Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Pope Benedict XVI: Neither Conservative nor Progressive

When news broke of the pope's resignation last Monday, I wrote a quick blog post about what I understood to be Pope Benedict XVI's complexity.  My hope was simply to point to the possibility that the labels we generally use in political and ecclesial circles - progressive vs. conservative - don't necessarily apply to the pope, a profound theological mind whose thought transcends such easy classification.

I was therefore very interested when the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Religion & Ethics web-page ran an essay by Adrian Pabst, lecturer in politics at the University of Kent, called "Neither Progressive nor Conservative: The Romanticism of Benedict XVI" (the full essay can be found here).  I highly recommend you read his full essay, but I will broadly summarize his argument (as I see it).

Pabst begins the essay by recounting the criticism Benedict received throughout his papacy from both progressives and conservatives.  Progressives, here Pabst points to Hans Küng, have accused Benedict of 'restoring a reactionary vision of Catholicism that betrays the progressive reforms' of Vatican II.  Conservatives, for their part, have argued that Benedict does not take enough of a stand on theological and political-economic questions.

Benedict has enemies in both camps because, according to Pabst, his vision of the authentic Catholic Christian tradition stands in sharp contrast to the visions put forward by both conservatives and progressives.  Indeed, Pabst argues that the differences between conservatives and liberals do not conceal the level to which both share common assumptions theologically, philosophically, politically, and economically. 

Both conservatives and progressives put forward a 'distinctly modern, secular vision' based on the divorce of natural immanence from supernatural transcendence, a separation of faith from reason, and the primacy of nations and peoples over the universal communion of the church.  Benedict, on the other hand, steeped in patristic and medieval theology, particularly as developed by German Romantics and the nouvelle theologie (de Lubac, etc.), puts forward a vision of modernity sharply at odds with the visions put forward by liberals and conservatives:
At the heart of [Benedict's] vision lies an attempt to outline an alternative modernity - one that overcomes the modern division between human artifice and unalterable nature. So, instead of viewing [hu]man[ity] as the measure of all things, Benedict develops the tradition of integral humanism and an organic unity of [hu]mankind with the cosmos and God. Likewise, rather than the social contract that is imposed on the violent "state of nature," the Pope calls for new covenant that corrects human sinfulness, protects the dignity of the person and promotes human flourishing.
As such, Benedict has always opposed in equal measure both the liberal attempt to render formal rights equally normative with substantive goods, and the neo-scholastic project of universalising American exceptionalism. In a sense, then, liberals and conservatives oppose the Pope precisely because he is not modern enough.
What both liberals and conservatives fail to understand is the 'long, intellectual tradition which Benedict XVI has sought to preserve and extend':
a Romantic orthodoxy that eschews much of the modern Reformation and Counter-Reformation in favour of the patristic and medieval legacy shared by Christians in East and West. This legacy extends from the teachings on the Church Fathers and Doctors like St Augustine, Dionysius or St Thomas Aquinas on the unity of nature and the supernatural, against the modern separation of the natural universe from divine creativity and grace. In short, Benedict rejects the modern dualism of nature and grace or faith and reason and argues for a new overarching synthesis.
The consequence is, to put this in the context of particular issues, that conservatives - particularly in this country - have found Benedict's economic and political ideas (as expressed in Caritatis in Veritate) difficult to swallow, particularly because of his criticism of free-market capitalism, while liberals find his apparent immovability on issues surrounding sexuality deeply disturbing.  But both are the concomitant of Benedict's intellectual tradition:
By rejecting both absolute instrumental reason and blind emotional faith, the Romantic tradition outwits the contemporary convergence of soulless technological progress and an impoverished culture dominated by sexualisation and violence. More fundamentally, it opposes the complicit collusion of boundless economic and social liberalisation that has produced laissez-faire sex and an obsession with personal choice rather than objective (though contested) standards of truth, beauty and goodness - a concern shared by Rowan Williams in his seminal book Lost Icons.
While I would like to see Pabst elaborate on his arguments more fully in a longer essay (perhaps one is forthcoming?), the value of his essay is that he underlines both the depth of Benedict's thought and the degree to which the intellectual tradition in which he stands does not lend itself at all to the simplistic categorization that is so much a part of contemporary political and ecclesial 'dialogue' and media coverage.

P.S. I very highly recommend the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Religion & Ethics web-page, particularly during this time of papal transition.  It consistently runs cracking essays on all facets of religion, and has run a number of good essays on Pope Benedict.  Check them out.

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