Caritas in Veritate 2

At the risk of disappearing even further up myself, the use of Botticelli's Birth of Venus in this post is twofold. It's a pretty picture. And there are reasonable interpretations of the picture as a Neoplatonist skit on the transformative effects of love in the world, which also allow reflection on the fairly sleazy human background to the story of the models that raises a smile. People and pictures, like ideas, are such mixed things....

Martin Kelly has been re-reading the Pope's encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, and has been very struck by the Pope's call for global governance of some kind. I think that is not an unusual call from the papacy; it thrives, after all, as a supranational institution.

However, my friend's post has made me think that Josef Ratzinger's vision for the Church and the World is beginning to reveal itself. As with all people I don't know, and whose works I have not the time to fully understand, anything I write should of course be taken with a huge pinch of salt. However, I think that Pope Benedict has now clearly moved beyond the role of a simple 'Commander of the forces of the Faith' that some had carved out for him four years ago on the back of his role in running the church during John Paul's long sunset.

There seem to be some clear elements. They include an earnest but not necessarily realisable desire to reunite the church in the east and west after the thousand-year schism; to promote social justice; to develop a rule of law globally that goes beyond rules but that may be based around a coherent series of communities; to heal the wounds of the liberalism and nationalism that flowed from the French and industrial revolutions, and the piracy of the Atlantic trades and Empires four hundred years ago; to relocate individuals within the Church as a vehicle that was less flawed than they were for the protection of their capacity to love and be good; to encourage tolerance and civil debate; and to renovate the church in such a fashion that Latin, and older, structured ways of thinking internationally are mixed with the best of the reforms that he witnessed as a young man.

The Pope is also the first truly post-cold war Pope, but only intellectually the first post-totalitarian one. What I mean by that is that the problem of communism is now not operative in Europe, as it was for a century and a half or so, though it and associated authoritarian collectivisms still maim Asians. However, Josef Ratzinger was personally scarred by the National Socialist experience and that of the war that Nazis and communists brought upon Europe. This possibly restrains his instinctive understanding that the idea of Europe is now facing its worst crisis in half a millennium. Energy sources are drying up, the economy is collapsing under a debt that will take decades to deal with, and which is constantly being deferred, and European populations are declining.

It is also the case that the thin skin of liberalism is probably not enough to cover the growth of alienated but self-confident Islamic communities who, if unemployed enough and subjected to enough racism and community pressure, will come to see themselves as the inheritors of a Roman successor project which has seriously invaded Europe at least seven times in the past millennium.

The traffic will not be one way, of course; My girlfriend and I shared a wine and a good meal with a cosmopolitan former student of mine, who is of Pakistani extraction the other day. She has now taken herself around the Middle East to teach, for a second time. Muslim and free, she had only been moved to demonstrative Islamicity by racism in Spain; in Syria and Palestine, she could have held her own with any Egyptian, and the idea of her in a burka is absurd. Equally, I've met foolish western people in all sorts of hoods and gowns and ridiculous clothing, and louts in lawyers' robes, more than once in my life. Class may have mattered more in our dialogue than race or religion; maybe Corby and Burnley can compare to Rome and Istanbul. I wonder, though.

Islam, in several of its multiple forms, is not some safe, local, autochthonous faith; it is in direct succession to the Roman, Greek, and early Christian schemes of world domination that were promoted by the autocrats of the Romans as a way of staving off collapse in the Byzantine world. When the Pope recognises it as such--possibly because the Church was too-- and calls Europeans to consider their own identity, he is hobbled. He is hobbled because modern Europeans and many educated Americans, if they remember anything at all, recall through the fug of rightful post-Imperial guilt and the understanding of how racist and destructive white cultures were in the past.

We are hobbled in our recall because of the martial and vicious attempts to build a European identity on race, on communism, on deregulated, greedy markets, on the guillotine and gas chamber and the slower but relentless machines of murder and theft and rape and pillage called Empires, or on anti-Americanism. These energies played around the story of the Pope's life, and shaped the acoustics of the chamber in which his voice is heard. Especially when fairly godless, witless and somewhat stupid members of the media class insist on misinterpreting him to further their cult of stupidity. I think he's learned the lesson that they won't be charitable but they can be led or ignored now, though.

So that wonderful Ratzinger mind moves, and stoops, and tries to build up an identity on the basis of a moral scaffolding, and the voice is lowered in volume. I have gay friends who believe, not hysterically, that the only purpose of catholic moral scaffolding is to hang them from it, and who assert that they can build their identity on both a sexual act and on the bigotry they face from people who obsess about what they do. There are 'trolls' who turn up on this blog from time to time who say much the same thing in a literally stupid and self-serving way.

What I would say to them is, we are all flawed, we are all mortal, sex makes fools of us all; but we should find ourselves in a common frame of reference, based on reason, on the way we treat others, and on civility. We are more than what the ways in which we muck about sexually makes us.

Lifestyles are about credit, and the energy resources, and social structures, which make them possible or deny them. Men and women are about understanding, and interaction, and courtesy, and life. Don't let the machine confuse you as to the being we are; the only things that we can build a full life on are love and reason, because they are the shadow and the gift of a God we can never experience and never define objectively in this life.

That's where the atheists go wrong, and why John Paul II, along with Mother Theresa and many other worthwhile churchmen, hinted at doubts about his faith, and showed that his soul shared dark nights, from time to time. It may be that the best amongst us are the agnostics (though I am not one). God is an act of faith; Good is a form of action, and reason. Though we may dimply perceive the light of God, this particular world is defined by the shadows it creates, and given the nature of our minds we can probably never see those clearly anyway.

It's no good saying religion should just be a private thing about which people shut up; a religion is an ethical system much more than it is about the supernatural, if it is worthwhile. Rabbi Hillel and St Thomas both knew that. As a Catholic, I suspect from time to time on that point that the Jewish and Confucian people (and Pascal) have it right.

We should build together where we agree. We should find out about each other in our disagreement. We should remember that the highest product of this flawed fallen world is a republic of society in which we are equal, and capable of being equally wrong, and where the things we do together should be proven and good for us all. We should be free. Those things which must be judged by God will be, in infinity; it is our part to live together, in respect and justice, now. That takes real strength.

Civility is clearly essential to any political project, whether that of Christian democracy or the Atlantic republicanism that used to find itself in some of the better Americans of the last century. I'm intrigued by the alloy of civility, courage, and vision that Josef Ratzinger--a man as flawed as any of us--is exposing, more and more. Perhaps I read too much into Caritas in Veritate, though I doubt it.

There's a bad poem by Arthur Hugh Clough that I like that always struck me as moving; I'd like readers to reflect on it.
I cannot say—the things are good
Bread is it, if not angels’ food;
But Love? Alas! I cannot say;
A glory on the vision lay;
A light of more than mortal day
About it played, upon it rested;
It did not, faltering and weak,
Beg Reason on its side to speak
Itself was Reason, or, if not,
Such substitute as is, I wot,
Of seraph-kind the loftier lot;—
Itself was of itself attested;—
To processes that, hard and dry,
Elaborate truth from fallacy,
With modes intuitive succeeding,
Including those and superseding;
Reason sublimed and Love most high
It was, a life that cannot die,
A dream of glory most exceeding