A few years ago a good friend commented that The New Yorker was for people who liked single-panel cartoons and the appearance of being sophisticated and intellectual. He had family members who read The New Yorker (and let everyone know about it) and he was obviously less than impressed with their casual condescension about any and all topics. They, after all, had read The New Yorker! I've rarely read anything from that particular periodical, but it does appear to have casual condescension down to an art form, as evidenced by a long, erratic, skewed, and often very annoying April 2nd piece, "The Pope and Islam," written by Jane Kramer.
To appreciate how bad the article sometimes is, you'll have to suffer through on your own. But, of course, I cannot help but point out some of the "highlights," beginning with the subhead: "Is there anything that Benedict XVI would like to discuss?" In short order, there is reference to Benedict's "unfortunate reference to the Prophet Muhammad" at Regensburg, and then this bit of whining:
It is well known that Benedict wants to transform the Church of Rome, which is not to say that he wants to make it more responsive to the realities of modern life as it is lived by Catholic women in the West, or by Catholic homosexuals, or even by the millions of desperately poor Catholic families in the Third World who are still waiting for some merciful dispensation on the use of contraception. He wants to purify the Church, to make it more definitively Christian, more observant, obedient, and disciplined—you could say more like the way he sees Islam. And never mind that he doesn’t seem to like much about Islam, or that he has doubts about Islam’s direction. (His doubts are not unusual in today’s world; many Muslims have them.) The Pope is a theologian—the first prominent theologian to sit on Peter’s throne since the eighteenth century.
Oh my, the Pope isn't being responsive to the ideological hopes and dream's of The New Yorker! What shall we do? Hey, let's bash the Pope and wrap it in serious-sounding journalism-speak and misrepresent all sorts of things, big and small, about Joseph Ratzinger. And let's do with a big dose of casual condescension. Here goes!
Still, not even a Jesuit could explain what the Pope intended when he addressed a group of theologians at the University of Regensburg in September, beginning a speech that could best be described as a scholarly refutation of the so-called Kantian fallacy—Kant’s distinction between rational understanding and apprehension of the sublime—with a question posed by a fourteenthcentury Byzantine emperor to a Persian guest at his winter barracks near Ankara. “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new,” the emperor asked the Persian, “and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”
What, not even a Jesuit could make sense of the Regensburg address? Yet Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J., a former student of Ratzinger, offered many insightful thoughts in this IgnatiusInsight.com piece. As did another well-known and oft-published Jesuit, Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., a political philosopher at Georgetown who is quite adept at matters theological as well, who wrote a couple of pieces on the address and will soon have a 170-page book published about the topic. Was either man interviewed by Kramer? Apparently not. And nary a Jesuit can explain it.
Meanwhile, Kramer's grasp of facts is either tenuous or weakened by, well, a lack of understanding. For example, this aside:
(It should be remembered that John of Damascus, the eighth-century saint and last Father of the Church, considered Islam to be a Christian heresy; today, by strict Catholic definition, any religion that postdates and rejects the divinity of Christ is heretical.)
Really? Does that mean that Scientology is "heresy"? Or various branches, so to speak, of "New Age"? Or even Jehovah Witnesses, who deny the Trinity and the divinity of Christ? Yet the Catechism, which is a fairly Catholic work (strictly speaking, of course), explicitly connects heresy with "the post-baptismal denial of some truth that must be believed with divine and catholic faith" (CCC 2089). The term "heresy" is used too often and loosely (and many good Catholics are guilty of such use); however, it's fair to consider whether or not Islam is a Christian heresy, since many scholars acknowledge that Muhammad was influenced by and used elements of Christian and Jewish doctrine.
Far worse are paragraphs such as this one:
Ratzinger and Wojtyla shared this: an exceptionally narrow view of what constitutes a morally acceptable Christian life. That view is reflected in the daily decisions of bishops who in the past few years have denied the sacraments to pro-choice politicians (St. Louis); refused to allow Muslims to pray at a church that was once a mosque (Córdoba); and denied Catholic burial to an incurably ailing man who, after years of suffering on a respirator, asked to die (Rome). But the resemblance ends there. Ratzinger did not really think that theological dialogue with non-Christians was useful, or meaningful, or even possible. John Paul II did. His papacy, he said, was going to be a peace papacy—a papacy of bridges. Unlike Ratzinger, he was not much concerned about whether a Trinitarian faith with an anthropomorphic God was “comprehensible” to a Muslim whose God is never manifest. He would talk to anyone about God. In twenty-six years as Pope, he made a hundred and two trips abroad, many of them to Muslim countries, and it didn’t matter whether the understanding of God was the same from one airport to the next.
Strange how Kramer matter-of-factly describes, without editorializing, the outbreak of violence and insane rhetoric from sectors of the Islam world following the Regensburg lecture, but then informs readers that John Paul II and Benedict XVI shared "an exceptionally narrow view" of Christian morality, as evidenced by three anecdotes devoid of any factual context. The two Popes, of course, shared a perfectly Catholic view of morality—a topic that both wrote about at length. (Do you get the sense that Kramer has a problem with the Church's teachings regarding sex, sex, and sex? Yep, exactly.)
Meanwhile, what of the bizarre assertion, "Ratzinger did not really think that theological dialogue with non-Christians was useful, or meaningful, or even possible"? Uh, if that's the case, it's difficult to understand why he wrote a theologically dense book, Many Religions, One Covenant: Israel, the Church, and the World (English, 1999) examining the relationship—both theological and historical—between Judaism and Christianity. Or why The New York Times, not known to be an arm of the Vatican, reported how pleased many Jewish leaders were with the election of Benedict XVI because, as Rabbi Israel Singer, chairman of the World Jewish Congress, stated, "I believe that he is the man who created the theological underpinnings for the good relations between Catholics and Jews during the last papacy." Hello?
Benedict, for all his doctrinal rigidity, remains extremely forthcoming as a scholar, and he is much more careful than his predecessor to distinguish between opinion and “truth.” John Paul II was untroubled by that sort of distinction, and, curiously, Benedict did very little to discourage his conflations of doctrine and what the Church calls “definitive teachings”—perhaps because, during the last years of the Pope’s long illness, those teachings were “guided” by Benedict himself.
Ah yes, another clever attempt at a variation on the ol' "Tale of Two Popes" routine, which is always a sure sign that you are going to be told that (1) John Paul II and Benedict XVI are very different in This or That Way, but (2) they are both, in the end, equally wrong about This or That Topic. Kramer's riff about distinctions between "opinion," "truth," "doctrine," and "definitive" is confusing and vague (perhaps purposefully so), and is not backed up by anything substantive, just a bit about how the two men had differing opinions about the prayer gatherings in Assisi. But to say that John Paul II was "untroubled by that sort of distinction"—between opinion and truth (oh, sorry, "truth")—would come as a surprise to anyone who has read, say, the encyclical Veritatis Splendor, which is, if my Latin doesn't fail me, about "the splendor of truth." That document, it should be noted, refers several times to "opinion," and never in a positive way, as this excerpt indicates:
In carrying out this task we are all assisted by theologians; even so, theological opinions constitute neither the rule nor the norm of our teaching. Its authority is derived, by the assistance of the Holy Spirit and in communion cum Petro et sub Petro, from our fidelity to the Catholic faith which comes from the Apostles. As Bishops, we have the grave obligation to be personally vigilant that the "sound doctrine" (1 Tim 1:10) of faith and morals is taught in our Dioceses. (par 116)
As for truth, the late Holy Father states:
Once the idea of a universal truth about the good, knowable by human reason, is lost, inevitably the notion of conscience also changes. Conscience is no longer considered in its primordial reality as an act of a person's intelligence, the function of which is to apply the universal knowledge of the good in a specific situation and thus to express a judgment about the right conduct to be chosen here and now. Instead, there is a tendency to grant to the individual conscience the prerogative of independently determining the criteria of good and evil and then acting accordingly. Such an outlook is quite congenial to an individualist ethic, wherein each individual is faced with his own truth, different from the truth of others. Taken to its extreme consequences, this individualism leads to a denial of the very idea of human nature. (par 32)
And so it goes, with Kramer letting her dislike of orthodox Catholic teaching continually spill over into her occasional attempts at serious journalism, often making her sound like an Episcopalian theologian or, dare I say, a Catholic professor of "religious studies". Thus:
The Pope was failing, and Ratzinger had already delivered his own position paper on the uniqueness of Catholic salvation. (It said that the situation for non-Catholics was “gravely deficient.”) He called it Dominus Iesus, and it was a triumphalist document—not, in any event, an “unconditional opening” of the gates of the Vatican, let alone the gates of Heaven.
Finally, the remark about Episcopalian theologians was more than a glib shot, as this indicates:
Moral unity doesn’t sound like a lot to ask of Christians, but it is. For one thing, Anglicans and Protestants and Orthodox Christians are hardly eager to take their moral marching orders from a man who holds Catholicism to be the one true articulation of Christian faith—and who is demonstrably more at home discussing moral imperatives with secular intellectuals like Habermas than he is with any of them. It is a matter of theological status. R. William Franklin, an Episcopal priest and a fellow of the Anglican Center in Rome, says that, from an ecumenical standpoint, “we make intellectual but little practical progress on questions of authority, and of course on the ‘sticking points.’ ” (He means the role of women and homosexuals in the two churches—subjects on which this Pope sometimes seems to have more in common with Qom than with Canterbury.)
Well, I suppose if the Catholic Church and the Pope would just take a stand on issues and make it clear what they believe, our Anglican friends would find it easier to stick to the sticking points, right? And so it goes: everything, it seems, is the fault of Benedict and those of like mind. If only the Pope would read (nay, study!) The New Yorker, pursue a policy of indifferentism and relativism, and follow the lead of hip and happening Anglican divines, the world would be a much better place. Or so Jane Kramers appears to believe. And that, folks, is today's tour of the cathedral of casual condescension.
• Frank Shaw likes the New Yorker article, and says, "It's a good example of why long form journalism, IMHO, will continue to play a substantial role in how people receive information." It's a good example of something, I'll grant that.
• The New Republic is not impressed by the article: "It gives off the unsettling aura of term-paper research."