Friday, May 13, 2005

Holy See, Batman! The new inquisitor is an American!

(A brief diversion from the emphasis on American politics and culture that has characterized The Reaction of late. But this is truly important stuff, and I hope you give it a read.)

Needless to say, I haven't written much on the papacy since my analysis of Cardinal Ratzinger's win (and emergence as Pope Benedict XVI) -- although I intend to write something substantial on the so-called "dictatorship of relativism" in the not-too-distant future. But there's been some important news out of the Vatican today, and it deserves mention:

Benedict XVI (B16) has announced his first two major decisions as pope:

First, he will speed up the process to beatify his predecessor, John Paul II, by waiving the mandatory five-year waiting period before that process can begin. Given the outpouring of love for John Paul in the days leading up to his death, not to mention the subsequent mourning, this would seem to be a no-brainer. As a Canadian, the first equivalent that came to mind was the decision to fast-track Wayne Gretzky into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Gretzky was the best player of all time (or at least one of the top three or four, if you include Mario Lemieux, Bobby Orr, and Gordie Howe), and John Paul was at least the most important and influential pope of recent times -- and we have only just begin to feel the long-term impact of his papacy. It's not for me to say whether or not John Paul should be recognized as a saint. Like the recent papal election, the process of beatification, a step towards sainthood, will be somewhat political -- very much reflective of how the Church views itself and of how it wants itself to be viewed. And, obviously, it wants to tap into John Paul's immense popularity among the faithful (especially among the young) and to celebrate his many accomplishments, not to mention his alleged miracles (a requirement for sainthood).

See my earlier posts on John Paul (here, here, and here). In the end, this move is hardly a surprise, though for my part I think that what is needed most is a more detached and balanced evaluation of his papacy, not fast-tracked sainthood. Although I celebrated John Paul's extraordinary faith and good works in those earlier posts, I remain somewhat ambiguous regarding his papacy as a whole. Much of what he did, such as his stand against Communism and his promotion of social justice in developing parts of the world, was inspiring, but so much else, including his absolutist "culture of life," was counter-productive, if not outright destructive.

Second, and much more relevant to our present concerns, he named Archbishop William Levada of San Francisco his successor as prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly the Holy Office, i.e., the Inquisition), the office that enforces theological orthodoxy throughout the Church. It was notoriously authoritarian and conservative under Ratzinger, and is likely to remain so under Levada. According to the Times, "[h]e is... a theologian who has staunchly defended church teaching on many of the social issues confronting the church, including abortion, homosexuality, euthanasia and the role of women," and he has remained staunchly conservative even while heading the Church in two of America's most liberal cities, Portland and San Francisco.

For an excellent (and quite positive) overview of Levada's background, including his experience working for the Congregation under Ratzinger, see John Allen's piece in the National Catholic Reporter. Writes Allen: "What Levada does seem to bring is intellectual preparation and life experience well suited for the challenge of heading the doctrinal office, plus a pre-existing relationship with the pope."

(Allen is a must-read for anyone who wants to follow happenings at the Vatican, and this wide-ranging piece is a useful look at the early days of B16's papacy in general.)

It's obviously too early to determine what Levada's appointment means. It's hardly surprising that B16 would appoint a theological conservative with whom he is familiar, if not friendly. Just as Ratzinger was ready to step into JP2's shoes, so is Levada ready to step into Ratzinger's. What is interesting is that, as Allen argues, his "appointment to the CDF is tantamount to a vote of confidence, in a certain sense, for American Catholicism," as he will be the highest-ranking American in the Vatican's history. Given the state of Catholicism in America -- the sex-abuse scandals, debate over contentious social issues like abortion and contraception, etc. -- Levada'a appointment very much reflects B16's intention to turn much of the Church's attention back to the West (and therefore, to an extent, away from JP2's global evangelism), where secularism and the "dictatorship of relativism" have, in his view, taken firm hold. The cardinal-electors voted overwhelmingly for a European pope with outspoken views on the West, and Levada, B16's former colleague, should be able to speak to American Catholics in a way that has eluded the Vatican thus far. This could be an interesting addition to America's raging culture wars. Although the Church will continue, officially, to be on the conservative side of those wars, Levada at least seems to understand America's social, political, and moral landscape.

Finally, at a meeting with foreign delegates to the Holy See, B16 mentioned certain countries (left unnamed) with which the Vatican does not maintain diplomatic relations. He was likely referring to China and Vietnam, but perhaps also to Saudi Arabia. Given the worries that B16 would be a narrow-minded pope focused on fortifying orthodoxy and turning the Church into a "creative minority," this is clearly a good sign. Maybe B16 will end up defying expectations by reaching out to the broader diversity that makes up the Church.

(Back to politics and culture later tonight or tomorrow.)

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  • Two-part, four-hour mini-series on CBC portrays Karol Wojtyla (played by Polish actor Piotr Adamczyk from his days as a university student in Crakow during the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany in 1939, through his vocation to the priesthood and on to his surprise election as pope in 1978. Filmed on location in Crakow, Poland and the Vatican, the film features an international cast, including Matt Craven as Nazi General Hans Frank, Kenneth Welsh as Professor Wojcik, Raul Bova as Father Tomasz Zaleski, Malgorzata Bela as Hania, Ennio Fantastichini as Nowak, Ken Duken as Adam Violante Placido as Maria.

    Karol - A Man Who Became Pope website:

    Sunday, May 15, 2005, 8:00 p.m.
    Part 1
    Karol Wojtyla (Piotr Adamczyk) is a boy of 18 on the threshold of life as an actor, writer and poet who suddenly sees his world shattered with the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939. The film follows him in the exodus from Cracow and the horrors he witnessed, to the underground theatre he creates to resist the invader, to his decision to become a priest during the occupation, risking his life, much to the dismay of the woman he might have loved.

    Monday, May 16, 2005, 8:00 p.m.
    Part 2
    When Communism engulfs Poland, Julian Kordek (Hristo Shopov) a Pole in charge of Religious Affairs, does everything in his power to bring Karol down. Always the humanist and defender of the downtrodden, he will face the totalitarian authorities with a courage that will awaken Poland, shake the world and will eventually lead him to Rome and the Papacy.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:31 PM  

  • Michael,

    As an insightful media critic and a philosopher, I would expect you to expose the media ignorance of Catholic thought betrayed by labeling of B16 as "hardline", "unyielding" and "authoritarian". B16, precisely due to his Catholic orthodoxy, would be the last to use such terms when presenting the Christian life. Virtuous actions for B16, whether they reflect Aristotle's virtues or St Thomas' theological virtues, are not rules or norms that must be enforced by unyielding, hardline authoritarians. Only since Kant are ethics presented as norms that run contrary to our nature, and thus require hardline enforcement. Traditional Catholic thought, in contrast, characterizes virtue as those acts that we want to do as our will becomes oriented towards the good, towards God. Media labeling of Catholic doctrine thus reflects modern assumptions about ethics more than an attempt to actually understand the writings of B16 and John Paul II (which are numerous) as they understood them.

    By Blogger Ken Archer, at 5:06 PM  

  • That Benedict would yield to Santo-Subito-ism (reportedly contrived by the Focolare movement) was predictable but sad.I hope that the effort to make JP II a saint loses steam.It seems more appropriate to me that saints not be made by those who personally knew them as living people,but by future generations able to evaluate them in a historical context rather than from their own memory.
    I personally will always regard JP II as a failure at being a "Pope John Paul"...taking his predecessor's name implied a commitment to emulate a predecessor who he was nothing like (and who was more "saintly" as I see such things).Of course,I'm not a Christian...

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:28 PM  

  • I'm not sure I agree with your second point, Louis, but I do with your first. Sainthood is so historically significant that candidates should be evaluated only after an extended period of time has passed. It does seem odd to me that Benedict, who was so close to JP2, should be the one to speed up the process.

    By Blogger Michael J.W. Stickings, at 8:26 PM  

  • Ken,

    I had intended to write a lengthy piece on the media reaction to B16, but, alas, other issues have gotten in the way. But I do agree with you. The media don't understand religion, let alone the intricacies of Catholic theology, so they resort to the tired old stereotypes of liberal and conservative. At best. At worst, they resort to name-called (God's Rottweiler, the Panzer-Kardinal, etc.).

    You make an excellent point about modern ethics -- more or less rooted in a reaction against nature, or even as positivism divorced from nature. But one wouldn't expect the media to address this at all.

    By Blogger Michael J.W. Stickings, at 8:30 PM  

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