Pope Benedict the Faithless

Thanks to Ezra for inviting me back, and thanks to co-guest-blogger Amanda Angelica for being awesome.

I want to offer my apologies for being a little late on the posting thing, although I guess that's only true in East Coast Time. It took a little longer than usual to get all the bread products out of our house. (Happy Passover!) In honor of this vaguely holy day, here's the latest news on the Ratzinger front:

Spain's parliament is set to pass a bill legalizing a form of gay
marriage and gay adoption. Guess whose finely sewn, textured, and lacy
Bavarian underthings are in a bunch.

Oy! Benny 16 is definitely not off to a good start. Since his election, I've been trying to put a finger on why, past Nazi sympathies aside, Benedict so irks moderate and liberal catholics. Sure, he's an extreme conservative, but so was JPII - in response to the EU's flirtation with legalizing gay marriage, he denounced the idea as part of "an ideology of evil." The two just aren't that substantively different. But we liberals (mostly) loved JPII, and seem to fairly solidly hate Benedict XVI. Why?

I think his nickname explains it all: "The Enforcer." John Paul II was often called "the people's Pope," and with good reason. He had a deep and abiding understanding of human nature.  Even when he was advocating extremely conservative stances on doctrinal issues, John Paul II always seemed to be expressing a moral intuition, defining for Catholics a kind of spiritual end zone that none might ever reach, but that all should strive for. He accepted, and embraced, the imperfection that marks everything on Earth - all god's creations, if you dig that sort of thing. Benedict, by contrast, is an intellectual; he's much more finely attuned to the dogmatic conclusions of logical proofs than the complex moral universe that's contained within every human soul.  He's not interested in preaching; he's interested in enforcing.

Partially as a result of this, I think we're going to see Benedict abandon a lot of the pet causes that endeared JPII to liberals: Anti-death penalty, anti-war, anti-capitalism, etc. The reason, of course, is that these are all decisions made by governments on a fairly federal level. A Pope can be anti-war all he wants, but unless he gets an audience with an extremely maleable commander-in-chief, actual enforcement is going to be pretty tough. Same with hyper-deregulation of free markets. But issues like homosexuality and contraception are often decided on a much less central, more local and personal level: They're areas where, especially in modern America, a papal decree actually carries some political weight. Benedict is only fighting the battles that have some room for papal doctrine to result in actual enforcement. (Sorry, death row inmates.)

More to the point, I think, this kind of papal strategy devalues faith. The great thing about JPII's strategy is that it completely ignored enforcement: If you wanted to attain the kind of moral perfection that he was advocating, you had to do it by dint of sheer personal improvement. But to Benedict, the point of Catholicism is the destination, not the journey; self-improvement is just a pesky step on the road to Being More Like Him, and the sooner you can just be done with it, the better. He's interested in changing you, not motivating you to change. This attitude, unsurprisingly, has now manifested itself in the advocacy of laws that simply require moral self-improvement.*  But Benedict just takes all the fun out of self-improvement. Redemption is meaningless if it's compulsory.

*Note: For the purposes of this post, "moral self-improvement" denotes whatever Catholic doctrine says it does. I have no personal conviction that abandoning equal rights for gays would in any way be an "improvement," moral or otherwise.

- Daniel A. Munz