Keeping the Faith

Russell Shorto’s Keeping the Faith in the Sunday New York Times magazine of April 8, 2007 (TimesSelect subscription required) is another in a recent spate of articles about Pope Benedict XVI.  This most likely coincides with the 2nd anniversary of Benedict’s election on April 19. 

Shorto’s article begins with a brief biography of the Pope followed by an in-depth analysis of what he, and others, perceive to be the mission of Benedict’s pontificate; combating the rise of secular society in Europe and returning it to its traditional Catholic roots.  The rise of radical Islam in Europe serves as a stark contrast to the steep decline in Catholic observance.   

The Pope, according to Shorto, believes that the Church can be a bridge between "godless secularism" and religious fundamentalism largely owing to its own traditions of reason and spiritual inquiry. 

Shorto points out a number of challenges faced by Benedict, and the Church in general, in attempting to return Europeans to their Christian roots:

  • The decline in Church attendance and in the number of priests has been so precipitous it may be too late to reverse the trend.
  • The equally dramatic rise in lay Catholic groups indicates that Europeans are still looking for spiritual fulfillment, just not within the institution of the Church.
  • The failure of the Church to acknowledge responsibility for the problems of sexual abuse by priests has seriously undermined its credibility and moral authority. 
  • The Pope’s desire for a dialog between faith and reason, and his belief that Christianity is more open to reason than Islam, do not appear to extend to any questioning of core Church beliefs or dogma. 

This last point is perhaps the most ironic.  In his previous role as head of the Sacred Congregation the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly known as the Inquisition), Benedict, then Cardinal Ratzinger, probably did more to suppress debate and discussion within the Catholic Church than anyone alive today. 

I think it’s also worth noting that it is incorrect to paint "rationality run amok" (as represented by Communism or Nazism) at one end of a continuum, and spirituality (represented by Catholicism) at the other.  I think the rise of secularism may be a reaction against unquestioning adherence to "fundamentalism" of any kind whether it be a political ideology or a religious doctrine.  And of course Europe has seen more than its fair share of both.  Maybe reason, spirituality and ideology form a triangle rather than a continuum. 

Humility in all corners would improve the conditions for dialog.

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