Thursday, May 29, 2008

BENEDICT XVI and the Search for Truth

BENEDICT XVI and the Search for Truth by Robert Tilley (St Pauls Publications 2007).

Pope Benedict’s first encyclical letter ‘Deus Caritas Est’ was a revelation to me. I’d heard from my progressive Catholic friends that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was a hardliner – more concerned, as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, with enforcing his traditional brand of ‘truth’ than in showing love. But apparently he’s been saying/writing for decades that the path of truth leads to love; and love is the perfection of what it is to be human.

The author of this volume has a PhD from the University of Sydney but teaches philosophy at an inner-city homeless men’s refuge. His language is sometimes dense, sometimes racy.

Two examples, respectively: ‘Meaning is perfected in reason; reason is perfected in philosophy; and philosophy is perfected in metaphysics’ (p. 217). I hope the homeless men can understand that. But at least we were warned, earlier (p. 18): ‘You might find your eyes beginning to glaze over, but resist the temptation; shake your head, go for a walk, get a coffee, and then we’ll continue.’ I did all that, but couldn’t stop the eyes glazing over sometimes.

Tilley’s aim in this 245-page, amply footnoted volume is to ‘help us get a grip on Benedict’s thinking, to discern the logic that informs his writings.’ I’m not sure that this reviewer, with his basic philosophy 101-level understandings, got a grip on Benedict’s theology, but I certainly developed an admiration for this simple man with his complex ideas...

Benedict’s ideological bĂȘte noir is Western relativism and its denial of ‘objective truth’, especially moral ‘truths’. His primary authority: the doctrines of the Church (not just the Bible), informed by reason. God’s eternal Reason is embedded in his creation, and everything derives its meaning from Christ. The Eucharist is the ‘causal principle’ of the Church; the Church ‘draws her life’ from the Eucharist.
How does all this work in practice? Here Benedict majors on the necessity of ‘loving community’: union with Christ is also union with all those to whom he gives himself; we cannot possess Christ just for ourselves, but also in union with those who have become, or who will become, his own.

So, Tilley writes, there is a close connection between a rejection of metaphysics and the dissolution of the sense of communion: hence the modern rise of the dominant notion of the person as primarily an autonomous individual. And the main error of modern liberalism is that it takes as a given that no absolute religious or philosophical claim is true.

Is Benedict – and Ratzinger before him – a ‘company man’ who could not tolerate criticism of the Church? Colm O’Gorman, Irish founder of the ‘One in Four’ Counselling Centre (referring to the proportion of Irish adults said to have suffered sexual abuse as children) said, in 2005, ‘The Vatican has never, ever accepted responsibility for clerical sexual abuse at all. Never.’ Like John Paul II before him, Benedict has – until recently, when he made some significant statements on his visit to the U.S. – shown little interest in reforming some of the basic policies adversely affecting the lives of ordinary Catholics.

So here we have a brilliant man, a holy man (for whom ‘prayer is a life and death matter’), a complex man. Read all about him: but be prepared for your eyes to glaze over sometimes.

Rowland Croucher

May 2008.


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