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Patrick Deneen Patrick J. Deneen is the David A. Potenziani Memorial Associate Professor of Constitutional Studies at the University of Notre Dame. From 2005 to 2012 he was an associate professor of Government...


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Benedict the Radical

October 28, 2009

Recent commentary on Pope Benedict XVI's invitation to Anglicans to enter the Catholic fold has predictably fallen into the well-worn rut of seeing his action through liberal/conservative lens. Our domestic battle lines have been so firmly drawn, with daily sorties probing for the opposition's weaknesses while heavy arms stand at ready for attack, that we are largely incapable of putting our heads above the ramparts to discern whether something else entirely might be going on.

One need only consult David Gibson's weekend article from the pages of the very host of this site, which asked the question: "Is Pope Benedict A Closet Liberal?" (to which "On Faith's" own Thomas Reese has here responded, "not enough"). Gibson finds evidence of the Pope's "liberalism" in his extraordinary activism. "Thus far, Benedict's papacy has been one of constant movement and change, the sort of dynamic that liberal Catholics -- or Protestants -- are usually criticized for pursuing." Gibson regards any form of "constant movement and change" to be a form of liberalism. While he acknowledges that this "liberalism" has been exerted by Benedict XVI toward a "conservative agenda," he concludes that the embrace of change opens the Church to orienting these "liberal means," eventually toward liberal ends.

Gibson is thus working with the following definitions of liberalism and conservatism: liberals seek change while conservatives defend the status quo. Maybe. But a suppler grasp would recognize that it depends entirely on the status of the status quo. Whether one embraces "change" or defends the "status quo" will depend on whether the current status quo more or less reflects a set of substantive commitments. Thus, in liberal times, conservatives are likely to seek change, while liberals are likely to defend the status quo. We have seen this oddity most recently during recent Senate hearings considering nominations for the Supreme Court. In that context, liberal Senators have sought to find out if nominees will be suitably respectful of precedent - namely and especially Roe v. Wade; conservatives, meanwhile, have called for more "activism" in seeking to have that ruling overturned. Are those seeking change therefore "liberal" and those defending the status quo therefore "conservative"? According to Gibson, yes. Reality suggests otherwise.

One's respective view on the relative need for, and direction of, change will depend finally upon one's assessment of where one is now. Gibson goes seriously awry when he confuses the Pope's "constant movement and change" as a form of "liberalism." Nor would it even be proper to call him a "conservative," given that he sees little worth "conserving" in a secularizing, materialist modern age with decreasing respect for human dignity in all of its forms. The word that better captures this Pope is that of radical: he is seeking to get to the root of matters - in particular, the two millennium tradition of Catholicism - and on that basis to re-orient the Roman Church for a future that he regards with some foreboding and grimness. He chose his Papal name with care and deliberateness: in many respects, he foresees a new Dark Age approaching, and is seeking to build a Church that will resemble the monastic order originally established by St. Benedict - a monastic order governed by an austere rule that can weather the dark times ahead.

Few have better captured the radical aims of this Pope than Robert Moynihan in a recent "Letter from Rome":

"If one looks at ... the context of recent events, the essential point is this: Benedict XVI, though now 82, is moving on many different fronts with great energy in a completely unexpected way, given his reputation as a man of thought, not of action. (We are going to have to revise our understanding of his pontificate.) He is clearly reaching out to reunite with many Christian groups: the Lefebvrists, as these meetings show, but also Anglicans, the Orthodox, and others as well. He seems to be trying to make Catholic Rome a center of communion for all Christians. This activity, occurring at an accelerating speed over recent months, looks almost like a "rallying of the troops" before some final, decisive battle.[...] In short, many eyes are now on Benedict, wondering what he really intends here. The answer seems simple enough: Benedict is trying energetically to "get his house in order." But which house? On one level, it is the Christian Church -- a Christian Church under considerable pressure in the highly secualrized modern world. In this "house," this "ecclesia Dei" ("church of God" or "community of God"), dogmas and doctrines, formulated into very precise verbal statements, are held as true. These verbal formulas are professed in creeds. Benedict is seeking to overcome divisions over the content of these creeds, these doctrinal formulas, in order to bring about formal, public unity among separated Christians. He is trying to find unity not only with the Lefebvrists (and all Traditionalists within the Church) but also, as we have seen in recent days, with the Anglicans and the Orthodox Churches. So this dialogue with the Lefebvrists must be seen in the context of multiple dialogues, all occurring at once: Catholic Traditionalists, Protestant Anglicans, the Orthodox Churches. One might almost say this pontificate is become one of "all dialogue, all the time." But on a second level, considering world events and the evolution of the world's economy and culture, something else is also at stake. Benedict is rallying his troops. He is trying to reunite all those factions and denominations and groups in the West that share common beliefs in the eternal destiny of human beings, in the sacredness of human life (since human beings are "in the image and likeness of God"), in the existence of a moral standard which is true at all times and in all places (against the relativism of the modern secular culture), in the need for justice in human affairs, for the rule of right, not might. And so he is doing his best, in what seems perhaps to be the "twilight of the West," to build an ark, centered in Rome, to which all those who share these beliefs about human dignity may repair. And this means that what Benedict is doing in this dialogue which got underway today is also of importance to Jews, to Muslims, and to all men and women of goodwill. Mankind seems to be entering a new period, a period in which companies and governments may produce, even for profit, "designer humans," a period of resource wars, a period of the complete rejection of the traditional family unit. Benedict, from his high room in the Apostolic Palace, seems to be trying to rally the West in the twilight of an age, so that what was best in the West may be preserved, and shine forth again after the struggles of our time are past."

This "ordering of the house" of Christianity goes beyond any simple - and frankly, almost laughably irrelevant - invocation of "liberal" and "conservative" position reflected in today's American politics. If one reads Benedict/Ratzinger's writings as a whole, one sees that he has consistently argued that Christianity is entering a period in which it will, as a whole, need to strengthen itself by shrinking to a core of the faithful. His is not an electoral strategy, but a gambit to preserve Western civilization. In the book Without Roots, then Cardinal Ratzinger (in a conversation with Italian Prime Minster Marcello Pera) articulated his view that the future of Christianity (and specifically, the Church) will lie in "creative minorities." He wrote there that he viewed such "creative minorities" (comparing them explicitly to the monastic communities of the Middle ages) as a "yeast [Matthew 13:33] - a persuasive force that acts beyond the more closed sphere until it reaches everybody.... The minorities renew the vitality of this great community at the same time as they draw on its hidden life force, which forever generates new life" (122-3).

What's important to note about Benedict XVI's "radicalism" is that it does not rest upon success in the political sphere; his vision for the Church fundamentally eschews much of what actually is shared in common between contemporary "liberals" and "conservatives." In the American context, "liberals" and "conservatives" alike are too much and too often in the throes of the modern orthodoxies, particularly a near-fanatic embrace of science and technology, devotion to "progress," "choice," and "growth," and a fealty to "the Market." Both are essentially earth-oriented, power-hungry and materialist.

We make a grave mistake if we interpret and understand the actions and activities of Pope Benedict XVI through the narrowly political lens that we all tend to wear in these times. He's engaged in a project far greater, and with world-historical significance. He is a radical traditionalist, and in a most untraditional age, such devotions call for radical creativity. Just don't call him "liberal" or "conservative"; both labels are too narrow for his capacious ambitions. He is endeavoring to save Christendom - from those outside it who would wish its demise - but even more, from those within, regardless of their political label.