26 August 2010

The Pope is wrong (and also right)

In the latest issue of Standpoint magazine (Sep 2010), George Weigel argues that the UK should welcome Pope Benedict XVI when he graces its fair isles next month on a state visit (‘Britain Can Benefit From Benedict’). There is a rather vocal minority who are not too pleased about this, given the Vatican’s perceived complicity in child abuse scandals involving Catholic priests, among other egregious misdeeds. But even without this albatross around his neck, the Pope can expect little warmth from rational folks who see him as the representative of an ossified institution that claims to have unique access to eternal truths and moral laws dictated by a supernatural agency.

Weigel is aware that the man formerly known as Joseph Ratzinger is someone whose reputation will indeed precede his physical arrival upon British soil. And Weigel is also aware that among the educated, liberal, secular parts of the population, it is an opprobrious one. He corrects this assumption:

The man who comes to Britain as the 264th successor of St Peter is many things. Britons who rely on media imagery to form their impressions of public personalities will find some of those things surprising. Those who expect to meet ‘God’s Rottweiler’ […] will find instead a shy, soft-spoken man of exquisite manners. Those determined to portray Pope Benedict as the central figure in a global criminal conspiracy of child-rapers and their abettors will, it may be hoped, discover the man who did more than anyone else in the Roman Curia to compel the Church to face what he once called the ‘filth’ marring the priesthood. Those looking for a hidebound clerical enforcer will meet instead a man of deep faith, a gentle pastor who has met, wept with, and apologised to the abused victims of his brother priests and bishops.

I can accept that the liberal secularist portrayal of Benedict XVI is a simplistic caricature at best, a nasty personal smear at worst. From Weigel’s account, the Pope seems like a genial, grandfatherly figure, a person of intelligence, compassion and integrity. Yet this ‘shy, soft-spoken man of exquisite manners’, this ‘gentle pastor’, is the same man who explicitly discourages the use of condoms in African countries where poverty coupled with overpopulation, AIDS and other STDs cause widespread suffering and death. Who advocates an ideology that rejects sex education in favour of a na├»ve abstinence approach. Who, in a 1985 letter reprimanding an unorthodox archbishop, referred to homosexual activity as “an intrinsic evil” and ordered said archbishop to cease offering support to those who do not “unequivocally accept the teaching of the Magisterium”.

One doesn’t have to be a monster to promote ideas with monstrous results. A theologian like Benedict XVI should know that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. And the journey down that road can be accelerated simply by one man uttering words consecrated as infallible by millions.

Like many religious apologists, Pope Benedict has predictably trotted out the old hokum that the Enlightenment elevation of reason was responsible for the totalitarian atrocities of the 20th century. Weigel writes that “as Joseph Ratzinger put it to the Italian Senate in 2004, ‘reason is inherently fragile’, and political systems that imagine themselves to have solved the problem of democratic legitimacy by relying on reason alone ‘become easy targets for dictatorships’”. Nevermind that Nazism was in fact a rejection of humanist reason and an embrace of the decidedly unreasonable ideals of Romanticism, ideals that have a lot in common with religious notions of spiritual purity and sacred truths. Or that Soviet socialism displayed a blatant disregard for rational, empirical, scientific standards of validity and efficacy in its political and social engineering. Weigel at least acknowledges this correct analysis when he writes that “the collapse of faith in reason, the embrace of crank theories of racial superiority and the emotive power of atavistic nationalism brought down the Weimar Republic and led to the brutal dictatorship of German National Socialism.”

The spurious connection between Enlightenment values and totalitarianism is debunked by British philosopher and writer A C Grayling:

As to the weary old canard about the 20th-century totalitarianisms: it astonishes me how those who should know better can fail to see them as quintessentially counter-Enlightenment projects, and ones which the rest of the Enlightenment-derived world would not put up with and therefore defeated: Nazism in 17 years and Soviet communism in 70. They were counter-Enlightenment projects because they rejected the idea of pluralism and its concomitant liberties of thought and the person, and in the time-honoured unEnlightened way forcibly demanded submission to a monolithic ideal. They even used the forms and techniques of religion, from the notion of thought-crime to the embalming of saints in mausoleums (Lenin and Mao, like any number of saints and their relics, invite pilgrimage to their glass cases). Totalitarianism is not about progress but stasis; it is not about realising a golden age but coercively sustaining the myth of one. This indeed is the lineament of religion: it is the opposite of secular progressivism.

So much for the Pope’s dishonest attempt to tar the Enlightenment as the root of arguably the most devastating century in human history.

But Benedict XVI is not entirely wrong in his views, particularly where they concern the postmodern infatuation with value relativism. When he was still just Cardinal Ratzinger, he addressed Italy’s senators with these words:

In recent years, I find myself noting how the more relativism becomes the generally accepted way of thinking, the more it tends towards intolerance, thereby becoming a new dogmatism.

Ratzinger, according to Weigel, is convinced that “the insouciance about truth displayed in postmodernism will have… its consequences”, which among other malaise include “soul-withering nihilism” and the prospect of a “dictatorship of relativism”. Hyperbolic language aside, there is some validity to Ratzinger’s concerns. The enervating effects of relativism are apparent in the political Left’s reluctance to insist that there are universal values which encourage human flourishing. The unreflective and unchecked promotion of multiculturalism can and often does lead to ugly outcomes like identity politics, ghetto-isation, appeals for special privileges (accompanied by threats if they are denied), resentment, suspicion, divisiveness and violence. More saliently in a European context, uncritical relativism can make decent liberals turn a blind eye to the destructive aspects of intolerant ideologies, such as Islamism.

Concerning the Left’s refusal to condemn Islamism, Nick Cohen writes elsewhere in the magazine (‘Radical Islam’s Fellow-Travellers’):

Accusations of betrayal, of selling out or of becoming a craven compromiser flow too readily from leftish lips. Tony Blair was on the receiving end of this kind of abuse when he was in power. Barack Obama is now getting the same treatment from American liberals. In matters of violent religion, however, large swathes of liberal opinion are desperate to sell out.

British author and broadcaster Kenan Malik has written on the Left’s abandonment of its traditions of rationalism, humanism and universal values. In his 2005 essay ‘Born in Bradford’, Malik writes:

Once the left had been a champion of Enlightenment rationalism and humanism. It had believed in the ideas of a common humanity and universal rights, argued that everyone should be treated equally despite their racial, ethnic, religious or cultural differences and looked to social progress as a means of overcoming cultural differences. Today many on the left decry the Enlightenment as a Eurocentric project. They promote the idea of multiculturalism and of group rights, argue that different people should be treated differently because of their racial, ethnic, religious and cultural differences and worry that social progress is undermining cultural authenticity.

As an Indian-born British citizen, Malik avoids the fate of the white intellectual who dares to express a similar observation; he can’t be accused of being a racist/nativist bigot. Yet it is a lamentable state of public discourse when critics of multiculturalism (of any ethnicity) are attacked not because their arguments are flawed or perverse, but because they challenge the supposedly unassailable idea of value relativism. To even suggest that some cultural practices and beliefs are objectively worse or better than others is to invite censure from liberals who refuse to accept that comparative standards exist with which to assess different cultures. Quality of life, education levels, physical and psychological health, future prospects and opportunities – these are examples of criterion for evaluating how conducive a certain cultural practice is to human welfare.

It must be made clear that being skeptical of multiculturalism does not necessarily entail an aversion to social diversity. In another essay (‘Multiculturalism Undermines Diversity’), Malik clarifies the difference between the two often-confused concepts.

Part of the difficulty with this debate is that both sides confuse the lived experience of diversity, on the one hand, with multiculturalism as a political process, on the other. The experience of living in a society transformed by mass immigration, a society that is less insular, more vibrant and more cosmopolitan, is positive.

As a political process, however, multiculturalism means something very different. It describes a set of policies, the aim of which is to manage diversity by putting people into ethnic boxes, defining individual needs and rights by virtue of the boxes into which people are put, and using those boxes to shape public policy. It is a case, not for open borders and minds, but for the policing of borders, whether physical, cultural or imaginative.

The Pope’s deploration of relativism will find sympathisers among the British intelligentsia. But if Benedict XVI expects them to also agree with his modest proposal that “the public task of the Church is to form alliances with those who understand that the democratic project requires a far more secure moral cultural foundation than that offered by pragmatism or utilitarianism”, he may be disappointed. Those intellectuals may think that the Pope is right on some matters. But they also know all too well that he is wrong on many others. And that may be enough to keep them from accepting his proposal should he present it to the Britons in person on the 16th of September.


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