It's been an odd week for popes. We began with news of the imminent ordination of former Anglican bishops to the Roman Catholic diaconate and priesthood, and the establishment of the Ordinariate. 1-0 to Pope Benedict. Then news filtered through - though it was a week old at least - of his announcement of Assisi III in October, which triggered a range of commentary ranging from the apoplectic to the papolatrous. That was 1-1, I think. And then yesterday the news wires were alive again with the story of Pope Benedict's recognition of a miraculous cure through the intercession of John Paul II, and the designation of a date for his beatification on 1 May this year. Don't ask me how to score that yet! Who was it said that a week is a long time in politics? It's a long time in papalitics too.
I was bemused yesterday at the converging nature of criticism and praise for these various acts, especially Assisi and the beatification. William Oddie, for example, has written an intemperate piece denouncing all those who think themselves more Catholic than the pope, especially the SSPX. I note James Preece has already commentated thereon, observing that Oddie's major premise - Catholics trust the pope or they are on their way to the funny farm - is nonsense on stilts, and certainly not Catholic teaching. At the other end of the scale, we find Telegraph blogger Stephen Hough, who by some stretch of ludicrous logic manages to see in the announcement of JPII's beatification a sign of the end of infallibility:
By rushing through the beatification of Pope John Paul II, his predecessor and friend, [Pope Benedict] has made clear how fanciful and arbitrary the whole idea and process of ‘making saints’ is, and has allowed space (in the future) for a reassessment of infallibility itself as a dogma.
What is convergent about these two apparently contradictory commentaries is the emotion masquerading as reason. Oddly enough, Bishop Fellay of the SSPX can be seen going through rather the same process when answering a question about Assisi at the recent Courrier de Rome congress in Paris. He takes exception to Pope Benedict's use of the word 'faith' in relation to other religions, before reflecting on the nature of analogy which would allow a limited application of the word 'faith' to something which is not supernatural, before lurching off bizarrely into an interpretation which enables him to insinuate that this use of the word 'faith' correlates with the symbolic theological vocabulary condemned in Pascendi Dominici Gregis. Bishop Fellay and Stephen Hough seem so opposed to the pope that they are intent on positing objectively perverse interpretations of his words; Oddie, on the other hand, loves the papacy so much that he's unwittingly half-way to justifying Liberius and Alexander VI.
Cor, can we just take a breather? Did we all fall down the collective rabbit hole? Why must we impose game-ending interpretations on others? Is there not an escalation of rhetorical violence here which seeks at every turn to deliver the killer blow, regardless of what the truth of the matter really is? Some people are guilty of bad will, and their machinations are deserving of exposure, if nothing else will bring them to their senses and if they are harming the common good. But most people - this is my view at least - seem to be flailing around in the swirl of information, of knowledge and what we must call counter-knowledge, which characterises our informational age. I do not exempt myself from their number. We all should try to understand! And if we must disagree with others for the sake of truth, let us disagree. But why must we be so often determined to drive the stake of logic through our opponent's heart?
So let me come to the two issues in question.
1) Assisi III: I wrote about Assisi the other day. And my position is little different now from what it was then. But let me clarify still further. On reflection, the syncretist overtones of Assisi could well be overstated. Who, after all, among the people of the world really thinks that the pope is any less determined to preach the gospel because of Assisi? I suspect most people interpreted JPII's actions - and will interpret Benedict's - as a gesture towards civic order, rather than as a statement of belief in universal salvation. The real danger is arguably for the Church's own self-understanding. Never mind faith, let's talk about peace. What do we mean by peace? Surely what the Assisi meetings are meant to promote is the absence of conflict and some bonds of civility and friendship. This might not seem so crucial in suburban London, but in war-torn Gaza or Sudan learning not to throw a bomb through your neighbour's window is surely no bad civilisational goal.
So what's the problem? The problem is that such a ceremony, under such patronage, seems to occlude, to hide, to veil from view the salvific peace which Christ came to bring the world. What does Christ mean by peace in the gospels? Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. The Church is not a wing of the police, and still less a wing of the diplomatic service. If we are against violence, our opposition is only relative; after all, only the violent bear away the kingdom of heaven. Is there not something in Assisi which lowers the temperature of the Church's zeal for her mission to spread not civilisational order but salvific peace? Is there not something in Assisi which seems to beg us to be contented with a peace which is purely civilisational? And is there not the danger that this civilisational peace is then confounded with a salvific peace, in a tangle of ideas which the SSPX and other traditionalists feel they must denounce as syncretism? Those are the questions. My fear is that this confusion over peace is deeply problematic. I would like an answer. I'm more likely to get one from Pope Benedict than from anyone else. Let us be patient.
2) The beatification of John Paul II: my view of this is quite simple. If the Church beatifies and canonizes him, then so be it. Personally, I think the mistake was to open up his cause for investigation almost immediately. How history will view this man in fifty years time is another matter. What is wrong with allowing some historical perspective, if only because the adulation surrounding JPII was so effervescent? Like most traditionally minded people, I can think of half a dozen reasons why I would find his canonization difficult. Unlike most traditionally minded people, I can think of another half a dozen reasons why he was an extraordinary man of God and lover of Jesus Christ. So who is to decide this issue? That's ultimately why we need a central Magisterium: because otherwise we fracture into a thousand splinters, all of us determined to follow our own view points which we mistake for the truth of Christ.
Well, there we are. I think I've said quite enough about all that. The weekend beckons with promise of baking, strolls in the park and domestic bliss.