Pope Benedict's Suppleness

One of the interesting features of the Pontiff's skill set, as it were, is precisely what many seem to miss--the suppleness of his mind. He has a formidable and robust commitment to central tenets, of course (though in his youth was more liberal), which are more or less part of the job description. It would be hard to imagine him toying, even for a moment, with the idea of Mary as co-redeemer as did his predecessor, for instance.

A careful reading of Peter Seewald's interviews with him, however, always suggested to me a high degree of flexibility. The Pope, when he was Cardinal Ratzinger, recognised the unformed nature of early Christianity, and the Greek and Jewish matrix from which it emerged. Just doing so suggested the honesty of his mind.

Early Christianity is to some, in a sense, something which had been pending, or foreshadowed for about fifteen hundred years previously; an Hellenistic interpretation of Hebrew and Egyptian ideas. That's so clearly true it can't be gainsaid. What is a believer to do when faced with that fact, however?

Don't look to my scribbling--read your holy book. If you know your bible you can see the people who wrote the Pentateuch and Talmud and Torah implicitly acknowledging the pressure to bring something like Christianity to birth, by a succession of imperial rulers and also by some within the community. The Jewish scriptures, those brilliant, founding words of the west, are in a sense a 'self defence manual' against precisely such a possibility. They brilliantly relate in multiple ways, the paths by which Jewishness can be defended, through covenant, commensality, ethics, ritual, liturgy, history and prophesy, in such a way that Judaism can't ever break over one point or fail to appeal to as wide a spectrum of those who have been brought into it at all. They create something unbreakable. So how do you uphold Christianity in the face of it?

St Paul didn't really acknowledge this; St Peter did, and tried to move away from it with a 'clean break' centred on a change in dietary rules and a co-option of Roman notions of authority (whilst being persecuted by Rome). Some subsequent Christian writers attempted to untie the knot by killing all the Jews, who as ever refuse to die; others, after the horrors of the holocaust, like Carol Woytiwa, took refuge in the formulation that Jews were 'elder brothers in the faith' which at most represented a sort of warm syncretism (and one I like, by the way).

It always struck me as enormously significant that Josef Ratzinger had the intellectual honesty to doubt both methods, but to acknowledge the existence of the problem. He moved back in a flexible retreat, into the idea that the Jesus event 'resonated' in time forward and back, and had echoes that the human mind could only dimly appercept. He got cheerfully around the accusation that he was 'a judaizing heretic' for that, which I don't blame him for being if he is at all. I'm with him if he is, and I write that jokingly. I love Jewish culture, though I do like mayonnaise on a prawn sandwich, which, a woman whom I once dated now a Rabbi told me is not kosher. It is amazing how many things are....

Benedict's gambit was a neat logical, if not rational solution that shows how flexible he can be. Frankly, to me it placed him alongside various of the great Church fathers in his conception of temporality as no obstacle to historical reasoning. When he became Pope, I was with a Chinese girl going over some economics, and was overjoyed that he 'made it to the big tamale' as I've heard Americans say. The moment is all the more memorable because I have no clue what the phrase means, but thought of it at the time.

I liked that temporal sidestep, though it may seem clever-clever to my Protestant readers, or meaningless. It reminded me of Benjamin Libet's beautiful work on the temporal problem in consciousness when he was a professor in the Physiology department at UCSF. Libet noticed that we know things and decide to do things after we do them, not before, and this led him to a theory of consciousness that is still shocking to some who don't follow neurophysiology.

I made some equally shocking money once teaching psychological theories and history, so I do follow neurophysiology in case some more work turns up, and also because it is interesting. It suggests what I for one have long suspected, and what many physicists seem to think--that time shouldn't be treated as actually existing as anything other than a highly useful convenience generated by our minds. That means very little in the real world of practical physics; it seems enormously useful as an idea, though.

Anyway, I thought again of the Ratzinger mind when this week's news emerged of the elegant and utterly necessary attempt to solve the yearnings of those Anglicans who look at the transformation of their ecclesial community with heartbreak, and who wish to rejoin the Church. I can't pretend that the Irish part of my mind wasn't enjoying it as well, given how cooly superior the English State's ecclesial outlet often was; but now is a time for genuine dialogue and welcome, not those sorts of references to old scores. I'll be glad to have the Book of Common Prayer and the King James bible in, frankly.

Uniate status isn't odd--look at who could have been Pope in 1958, for instance--and is eminently defensible. It's also tactically brilliant to offer those Anglicans who have a logic and consistency to their thought an entry, because they are likely to be the professors, the richer groups, and those who are able to refresh the priesthood in the English-speaking world without going off-piste. They also allow for the elegance of the Book of Common Prayer and dilute the impression that the only Anglicans who join the church are the far-right or weirdly antisemitic ones.

The move solves several problems at once. The Pope is an Admiral of the faith; he identifies the objective, even if the more timorous or less organised would hold back; he runs his ships into the line of battle; and he carries through. The culture that supplanted the west in the late sixties would do well to notice, though of course it won't.

Elsewhere, the Pope has dropped the title of Patriarch of the West and reached out to that part of the church that is in schism. Is the wrenching division that led incidentally to the crusades and which gave rise to the idea of a western catholic church as the one inheritor of the church next? Is a smaller, more humble Christendom going to be recreated out of the wreckage of the western world, renewed by the Anglicans and regenerated with the east and the burning that has followed on the exposure and purging, not yet complete, of a flawed human institution's prejudices, misdeeds, and inevitable arrogance?

Oh, OK, probably not. I like the look on the faces of those who thought that a ralliement with secular liberalism, which I now think almost but not completely impossible, was next, though, even if some in the hesperides want to trot the Americanist heresy out again. I love my pope....