Bible Commentator


Rabbi Moshe Reiss

Benedict XVI:  Pope or Inquisitor?

In the “modern” world “secularism” has become opposed to “religion’.

The three words in double quotes we italicized require understanding before we can discuss ‘fundamentalism’.

Modernity is a process developed from the industrial revolution. As Alvin Toffler noted the way the next stage the information revolution ‘shocked’ the world (‘Future Shock’). Modernity was required for twentieth century to become the most developed – in terms of health, education and reducing poverty - as well as most murderous century ever.

Secularism, an ideology, was introduced by the French Revolution, also a very bloody affair. Secularism came out of the enlightenment based on reason. In its origin secularism was anti-religion; as Voltaire stated ‘if God did not exist we would have to invent him’. It was long considered that  religion and reason conflicted; the two can and do, in modernity, co-exist. Secularism as an ideology is similar in principle to capitalism, communism or democracy.

Secularism assumes a world that is neutral, detached, objective and sometimes rational. For a religious person the world may operate that way and God still be above it all. A religious person may on the other hand assume God is responsible for what happens to him good or bad. Job assumed that; but for him God had become devilish. Indeed he was right God did allow Satan to torment him (see ‘The Book of Job’ chapter one).

Peter Berger, one of the outstanding sociologists of religion once claimed the irreversibility of secularism (‘The Social Reality of Religion’).  He has more recently reversed himself stating that he had been wrong. The world ‘is as furiously religious as it ever was, and in some places more so than ever’ (‘The Desecularization of the World’). Harvey Cox in his famous ‘The Secular City’ considers that ‘secularization is the liberation of man from religious and metaphysical tutelage the turning of his attention away from other worlds and towards this one’.

Modern secularism has free human being to be greater persons while at the same time increased its potential for greater evil. If as I believe Israel is good for the Jews and humanity in general it also has the potential for Jewish evil that did not exist before the establishment of the state. Secularism is unrelated to atheism. I am a secularist and am religious.

There are many species of atheism, just as there are many species of religion.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writing about Religion noted that while ‘it is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the collapse of religion in the modern society, it would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive and insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past, when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with voice of compassion, its message becomes meaningless’ (‘God In Search of Man’).

Pope John Paul II opposed George W. Bush’s war on Iraq. (It is interesting, although perhaps irrelevant that George Bush’s close brother Jeb, the Governor of Florida and Tony Blair’s wife are Catholics.) Despite the Pope’s position he agreed to help the President retain the ‘key to his kingdom’. On Bush's visit to John Paul II in June 2004 he explained the importance of his right wing Christian oriented administration to Vatican officials. They agreed that despite the Pope’s opposition to the war they would help his re-election campaign. Bush complaining that not all the American bishops were with him.  A week later Cardinal Ratzinger sent a letter to U.S. Catholic Bishops with a subtle but clear reference to John Kerry.  It said that those Catholics who were pro-choice on abortion were committing a ‘grave sin’ and must be denied communion. He pointedly mentioned ‘the case of a Catholic politician consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws’. It was obvious he was referring to John Kerry, the Democratic candidate and a Roman Catholic. If such a Catholic politician sought communion, Ratzinger wrote, priests must be ordered to ‘refuse’ him. Any Catholic who voted for this ‘Catholic politician’, he continued, ‘would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil and so unworthy himself for Holy Communion.’ (National Catholic Reporter and Salon Magazine.)

In the 1960’s two John’s (Pope John XXIII and President John F. Kennedy) represented what the pope called his ‘aggiornamento’ his transformation; they liberalized the cultures in both America and Europe. There is now a new Pope Benedict XVI, formerly Cardinal Ratzinger; nobody believes he is likely to become another Mikhail Gorbachev, the reformer who with the help of the previous Pope felled the Berlin Wall. However it is doubtful that the new Pope and the President will ever be compared to the two John’s.

All three of the Abrahamic religions have become more fundamental. We can symbolize this by six events that occurred between 1976-1980.

1. In 1976 Jimmy Carter a man who publicly identified himself as a born-again Christian was elected President of the U.S. (Remember John Kennedy’s problem with his Catholicism sixteen years earlier.)

2. In 1977 Menachem Begin became the Prime Minister of Israel. He was and remains the only Prime Minister who strictly followed Jewish kosher dietary laws.  He also signed a Peace agreement with Anwar Sadat.

3. In 1978 John Paul II, the Polish Pope was elected.  While for the Jews he was the best Pope, in other ways he is far more conservative than his predecessor but one John XXIII.

4. In 1979 Ayatollah Khomeini took over Iran and founded the Islamic Republic of Iran, a fundamentalist Shi’ite regime.

5. That same year the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Muslim reacted by beginning a Holy War against the Soviet Union. The liberal West saw this as a fight against Atheistic Communism; Islam saw it as a war against the West.

6. In 1980 Ronald Reagan backed by the Christian right - the Moral Majority - became President of the U.S.

These six events in five years have changed the modern world.

In the homily Ratzinger gave just before the conclave that chose him for the papacy, he said, "The small boat of thought of many Christians has often been tossed about by these waves – thrown from one extreme to the other: from Marxism to liberalism, even to libertinism; from collectivism to radical individualism; from atheism to a vague religious mysticism; from agnosticism to syncretism, and so forth. ... Having a clear faith, based on the Creed of the Church, is often labeled today as a fundamentalism.

[R]elativism  .  .  .  looks like the only attitude [acceptable] to today's standards. We are moving towards a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one's own ego and one's own desires."

Everyone quoted the ‘dictatorship of relativism’ as the key phrase from this homily. Is a dictatorship of the absolute better? Are they the opposites; are there no other choices? Does Ratzinger foster the dictatorship of absolutism – his truth; what if his truth is different than mine? Can absolutism tolerate relativism? Does absolutism require zealotry? Is any form of zealotry good?

The model of zealotry in my Bible (Old Testament) and his is Phineas. He killed a Hebrew man and a Midianite woman having sexual relations in front of God’s Tent in the desert. God bestowed upon him a covenant of peace (Num. 25: 8-12).  Despite God’s apparent approval the Talmud did not think his action should be considered a model of behavior; they suggested a trial would have been more appropriate.

In 1999 the Vatican published a document called ‘instrumentum laboris’ (not under the ‘direct’ imprimatur of Cardinal Ratzinger) in which it compared pluralism with communism, both condemned. One understands the Polish Pope condemning communism; but is communism a form of pluralism and not in fact an absolutist doctrine? Is not pluralism required for a democracy? Was the Vatican therefore condemning democracy?

In 597 Pope Gregory the Great sent Augustine to meet with the Archbishop of Canterbury with a mandate to heal the wounds of Christianity, at the time divided between Celtic, Old Roman and Frankish, and to evangelize the recently arrived Anglo-Saxons. Gregory advised him to take a moderate line with the different Christian groups, provided they worked together and accepted his authority. (Intriguing how some old problems remain.)  His advice about what to do with pagan temples was not knock them down, just destroy the idols inside them, and replace them with Christian symbols.

Analogies from over more than a millennium about theology are difficult.  The new pope's track record is based on a profound mistrust of new ideologies. Christianity is meeting new terrain, as it has done before and will do again. Can the advice of Gregory the Great to attempt to appropriate their temples have some applicability. He was suggesting that we need to enter the constructs and mind-sets of the people concerned - and not destroy them. But then comes the more tricky process of ensuring that the old idols inside are replaced by Christian truth. What is Christian truth? Does Benedict XVI have it or did John XXIII have it? That there theologies are different is obvious; where their truths? What are the idols?

Cardinal Ratzinger’s stated the following when asked about the American problem with pedophile Priests:

‘I am personally convinced that the constant presence in the press of the sins of Catholic priests, especially in the United States, is a planned campaign, as the percentage of these offences among priests is not higher than in other categories, and perhaps it is even lower’ (Catholic News Service - 2002).

Is the problem the Free Press or pedophiles whether Priests or otherwise?

Why did Ratzinger who as ‘Dean of the College of Cardinals’ was ‘acting Pope’ approve Cardinal Law leading a Mass in honor of the dead Pope John Paul II despite his resigning his Archbishopric in Boston as a direct result of his mishandling the pedophile problem? Does this come from a person who believes in a Dictatorship of the Absolute?

The same Ratzinger excommunicated seven women ordained in June 2002 by a dissident archbishop in Europe and declared with John Paul II’s approval, that opposition to female ordination was an ‘infallible’ teaching of the Church. Are female priests more ‘defective’ - Benedict’s word -  than pedophiles? Is not pedophilia a sin against the infallible teaching of the Church?

Fundamentalists see the world as a holy war zone (like a ‘jihad’) between Sons of Evil and the Sons of Righteousness. As Cardinal and as executor of the ‘Holy Inquisition’ Ratzinger favored these doctrines found in the Gospel of John and the epistles of Paul (see particularly the Gospel of John and Rom. 2-8). These concepts resulted in a fundamentalist streak to be found in parts of the New Testament, anti-Semitism and the seeking after heretics. (I recognized that other scriptures including my own have similar statements with similar implications. Both scriptures also contain opposing views.) The motto of the ‘Holy Inquisition’ was stated by the 16th century Christian King Philip II of Spain, the son of Queen Isabella of fame for beginning the ‘Holy Inquisition’ and for the murdering and expelling of hundreds of thousands of Jews and Muslims from Spain.  ‘I would rather sacrifice the lives of a hundred thousand people than cease my persecution of heretics’. He and his mother did! Is that still the motto?

Jews no longer worry about another holocaust. Not since Angelo Giuseppi Roncalli (later Pope John XXIII) said of the bodies at Auschwitz ‘we have crucified him again’. Pope John Paul II went to Auschwitz and called it the ‘Gologotha of the modern world’. Both were recognizing the connection between Christian anti-Semitism and Nazism. Because of the recognition by these two Popes that will not happen again, at least not in the Christian world. Pope John Paul II an ebullient human being theologically concentrated his thought on Jesus as the Word, as the Revelation. It is worth noting that Ratzinger a more dour man concentrated his thoughts of Jesus of the Cross.

The ‘Holy Inquisition’ renamed as ‘Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’ still exists. Its ‘Index of Forbidden Books’ still exists. And ‘Lolita’ (by Vladimir Nabokov) is still in it although ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’ (by Azar Nafisi) which tells of an Inquisition state called The Islamic Republic of Iran is not. (The latter book does have a ‘fatwa’ forbidding it to be read by Muslims.) The Talmud, for centuries was on the index and as a result was burnt – along with Jews - all over Europe; it has since been removed.

In Ratzinger’s letter introducing ‘Dominus Iesus’ (2000) he states that ‘the declaration presents the principal truths of the Catholic faith in these areas; such truths require, therefore, irrevocable assent by the Catholic faithful’. The document appears to state that Jesus is the one road to salvation; although Jews as an older covenant and as brothers of Jesus are an exception. The letter reads like a statement of infallibility for the Roman Church. What are Muslims, let alone Hindus or Buddhists to think?

As Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Cardinal Ratzinger excommunicated some priests and silenced others from teaching at Catholic Universities who did not assent irrevocably to his definition of absolutism. One of those was the world famous Catholic theologian Hans Küng who was banned from teaching at the Catholic Theological Faculty of the University of Tubingen. Kung described  Dominus Iesus as ‘a hotch-potch of medieval backwardness and folie de grandeur’. One of Ratzinger’s more famous excommunications was that of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre who continued the Latin liturgy after Vatican II changed the liturgy language to the vernacular. Yet Ratzinger stated in an interview in 1998 (National Catholic Reporter) and again in 2003 that he himself favored a return to some Latin in the liturgy (Raymond Arroyo – EWTN). Was he himself willing to follow the older tradition, but felt forced to follow papal instructions?

Ratzinger’s view may be appropriate for a Cardinal Inquisitor; is it for a Pope?  Will the change in function change the person? According to an old colleague he once as Prefect stated 'I understand the obligations of my office in the sense of a religious obedience to the pope.'  This may suggest that as Pope he would have different obligations.

Would an Inquisitor be valuable to Christian Europe?

Many people including Spenger (columnist for Asia Times) have pointed out that rate of birth in Western Europe in insufficient to continue the race.

George Weigel, John Paul II's biographer has stated: "Western Europe, is in the midst of a crisis of civilizational morale ... Europe is depopulating itself at a rate unseen since the Black Death of the 14th century. The demographics are unmistakable: Europe is dying. The wasting disease that has beset this once greatest of civilizations is not physical.  It is a disease in the realm of the human spirit . . . Europe . . . is boring itself to death. Europe's current demographic trend lines . . . could eventually produce a 22nd-century, or even late-21st-century, Europe increasingly influenced by, and perhaps even dominated by, militant Islamic populations ... it is allowing radicalized 21st-century Muslims”.  

Is European Christianity to become as extinct as the Dodo?

Ratzinger himself compared the current Christian in Europe to kibbutzim of Israel; declining to the point of extinction. He suggested comparing them to Jesus' mustard seed, faith of whose dimensions could move mountains.  Was he suggesting converting Europe’s Muslims to the Catholic faith?

This would no doubt please Bernard Lewis who is concerned that by the end of this century Europe will be Muslim and Bat Ye’or who is equally concerned and has written a book on that subject entitled ‘Eurabia: The Euro-Arab Axis’.

Europe's churches are often empty. In France, only one in twenty people now attends a religious service every week, and the demographic skews to the aged. In Spain 25% and in Germany 30% go to Church once a month. In Italy, the most Catholic of all states only 15 % attend weekly mass. Indifference is widespread. Only 16% of the British say that religion is very important in their lives, 14% of the French and 13% of the Germans. This is compared to 53% of Americans according to a 1997 University of Michigan survey.

Ratzinger has suggested that the quality of Christians is more important that the quantity of Christians; this may or may not be inconsistent his other thought of converting Muslims to Christianity. The latter might make better quality Christians and thus not be inconsistent. He may consider that Vatican II was an attempt to increase the number of church going Christians. The use of the vernacular may be a case in point. Can he consider that this was an attempt to assimilate into the world? On the other hand what was Jesus doing relating to prostitutes and tax collectors if not relating to the outside world? Perhaps to convert them? Jesus did speak Aramaic - the vernacular, as did the Apostles when speaking Greek to Gentiles and when St. Jerome translating the Bible into the Latin.

Can our inquisitor change that?

Pope Benedict XVI was installed on a very auspicious day April 24, in the Jewish calendar it is the 15th day of Nissan, the first day of Passover when according to the Gospels Jesus was crucified; a changing day for the world and for the Pope.

To Benedict XVI:

I will as you requested in your installation homily pray for you to become ‘servants of unity . . . [and] not [to] be afraid . . . of freedom’. I will pray for a Pope of renewal and not of restoration.  As such I hope you will dialogue not only with other religious leaders but also with the secularists. As you stated ‘My real programme of governance is not to do my own will, not to pursue my own ideas, but to listen’. We all need to listen.