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Popes and the Myth of WaPo’s “5 Myths”

I know, I know. We’ve really hammered away at the subject at FDL since Papa Ratzi announced that he will relinquish the shoes of the fisherman at the close of business this coming Thursday. We’ve even had fun with it when Peterr volunteered to take the job. (I’ll support him in exchange for preferred access to that great Vatican library.) One might think it’s time to let it go. Still, after fetching my paper this morning I found that I couldn’t resist another entry.

As I’ve previously noted, every Sunday the Washington Post recruits an expert on some subject to write a column entitled “5 Myths about [the subject].” The item is printed on page 2 of the “Outlook” Section, next to another weekly feature on who had the “Worst Week in Washington” (today, former Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr.) and the continuation of one of the Outlook page 1 articles (today, a review of Al Gore’s new book by Chrystia Freeland). That is, it is sandwiched between the page 1 lead-ins of that article and typically two other generally unreadable ones, which are continued in the interior to share billing with other generally unreadable articles, and the back page consisting of WaPo’s chief book reviewer pursuing his craft (more on him another day).

The expert on the given Sunday typically gives an introductory paragraph and then lists the five “myths,” with a rebuttal of each. As it turns out, one or two of these so-called myths may indeed be such, but as often as not the item is a straw man that no one really believes, or is subtly distorted from what people actually believe to make it easier to refute, or is actually true while the “expert’s” argument is wrong.

Well, you guessed it, today’s column is “5 Myths about picking a pope,” by Thomas J. Reese, SJ. He is a fellow of the Woodstock Theological Center of Georgetown University who, although the paper does not say so, is something of a maverick within the faith: Upon Benedict’s election in 2005 he resigned the editorship of America magazine, after being thought (by guess who) too liberal on the hot-button issues of priestly celibacy and ordination of women. Should be interesting, right?

Let’s just see. Fr. Reese’s Introduction says he will treat “misconceptions” about the coming conclave that will choose the new pontiff, then he states these as follows.

1. Pope Benedict resigned, rather than remain in office until death, so he could influence the cardinals to elect someone like him.

Certainly some people have thought so. The rebuttal first cites the official line that the resignation is for health reasons, and quotes the Vatican spokesman who said the next day that Benedict will not interfere in the succession process. (There is one glaring error here, that he “is moving out of Rome,” but maybe this part of the article was written before the announcement of living quarters within the Vatican.) Then we have a primer on the formal process, then a note that the last time a pope tried to influence the succession, in the 6th century, the Roman Senate was up in arms. Finally, Fr. Reese says,

Benedict has appointed 57 percent of the cardinal electors (John Paul II named the rest), so they will most likely elect someone with similar views. In American terms, that means someone to the right of Newt Gingrich on social issues and to the left of Nancy Pelosi on economic issues.

Upon first seeing this I thought the last phrase was ludicrous, but then I remembered that Pelosi is caver-in-chief of the House Democratic caucus. Benedict has talked a lot about the scourge of poverty, so this point might be accurate. But what is left out here is of course that then-Cardinal Ratzinger is the man who nominated that 43% that John Paul II named, since he was the latter’s right-hand man.

The “bilan,” as the French say, is that while the rebuttal may be technically correct, Benedict knew that he didn’t have to have a formal say in order to get the type of guy he wanted into the office.

2. The next pope is likely to be African or Latin American.

I would have no problem believing that this one is a myth, but what Fr. Reese mostly argues against is the proposition that the next pope should be from the southern regions. He does begin by noting that most of the cardinals are still from Europe, so that “chances are the next pope will be European.” But the text then slowly shifts to noting the arguments of those who want an African, and finally ends with,

Both John Paul and Benedict railed against secularism and relativism in Europe but were unable to turn the tide. If there is a cardinal who can turn the church around in Europe and the United States, he deserves the job.

3. The cardinals will elect a brilliant theologian like John Paul and Benedict.

I hadn’t heard this one, but I guess some might believe it. Here the rebuttal begins with a claim that each of the last two popes was the most intelligent of the cardinals who were meeting at the time when it turned out they elected him. I have no idea whether or not that was the case. But then Fr. Reese once again shifts from what will or will not be to what should or should not be, although here his argument is more interesting. He says “The problem with most academics and intellectuals, especially philosophers and theologians, is that they have already made up their minds on important issues and rarely change them.” Spot on, in my experience. He says that the church needs, rather, some non-dogmatist who knows how to negotiate. Then:

Both John Paul and Benedict got into trouble because they were surrounded by people who thought the popes were the smartest men in the world. Such people are reluctant to challenge their bosses.

In particular, he says, if not for that factor someone might have told Benedict in 2006 that if he quoted Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologos denigrating Islam there would be protests.

Lots of luck with your wish here, Fr. Reese, but the Church, after all, is a hierarchy where the Pope is viewed as God’s representative on Earth.

4. Don’t expect big surprises from the next conclave.

Here the rebuttal is by way of example: the 1958 accession of John XXIII was thought ho-hum, but he “convened the Second Vatican Council, which transformed modern Catholicism”; John Paul II in 1978 was the first non-Italian pope in centuries. In conclusion, the next pope, once elected,

has no one from whom to take his cues. He has to think, consult and pray before each big decision. Where that will lead him is anyone’s guess.

This would seem to contradict the wish in #3 that a mechanism for getting sound advice be in place, but never mind. To me, the rebuttal hinges on what you mean by a “big” surprise. I don’t know enough about the Second Vatican Council to comment on how much of a deal it was, but not too many care whether a European pope is Italian or Polish. As the rebuttal itself notes, there won’t be “female priests next month,” but to me a big surprise would be something like an apology for the savage execution of the philosopher Giordano Bruno in 1600 or, to consider a more contemporary possibility, turning a whole bunch of child molesters over to the authorities of their respective countries for jailing. Nothing like that is going to happen.

5. It doesn’t matter who is elected pope; nobody listens to him.

Here the “rebuttal” again sidesteps (negation of) the stated factual proposition, this time to express a hope that the new pontiff will indeed be someone that people inside and outside the Church will listen to. He must be someone who can make Christianity live for people of the 21st century. To conclude,

In preaching the Gospel, the church needs to imitate, not just quote, great theologians such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. Both took the best thinking of their times — for Augustine it was Neoplatonism, for Thomas it was the writings of Aristotle — and used it to explain Christianity.

I know enough about what Aquinas actually did to correct the last statement somewhat: He read Latin translations of Arabic translations of Syriac translations of the Greek writings of Aristotle, rode roughshod over (Latin translations of) some of the Aristotle interpretations of the Persian philosopher Avicenna and of the Arab philosopher Averroes (granted that they also worked from translations), and somehow justified such notions as the Trinity (a concept of which the earliest Christians had no idea, according to at least one recent book). Still, one understands the wish, and the Catholic faithful will probably share it.

However, my interest in religion is not in practicing it. (Rather, it is in studying the history of religions, especially in the ancient world, and that is way off topic here.) Thus I don’t get too excited about such issues as whether or not there should be female priests. But I can’t help noticing that today’s “5 myths” piece, like those of other Sundays, ignores a lot of what is actually going on, such as, in today’s case, La Repubblica’s assertion the other day that Benedict’s resignation was connected to his receipt of a file noting a network of gay prelates inside the Vatican itself.

In that way, at least, we see again that WaPo’s notion that it is refuting 5 myths is itself a myth

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E. F. Beall

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