Friday, April 22, 2005

The Pope and God at Yale

The election of the new Pope has brought with it a new chorus of "Everything is Absolute, Nothing is Relative)" sing-song melodies from those who pant for absolute totalitarianism, whether of the political or religious variety.

Lindsay has a concise one paragraph put-down of the right's "pluralism plus tolerance equals relativism" straw man, here.

But the notion of absolutes, especially when defined by conservative authorities, has some problems, too. First, the Focus on the Family types are ironically pretty selective about what is absolute. According to the right, absolutes are mainly about (1) sexual mores in general, and the control of women in particular; and (2) blindly obeying the Republican Party. Issues pertaining to social justice and individual liberties get treated as second class citizens. Second, conservative and religious authorities have often been frighteningly wrong about just what exactly it is that is absolute and right. Christopher Hitchens reminds us of some of those here. Author Sam Harris raises additional queries here. Basically we Christian "people of faith" have frequently stunk up the joint of society with our ignorant and intolerant prejudices.

I believe Christianity in general, and we Christians in particular, have a mission for the world, but our too frequent, and suspect meddling in specific policy matters and party politics has muddled our purpose and lost us legitimacy in the eyes of much of the world.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005 and the Democrat-Republicans

I caught about 2 minutes of the Ed Shultz show yesterday where he was critical of's advertising campaign against Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer for the congressman's vote in support of The No Credit Card Company Left Behind "bankruptcy reform" bill.

Shultz and some of his callers thought this just provided amunition for Republicans and that and everybody else should just lay off Democrats, no matter what they do.

Thankfully another caller weighed in that (1) is a progressive, as opposed to a Democratic organization, so is obligated by any 11th commandment or any such thing; and that (2) it's folly to just keep sending Republican-minded Democrats back to Washington all the time and expecting things to change.

Now, while agreeing with Shultz's last caller, I'm not arguing that MoveOn's action here was either wise or useful.

But I'm not impressed with the reasoning that we can't say anything bad about Democrats or else Republicans will use those charges against us. First of all, Hoyer will walk to re-election anyway. Second, the credit card company bill, unlike other economic related measures, had absolutely no valid purpose other than to reward Big Business. It isn't going to lower credit card rates, or increase jobs for the credit card companies.

I don't necessarily hold that on every business related matter that comes before Congress, that the interests of the economy and the nation as a whole should always be subordinated to the percieved interests of the poor or working classes. Sometimes its the case that measures which have either negative short term impacts or will prove beneficial overall are needed.

But in the case of the Paris Hilton Estate Tax Elimination bill, and the Leave No Credit Card Company Behind bill, there is no larger economic interest served. All these bills do is reward the upper classes and the business community.

When Democrats in Congress don't get this, than they deserve to be reminded, perhaps publicly, of what they were sent to Washington to do.

Let Me Say This About That

I was thinking of penning something related to the atrocity that is Time magazine's cover this week, but then Digby goes and says exactly, exactly what I was thinking.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005


And here I am agreeing with Andrew:


"How many winds of doctrine we have known in recent decades, how many ideological currents, how many ways of thinking. 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. Every day new sects are created and what Saint Paul says about human trickery comes true, with cunning which tries to draw those into error (cf Eph 4, 14). Having a clear faith, based on the Creed of the Church, is often labeled today as a fundamentalism. Whereas, relativism, which is letting oneself be tossed and swept along by every wind of teaching, looks like the only attitude (acceptable) to todays standards. We are moving towards a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal ones own ego and one's own desires." Pope Benedict XVI, yesterday.

And what is the creed of the Church? That is for the Grand Inquisitor to decide. Everything else - especially faithful attempts to question and understand the faith itself - is "human trickery." It would be hard to over-state the radicalism of this decision. It's not simply a continuation of John Paul II. It's a full-scale attack on the reformist wing of the church. The swiftness of the decision and the polarizing nature of this selection foretell a coming civil war within Catholicism. The space for dissidence, previously tiny, is now extinct. And the attack on individual political freedom is just beginning.- 1:10:00 PM

THE FUNDAMENTALIST TRIUMPH: And so the Catholic church accelerates its turn toward authoritarianism, hostility to modernity, assertion of papal supremacy and quashing of internal debate and dissent. We are back to the nineteenth century. Maybe this is a necessary moment. Maybe pressing this movement to its logical conclusion will clarify things. But those of us who are struggling against what our Church is becoming, and the repressive priorities it is embracing, can only contemplate a form of despair. The Grand Inquisitor, who has essentially run the Church for the last few years, is now the public face. John Paul II will soon be seen as a liberal. The hard right has now cemented its complete control of the Catholic church. And so ... to prayer. What else do we now have?- 12:54:00 PM

NOVAK ON COMMUNISM: Michael Novak's attempt to buttress the notion that one either has to agree with Joseph Ratzinger or endorse complete moral relativism is less than persuasive. I won't address all its flaws. But here's an interesting digression. Novak wants to posit communism as a triumph of the post-Nietzschean relativism that Ratzinger is horrified by. Money quote:

Ratzinger experienced another set of loud shouters in the 1968 student revolution at Tubingen University, this time in the name of Marxist rather than Nazi will. Marxism as much as Nazism (though in a different way) depended on the relativization of all previous notions of ethics and morality and truth, bourgeois ideas, these were called. People who were called upon by the party to kill in the partys name had to develop a relativists conscience.

This is a big stretch. The philosophical appeal of Marxism was and is, for the handful of fools who still cling to it, its claim to absolute, scientific truth. Similarly, Nazism asserted as a scientific fact the superiority or inferiority of certain races. These totalitarian ideologies allowed for no dissent because the truth had been proven. You see precious little relativism in Communist or fascist regimes. They created absolute leaders to embody and enforce the maintenance of their truths. And they believed in the conflation of such truths with all political life, the abolition of autonomy and conscience. In structure, they were and are very close to the structure of a decayed version of Catholicism that asserts one version of the truth, suppresses any and all open discussion of such truths within its power, and elevates a cult-like leader and mass demonstrations to reinforce its propaganda. Querulous, brave and ornery dissent - dissent designed not to obscure the truth but to understand it better - is quashed.

FAITH VERSUS REASON? Now who in the current religious debate reminds you of that? Of course, the Church is not a state; it's a private, voluntary organization. So the analogy is not literal. The Pope does not have a police power. Ratzinger does not order his opponents murdered or imprisoned; he simply silences them or forces them out of the Church (and record numbers of theologians were silenced by the late Pope and record numbers of Catholics left the pews). But the structure of a blind, authoritarian and rigid Ratzingerian faith is very close to the blind, authoritarian and rigid secular totalitarianisms of the recent past. Which is why some former communists have now become the firmest supporters of a Ratzingerian-style faith. They have swapped public political totalitarianism for a private religious one. And like their totalist fellows, their inability to persuade others merely convinces them further of their own truth. Their references are never outside their own thought-system, and all fall conveniently back on the pronouncements of the supreme leader, who alone controls truth and thought. When pressed, they assert that history and nature will prove them right. "We will out-breed you!" they proclaim, in a horrifying echo of a eugenic mandate. Novak, I think, therefore gets things exactly the wrong way round. The alternative to relativism is the difficult process of reason, informed by faith. But that process cannot take place in Ratzinger's Catholic church, because free thought is forbidden. When the conclusions are already dictated, how can you inquire freely? And if you cannot inquire freely, how can Catholics actually believe their own faith with the aid of their own reason? We are, after all, told to understand our faith, not merely swallow it unthinkingly. But how can we understand if we cannot question? And how can we fully believe if even asking the questions is forbidden?

FIGHTING BACK AGAINST FUNDAMENTALISM: Conservatives who believe in a strict separation of religion and politics and Christians who are saddened by the ascent of extremism and fundamentalism within their faith communities have options other than passivity. They have the blogosphere. Cardinal Ratzinger cannot silence us and the capitulation of the conservative media to fundamentalism also opens a space in the blogosphere for dissent. Here's a great response to Eric Cohen's attack on living wills in the Weekly Standard; and here's a liberal Catholic's responses to challenges from the Ratzingerian magazine Crisis. I should also recommend Bruce Bawer's classic case against the fundamentalist attack on the core priorities of the Gospel message. The book is called "Stealing Jesus." And how they have.