Pope Benedict’s Mistake

Pope Benedict XVI recently issued two unexpected decrees, restoring the atavistic Mass of the Council of Trent and resuscitating an outmoded Catholic exclusivism: the notion of a pope-centered Catholicism as the only authentic way to God. The God whom atheists aggressively deny : the all-powerful, all-knowing, unmoved Mover, the God of damnation, supernatural intervention, salvation-through-appeasement, patriarchy, Puritanism, war : is indeed the God enshrined in propositions of the Council of Trent and in its Liturgy. But this God is also one whom more and more believers, including Catholics, simply do not recognize as the God we worship.

Such people regard the fact that God is unknowable as the most important thing to know about God. Traditional propositions of the creed therefore must be affirmed neither rigidly nor as if they are meaningless, but with thoughtful modesty about all religious language, allowing for doubt, as well as respect for different creeds, and for no creed.

This is not an entirely new way of being religious. One sees hints of it in the wisdom of many thinkers from Augustine I ancient times to Nicholas of Cusa in the Renaissance to Kierkegaard in the modern era. But in fact the contemporary religious imagination has been transformed by an understanding born of science. Once a believer has learned to think historically and critically, it is impossible any longer to think mythically.

Pope Benedict in his recent put-down of Christian traditions that lack the unbroken "apostolic succession" of Catholicism was seeking to protect the "deposit of faith." : those core beliefs that were established by the Apostles themselves. But such literalist reading of apostolic succession goes out the window when one learns that none of the actual Apostles thought that they themselves were establishing a "church" in our sense, independent of Judaism. Similarly, the New Testament is "inspired," but what does that mean for appeals to "apostolic authority" when one learns that the New Testament's 27 books were not "canonized" until three centuries after Jesus?

Once we realize that doctrines of orthodoxy evolved over time, we stop treating them as timeless. Indeed once we understand ourselves as belonging to one religious tradition among many, we lose the innocent ability to regard that tradition as absolute. Once our internal geography recognizes that however much we are a center and we are not the only tradition, we have no choice but to affirm the positions of others not as marginal to our centers but as centers of their own. Faced with such difficult recognitions, religious people can retreat into fundamentalism or throw out religious faith altogether. Or we can quite deliberately embrace what the philosopher Paul Ricoeur called a "second naivete`." This implies a movement through criticism to a renewed appetite for the sacred tradition out iof which we come, even while implying that we are alive to its meaning in a radically different way. Pope Benedict XVI is attempting to restore by fiat the first naivete` of "one true church." In an age of global pluralism, this is simply not tenable.

The Council of Trent, whose Mass and theology (including its anti-Judaism) Benedict wants to reestablish, was summoned about the time Copernicus published his On the Revolutions of Heavenly Bodies : the beginning of the age of science. The Roman Catholic Church made a terrible mistake in rejecting Copernicus, one from which it has only lately been recovering. Pope Benedict is repeating that mistake, as Dawkins and others think religious people are bound to do. But believers need not follow. Indeed many of us, Catholics included, have moved on from such thinking, if one can call this "thinking."

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