Extraordinary though it was, perhaps still more extraordinary was the world-wide response to the news. Pope Benedict XVI’s announcement of his abdication was truly historic. But for Catholics, for whom he has been for the past eight years the Vicar of Christ on earth, it was simply one more act carried out within the context of everything they believe about the nature and character of this office. For everyone else it was a strange and sensational event in a drama which is only half understood – if even that. For believing Catholics it was providential; for others it was a riddle to be grappled with, marveled at, even laughed at and for some an opportunity to grind once again any number of axes with which they have been trying to wound, if not slay, this man since he took office in 2005.
Twitter’s collapse under the weight of all this within minutes of the news breaking was just one of the indications of the reach of interest which the Catholic Church “enjoys”. Although venerated and loved by hundreds of millions, this universal body of believers is reviled by a significantly smaller number whose enmity and disdain is nourished by the powerful elite which dominates the Western world’s media.
It was not just Twitter and the other social media which carried this massive load of news, comment and analysis. Mainstream media, from the ridiculous to the prestigious, lined up friends and enemies of the Catholic Church in general, and Pope Benedict in particular, to do battle with each other. It really was amphitheater stuff. For the most part it was bewildering fare for any Catholic with an understanding of the Church and the office of its Supreme Pontiff.
One of these in particular, written two days after the event, seems to illustrate the phenomenon we are talking of. Ruth Marcus, Washington Post columnist, writing on Wednesday the 13th, used the whole event as a pretext to attack – politely on the surface but somewhat less so under the surface – the Catholic Church’s sacramental theology. Wielding her feminist weaponry she weighed in on the issue of the priesthood and took no prisoners in her attack on the pope and the Church for not permitting the priestly ordination of women.
What Marcus’ view of the Church – as well as what perhaps ninety percent of the entire media output surrounding this story – shows is the apparently unbridgeable gap between the worldview of those who see and subscribe to the existence of the happy marriage of faith and reason and those for whom reason alone is the standard by which to judge everything they see and experience.
Marcus and many more who consider themselves the apostles and apologists of modernity, those who – even while professing to be religious – cannot really comprehend what religion is about, are this kind of rationalist. But as was so clearly defined and explained by Joseph Ratzinger and his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, this kind of absolute rationalist almost inevitably succumbs to relativism – and that road leads to many forms of nightmare.
Why do we say “professing to be religious”? Because for them religion can only ever be a kind of social construct – something made by man for his own purposes, either for his consolation or to help him cope with his vague sense of the divine which will be there if he is in any way reflective.
These two worldviews now dominate Western civilization and in fact have generated two separate civilizations. These now live uneasily side by side but are currently producing all the signs of an impending conflict of dimensions not seen since the first Christians came into conflict with the Roman world, and before that, when the Judaic world came into conflict with the Hellenist forces of Antiochus and his successors.
Reading so much of the commentary generated around the impending event announced this week produces an inordinate sense of frustration in believing Christians. An enormous chasm seems to have opened up between those for whom God is a living Being who really does exist, and those for whom he is at best a vaguely perceived possible solution to some of the more persistent puzzles of our human condition.
For the former it is a theological truth that his essential mode of communication with the beings he has created is through the agency of grace and a gratuitous gift called Faith. For the latter this is nonsense. This renders any dialogue between them very fraught indeed.
Ruth Marcus’ difficulty in coping with the concept of the Catholic priesthood is just one illustration of the kind of impasse that divides these two civilizations. There are many, many more and they seem to multiply with each year that passes. Marcus has no concept, it seems, of what every faithful Catholic believes the sacraments are, what they do and how they came to be. If she did I think she would respect the right to believe and not denigrate that belief as something “backward” to which she then attributes numerous unworthy motives of greed, power, and rigidity. To her they are simply social constructs, now being held in place against the forces of modernity to preserve the hegemony of a male establishment over one half of humanity.
To faithful Catholics all the sacraments are a God-given foundation for their lives on this earth to help them on their way to eternal life. A Catholic – even if he is Pope – will no more interfere with the sacrament of holy orders, its matter and form, than he or she will interfere with the matter (bread and wine) and form of the sacrament of the Eucharist, or with the sacrament of penance in which a penitent confesses his sins to an ordained priest to obtain absolution from God. Ruth Marcus version of modernity simply cannot comprehend such a system, but is at the same time not really prepared to tolerate its existence without denigration.
Another currently more fraught flash-point in the clash of these two civilizations just now is that of marriage. Divorce constituted the first redefinition of the institution which Christians believe was elevated to the level of a sacrament by the founder of their faith. For a Catholic, marriage remains an indissoluble bond, broken only be death. The arrangements of the state to provide for the legal dissolution of that bond have no real effect on that bond for the validly married Catholic. He or she who becomes the victim of a divorce forced on them remains married. This is incomprehensible to a brand of modernity. Equally incomprehensible to a Christian – as well as to many non-Christians, of course – is the redefinition of marriage now being pursued by some which declares that a marriage bond can be established between two human beings of the same sex. This defies not only their faith but also their rational grasp of human biology.
Marcus’ special axe is the feminist one. “The common chord of orthodox religions’ struggle against the tides of modernity involves women,” she writes, “specifically whether to loosen doctrinal restrictions on women.” She goes on to equate a current struggle between Jewish women who want to wear the tallit, a prayer shawl traditionally only worn by men, with Catholic women who want to be ordained as priests. For her it was a fitting coincidence that the latest skirmish in Israel on this issue occurred the same day that Pope Benedict XVI announced his abdication.
“One of the central questions facing the Catholic Church — one of the stances on which Benedict was most unrelenting and on which his successor is likely to be similarly rigid — is the ordination of women,” she wrote. Most of us would not have thought so, but perhaps if feminism is your big issue then it is.
Marcus thinks that the “rational move”, for a church facing a dire worldwide shortage of priests, would be to expand the pool of potential candidates. This concession to modernity would not be resisted by the faithful, she argues, “because polls in the United States and abroad show strong majorities in support of women serving as priests.” That is precisely where raw rationalism takes you. The Catholic Church has always had and always will have a shortage of priests in relation to the task of evangelization it has been given.
The goal of the Catholic Church is not a numerical one. It is the sanctity and salvation of each individual soul on this earth, one by one. The total headcount is incidental. Had it been otherwise Christ would have watered down his insistence on the Eucharist which caused a portion of his following “to walk no more with him”. Indeed, the rational thing for Christ to have done when he came into conflict with the religious authorities of his time would have been to seek some accommodation with them. He did not, because the truth he told took precedence over the modernity of his time.
She is also wrong about resistance. The “faithful” who would ignore the sacramental truths about priesthood would no longer be faithful. The faithful who live by these sacraments will be, if necessary, the remnant of Israel. They know that to abandon the sacraments, their essential matter and form, is to abandon their faith in Christ.
Marcus, in her opening observations mentions her daughter’s bat-mitzvah at which three generations of women wore the tallit – as did the presiding rabbi. That rabbi was also a woman. From there she goes on to talk of restrictions on women in the Catholic Church. Consider this. A rabbi is, as I understand it, essentially a teacher. The Catholic Church has down through the centuries had many teachers who were women – some of whom are formally recognized as doctors of the church. Among its greatest teachers and spiritual inspirations have been Catherine of Sienna, Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, Hildegaard of Bingen – and in our own time Edith Stein, Teresa of Calcutta and, dare I say it, Rita Antoinette Rizzo. Who? She who is better known as Mother Angelica. These women, and many like them, had no trouble emerging from the “restrictions” imposed on them by the Catholic Church.
But all this is poppy-cock to the ultra modernist. Modernity itself is not a problem for Christians. Indeed modernity is the air that they breathe and the substance of their mission. They were exhorted by the predecessor of Benedict XVI not to be afraid of it. But modernity divorced from faith and reason is a card of the wildest and most treacherous kind. Christians are challenged to read the world in the light of something beyond reason and with that “something” to redeem it. Faithful to their sacramental life in all its divine dimensions and the message of the gospel, they will. Sadly, those anchored in a world in which faith and reason remain divorced from one another, cannot comprehend the world of these others and if their power permits it they will inevitably ridicule them, marginalize them and condemn them to obscurity – or worse. But these others will still to hear those words, “Be not afraid”, and continue on regardless.