Suspicion of the Modern Age: The Pope Regresses

In an astonishing move last Saturday, Pope Benedict XVI “rehabilitated” (meaning he overturned the excommunication by Pope John Paul II) of four problematic bishops, one of whom, Bishop Richard Williamson, is an all-too-public Holocaust denier. The once-again bishop announced just one week ago on Swedish television that he did not think there was historical evidence sufficient to support the claim that six million Jews were killed under orders from Adolf Hitler. More staggering was his final conclusion: “There were no gas chambers.”

Called to the carpet for the decision, the Vatican has taken to doing what it does best: issuing public statements, coupled with obfuscation and outright denial. They expressed surprise to learn some of the more shocking and provocative comments the renegade bishop made last week (he’s made them all quite publicly before). Then the current Pope reiterated his belief that the Holocaust had indeed happened (he has, after all, toured the camp at Auschwitz himself). But the reinstatements/rehabilitations stand.

Now what on the world is going on?

Papal Precedents

We’ve seen this sort of thing from this Pope before. Two years ago, he infamously delivered a lecture at the University in Regensburg (on 12 September 2006), in which he recounted a medieval dialogue between the Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Paleologus, and an unnamed “educated Persian.” Things got heated when the following exchange was reported (I omit the footnotes—this was, keep in mind, a lecture at the very university where the Pope used to be a professor):

In the seventh dialexis [conversation] edited by Professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the holy war. The emperor must have known that Surah 2, 256 reads: “There is no compulsion in religion.” According to some of the experts, this is probably one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat. But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Qur’an, concerning holy war. Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the “Book” and the “infidels,” he addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness, a brusqueness that we find unacceptable, on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”

Naturally enough, that is the quote that generated the controversy. Islam is designed to be spread through violence and the sword. A Persian (read, Iranian) is unfairly tagged with this idea. Now, the Pope’s reason for telling this story was to suggest that it is irrational to aspire to conversion in this way. Conversion is rational, or it is not at all:

The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. “God,” he says, “is not pleased by blood – and not acting sun logos [reasonably] is contrary to God’s nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats… To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death.

The decisive statement in this diatribe against violent conversion is this: “not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature.” At that point, the real thesis of the Pope’s lecture came into focus. Christianity is at least as Greek a religion as it is a Jewish one. It is as committed to the logos of rational interrogation and philosophical debate as it is to the logos revealed in the prologue to John’s gospel. Every time the Church has forgotten or ignored its roots in Greek reason, heresy has ensued.

The Pope concludes the Regensburg Address by ticking off the modern forms of such heresy: from the Reformation, with its re-Judaizing of the faith (Luther once famously referred to reason as “that whore”); to the Liberal theology of the 19th and early 20th centuries (with its reduction of the sphere of logos to mathematics and the “hard sciences”); and a third form he can’t quite capture, but one that sounds for all the world like multiculturalism, American-style…which is emotive, and thus not rational at all.

Benedict’s word for all of this is “dehellenization,” the “un-Greeking” of the Christian faith. Greeking the faith was the single greatest achievement of the Middle Ages, he suggests: “This inner rapprochement between biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry was an event of decisive importance, not only from the standpoint of the history of religions, but also from that of world history.” Since then, the Greeks have been under siege, much as the Byzantine Emperor was at Constantinople when he had his fireside chat with a Persian adversary.

Suspicion of the Modern Age

What I want to suggest is that the real subtext in this address is not some alleged antipathy the Pope felt for Islam. He traveled to the Republic of Turkey some short months later precisely to mend those fences. No, the real focus of papal ire is Modernity itself, the whole vast edifice of Modernism. Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy is the next (and more aggressive) installment in the Catholic story of anti-Modern retrenchment, a reaction against the Liberal ethos of Vatican II.

And this, I suggest, is precisely what is going on with these strange rehabilitations. The Pope expressed scarcely credible surprise that Iranian and other Muslims were offended by his Regensburg Address. How could they not be, since the Persianness of the Emperor’s interlocutor was utterly incidental to the topic of “dehellenization.” Hell, the whole story was. He told the story to provoke, but the real provocation is aimed at Modernity itself.

The same dynamic is playing out here. The Pope expressed surprise that his newly rehabilitated bishop has been quoted so publicly as a Holocaust denier. And he is scheduled to make a trip to Israel in a couple of months where he will clearly try to do again what he did successfully in Turkey two years ago: smooth feathers ruffled by his own aggressive words and actions.

The whole thing is a subterfuge. The Pope’s sights are not set on Islam, nor on Iran, nor on European Jewry. They are set on the Modern age. This rehabilitated bishop is not significant solely for his peculiar views about the Shoah; rather he was understudy to Archbishop Marcel LeFebvre, one of the chief architects of the anti-Liberal conservative bloc that worked against the Liberal reforms and self-stated “new openness to the modern world,” that were the crowning achievements of the Second Vatican Council. Since 1979, the Papal establishment has been hard art work to roll back the Liberal achievements of that Council. They are announcing a new suspicion of the Modern age.

In fact, it was LeFebvre who consecrated these four bishops on 30 June 1988, and their excommunication had everything to do with politics and ecclesiastical hierarchy, not ideology. Pope John Paul II noted that LeFebvre had acted recklessly and against Vatican advisement, that he lacked the authority to do so, and thus confirmed the four bishops’ excommunication on 2 July 1988. That is the decision Benedict reversed last week. The issue was procedural, but the four bishops’ anti-Modernism was never a problem.

That, you may recall, was the real topic of Benedict’s Regensburg Address. And that is the subtext of these rehabilitations. The enemy is not a foreign faith; the true enemy is the enemy within: It is Christian Modernism.

Make no mistake, the Modern revolutions in technology and weaponry, in politics and diplomacy, have much to answer for. European gunpowder imperialism is one of its chief legacies.

But if post-Modernism is aiming at suggesting what is missing in the Modern age, then anti-Modernism is aiming solely at what is wrong with Modernism.

This Pope has posed as a post-Modern thinker in the past. He is not; he is as anti-Modern as any of the other “enemies of reason” he first lambasted in Regensburg.