Stephen Crittenden struggles to understand Pope

It’s nice to know that some things never change, and Stephen Crittenden (who has returned to the ABC Religion Report after an absence of some time) is one of them. It is a severe handicap for a religion commentator to be so attached to the “good guys/bad guys” paradigm, where “good guys” are those as far left as possible on the liberal/conservative spectrum and the bad guys are…well, those at the other end. The limitations of this paradigm were painfully obvious this morning on the ABC’s Religion Report when Crittenden attempted to discuss Pope Benedicts new encyclical Deus Caritas Est. Guests on the show included Charles E. Curran and Rocco Palmo–ie. the “good guys” in Crittenden’s view of the Church.

To give them their due, Curran and Palmo both had a much better grasp of the document than Crittenden. Perhaps because of (or is that in spite of?) all their experience in the Church, they understood that you can’t simply approach a theologian of Benedict’s stature with such a simplistic left/right paradigm. As Curran said, the role of the Papacy is fundamentally about unity. What Curran probably understood, but what Crittenden can’t seem to grasp, is that that unity is unity “in the Truth of the Catholic Faith”, not a unity achieved by a nod to the right and a nod to the left (as many seem to interpret B16’s recent meetings with both Hans Küng and Bernard Fellay). Yes, as the title of this edition of RR has it “Benedict Genius Est”, but the genius is both theological AND pastoral.

A few grizzles:

1) Crittenden seems unable to read between the lines. Yes, the word “sin” doesn’t appear in the encyclical–any more than “abortion”, “homosexuality” etc. Does that mean that Papa Benny has gone soft? Crittenden says: “Above all, this is emphatically not an encyclical about sex, and not a papal fatwah. There is no mention of procreation or contraception or Humanae Vitae or Pope John Paul’s Theology of the Body.” Again he says later: “there’s no mention in the entire encyclical of Humanae Vitae, there’s no mention of procreation, there’s no mention of contraception and abortion, no mention of John Paul’s Theology of the Body. Do all those things in a sense, symbolically, maybe begin to sink without trace?”

Did Stephen fail Year 10 English Comprehension? Is he completely unable to “read between the lines”? This encyclical is saturated in John Paul’s Theology of the Body, and, in a sense, explains something fundamental about TotB. I suspect Crittenden never really understood what JPII was getting at. Neither, it seems, does Palmo who calls TotB “Wojtyla’s personal constructs”.

2) Crittenden asked Curran: “Over the past two decades, Catholics have grown used to hearing denials that there is any such thing as the spirit of Vatican II. Under John Paul it became common to hear a very conservative reading of the Council and what it was about. Do you think though that reading this new encyclical, you can immediately recognise the spirit of Vatican II in these pages, even the possibility that Joseph Ratzinger is reverting to his former self as a young reform-minded theologian in the 1960s?” Thankfully, Curran is better informed that Crittenden on Benedict and “The Spirit of Vatican II”. It seems that our intrepid ABC reporter knew nothing about the Holy Father’s address to the Roman Curia late last year, and was thus interpreting the encyclical in a manner which the Pope himself has expressly ruled out. Again, Year 10 Comprehension should have taught him that context is essential in the matter of interpretation.

3) Crittendon: “We have a pope who’s talking from the centre again.” That line just proves how stuck Crittenden is on the left/right paradigm. Fr Neuhaus has an interesting take on “the Catholic Centre”. In fact, I suspect, Benedict is speaking from a point in another dimension entirely. Perhaps, to use a nice Augustinian idea, from the Heart

And two positive notes:

1) Benedict seems to be seeking for unity by striving for the fundamental rather than the peripheral. The peripheral is not unimportant–in the hierarchy of truths all truths are connected–but the peripheral will not be understood unless the fundamentals are comprehended. Get the foundations right and you can start to talk turkey on those other matters. I rather suspect that Benedict’s ecumenical method is similar, eg. when he pushes issues of ecclesiology or ministry back to the fundamental question of listening to the Word of God.

2) Bishop Tom Wright tells the story of his college chaplaincy days when students told him they don’t believe in God. He would ask which God it was that they didn’t believe in. When they told him (old man with a beard in the sky who stops you doing anything fun, generally) he would reply “Well, I don’t believe in that God either”. Dreadnought tells a similar story about people who express hate toward the Church–the institution they describe to him is not the Church to which he loves. Well, it seems like Stephen Crittenden is both reading a different encyclical to the one I read and talking about a different pope to the one I have come to know through his writings. It is plainly ridiculous to make Benedict out to be in anyway attempting to undo (or “put to rest”) the teaching of John Paul II. Benedict has repeated stressed that he sees his role as cementing and continuing the work of his predecesor.

The Pope’s agenda is not to be a softy or a hardliner, it is, rather to gently and persistently point to Truth. Deus Caritas Est does that–if in a surprising way. Yes, indeed, Benedict Genius est.

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