Is the pope Catholic?Less politics, more theology, please, your Holiness
by T.J. Nelson
Is the pope Catholic? Is Catholicism itself still Catholic? “The Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics,” said Pope Francis in his latest encyclical, called the Laudato Si'. Perhaps not, but it seems it has no compunctions about putting its weighty thumb on one side of the balance. Liberals are now hearing something they like, and maybe that's the goal. But is it good for Christianity?
Back in the Middle Ages the Church co-opted the existing pagan religions, which is why we have a Christmas that looks suspiciously like the old Norse solstice winter holiday, with un-Bethlehemish things like Yule logs and a white guy dressed up in heavy Siberian survival gear.
Now the Church is co-opting the latest pagan religion, the Church of the Holy Frickin' Planet. Could it be that it's all a plan to bring liberals back to the Church by following the footsteps of the Presbyterians? You remember them. There's what, six of them left?
Of course, I'm one of those guys who reads Nietzsche's The Antichrist while lying in bed eating black-market trans-fatty-acid-containing junk food to get my daily fix of satanic chemicals, with my air conditioner going full blast. So maybe it's none of my business. But the new pope has me missing Benedict, the last intellectual pope.
Benedict's dialogue with German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, published as The Dialectics of Secularization, was the most impressive thing to come out of the Catholic Church since Father Merrin. Here was a pope not only able to hold his own with one of today's foremost continental philosophers, but to earn his respect.
If Francis's goal is to win back the masses, it won't succeed unless Catholics win back the intellectual leaders as well. That would require Church leaders getting back to their theological and intellectual roots, dealing with the intellectual issues, and debating intellectual leaders on their own level. People crave ideas and intellectual rigor, even in our decadent culture.
The theologian who came closest to building arguments that can stand up against science was Paul Tillich. God for Tillich is not above things, but “nearer to them than they are to themselves.” His concept of God as ‘being-itself’—exempt from both being and non-being—is as profound as any in the last hundred years of philosophy.
The Church can't solve global warming. To paraphrase Stalin: how many thermometers does the Pope have? A lot, possibly, but not as many as NOAA. But what are the arguments against moral relativism? How can people develop meaningful connections with each other in a world where they are increasingly isolated by technology? What is a soul? Those are the issues people really care about. Everything else flows from them.
Maybe I'm just not paying attention, but I'm not hearing any compelling arguments from the Church on these topics. I'm hearing “Dogs and cats get to heaven” (which was not in the encyclical, but elsewhere), “Exposure to atmospheric pollutants produces a broad spectrum of health hazards,” and the virtue of “avoiding the use of plastic and paper, reducing water consumption, separating refuse, cooking only what can reasonably be consumed.” I can get that on TV. So what would I need a church for?
Even liberals will resist the idea that mixing paper and plastic is a sin. If the Church gets into the muck of politics, it's playing to its own weakness. If it really believes that separating refuse is what's important, it means it has abandoned the idea that salvation of man's immortal soul, whatever that means, is of paramount importance. People will question whether Christianity is a religion or a fancy recycling club, and the gradual decline that's happening to Protestantism will happen to Catholicism. These could be exciting times for theology. But in an age of reason, not having a defensible intellectual position, or keeping your ideas a secret, means you lose the argument by forfeit.