom more and more believers, including Catholics, simply do not recognize as the God we worship.

Such people regard the fact that God is unknowable as the most important thing to know about God. Traditional propositions of the creed, therefore, must be affirmed neither rigidly nor as if they are meaningless, but with thoughtful modesty about all religious language, allowing for doubt, as well as respect for different creeds -- and for no creed.

This is not an entirely new way of being religious. One sees hints of it in the wisdom of many thinkers, from Augustine in ancient times to Nicholas of Cusa in the Renaissance to Kierkegaard in the modern era. But, in fact, the contemporary religious imagination has been transformed by understanding born of science. Once a believer has learned to think historically and critically, it is impossible any longer to think mythically.

Pope Benedict, in last week's denigration of Christian traditions that lack the unbroken "apostolic succession" of Catholicism, for example, was seeking to protect the "deposit of faith," those core beliefs that were established by the Apostles themselves. But such literalist reading of apostolic succession goes out the window when one learns that none of the actual Apostles thought that they themselves were establishing a "church" in our sense, independent of Judaism. Similarly, the New Testament is "inspired," but what does that mean for appeals to "apostolic" authority when one learns that its 27 books were not "canonized" until three centuries after Jesus?

Once we realize that doctrines of orthodoxy evolved over time, we stop treating them as timeless. Indeed, once we understand ourselves as belonging to one religious tradition among many, we lose the innocent ability to regard it as absolute. Once our internal geography recognizes that, however much we are a center, we are not the only one, we have no choice but to affirm the positions of others not as "marginal to our centers," in a phrase of theologian David Tracy, "but as centers of their own."

Faced with such difficult recognitions, religious people can retreat into fundamentalism or throw out religious faith altogether. Or we can quite deliberately embrace what the philosopher Paul Ricoeur called a "second naiveté." This implies a movement through criticism to a renewed appetite for the sacred tradition out of which we come, even while implying that we are alive to its meaning in a radically different way. Pope Benedict is attempting to restore, by fiat, the first naiveté of "one true church." In an age of global pluralism, this is simply not tenable.

The Council of Trent, whose Mass and theology (including its anti-Judaism) Benedict wants to re establish, was summoned about the time Copernicus published his "On the Revolutions of Heavenly Bodies" -- the beginning of the scientific age. The Roman Catholic Church made a terrible mistake in rejecting Copernicus, one from which it has only lately been recovering. Pope Benedict is repeating that mistake, as Dawkins and company think religious people are bound to do. But believers need not follow. Indeed, many of us, including Catholics, have moved on from such thinking, if you can call it thinking.

James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.
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