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The Pope and Reason

The Pope and Reason

"Europe is the faith" and "the faith is Europe." Hilaire Belloc, noted Catholic writer in the 1930s, looked out from England on the rest of Europe and uttered what was then still partly plausible. Today "the faith's" memory remains overwhelmingly European. The archives and libraries, cathedrals and chapels, pilgrimage sites and tourist attractions in Europe beckon more than do their counterparts in Latin America (which would come in second in numbers of Christians) or Asia or Africa. Yet "memory" and "faith" are not exactly the same thing, and the empty cathedrals and the constant decline in church participation suggest that one must look elsewhere to find where and how "the faith" is prospering.

Onto this scene came Pope Benedict XVI, whose moves Jane Kramer, European correspondent for the New Yorker, has been observing, as in her much-discussed account "The Pope and Islam" (see References, below). Kramer herself is, by assignment and instinct, "Eurocentric," but she is aware that other worlds and cultures and church cultures exist "out there." Latin America, Africa, and Asia are precisely where the Catholic Church and other forms of Christianity, notably Pentecostalism, are surging, but they necessarily receive little mention in her piece. At best, the pope looks beyond Western Europe to Eastern Europe, since his heart burns and he yearns for better relations with Orthodoxy. Protestantism, in Kramer's account and Benedict's actions, does not seem to count for as much.

The proverbial elephant in the room for the pope is Islam, with which he has said he would like to engage in dialogue. As Kramer tells it, he frustrates, and is frustrated by, Muslims, since those leaders with whom he would deal and the papacy with which they must deal are both closed systems, sure that they have an absolute hold on absolute truth. This means that they have little to learn from each other, and turn more militant in order to hold loyalties.

One point on which Kramer focuses and which preoccupies others is the pope's basic approach to faith: He sees it grounded in reason of a particular sort. Those (of us) who do not like to see faith dismissed as non-rational or even anti-reason can welcome that accent. As Benedict's published speeches and the quotes in Kramer's article show, however, his "reason" derives from Greek philosophy fused with Western Catholic concerns, which he has mastered. The pope's main concerns are to counter Europe's post-Catholic secularism and to help produce a trimmer, more assertive Catholicism that is sure of its identity.

One who is sympathetic with the pope's plight, given that agenda, might well question – as Kramer does – whether his definition of "reason" is itself so colored by the European experience that it must look almost philosophically sectarian to non-Christians, non-Catholics, and non-European-sectored Catholics. What he means by reason is not what many "post-Vatican II" Catholics, as Kramer sees them, regard as inclusive.

Yes, the pope is Catholic, as the old saying goes, but "Catholic" implies "embracing the whole." The pope frustrates those who contend that "the whole" does not derive only from Plato and Aristotle or Thomas Aquinas, super-magisterial though they may be.


Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at Original Source: Sightings – A biweekly, electronic editorial published by the Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


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