Neither Man Nor Angel

From an observer’s perch high above Saint Peter’s Square in Rome, Richard John Neuhaus, the Editor-in-Chief of the “conservative” (to put it politely) American journal of homo religiosus, First Things, instructs us that (“Rome Diary, April 21“), “With the election of Pope Benedict XVI,”

the curtain has fallen on the long-running drama of the myth of “the spirit of Vatican II,” in which the revolution mandated by the Council was delayed by the timidity of Paul VI and temporarily derailed for twenty-plus years by the regressive John Paul II, as the Church inexorably moved toward the happy denouement of “the next pope” who would resume the course of progressive accommodation to the wisdom of the modern world. The curtain has fallen and the audience has long since left, except for a few diehards who say they are giving the new management a hundred days to revive the show. Some of them are perhaps thinking of going to another theater. There are worse things than not being a Catholic–when it is made unmistakably clear that being a Catholic is not what one is.

These words as well as the rest of Neuhaus’ blog are swipes at the “liberal” critics of the last and newest popes—beginning of course with the German theologian Hans Küng (“Ratzinger’s self-anointed nemesis,” Neuhaus calls him), and spreading outward from Küng to every last one of Rome’s critics. Not the least of whom are those who live outside the NATO-bloc’s comfort zone. To the global south of the NATO bloc and Rome—from Latin America, across Africa, and all the way across Asia, too.

The former Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Neuhaus continues, “has over the years made evident that he believes we are engaged in a great battle for the soul of Western Civilization and, indeed, the soul of the world.” Ratzinger’s choice of the name ‘Benedict’, therefore, is an allusion to the “original St. Benedict, the father of western monasticism,” Neuhaus is convinced. “In a time of deep shadows, the Benedictine movement sparked the spiritual, cultural, and moral rejuvenation of Europe.”

Reading Neuhaus on Ratzinger-Benedict XVI, it is clear that the world’s non-Catholic religions are in error. (I agree. But for fundamentally different reasons. It ought to go without saying.)

Jesus Christ, the “redeemer of the whole world,” includes Jesus Christ, the redeemer of the world’s religions. “There is but one Christ and therefore, at the deep level of theological understanding, there can be only one Church, and the Catholic Church claims to be that Church most fully and rightly ordered through time.” And that assertion of the one and only Church, Neuhaus reminds us, “is not in tension with ecumenism; it is the foundation of the ecumenical quest for full communion among all Christians.” That is to say, all human beings the world over. Whether or not they’ve yet to recognize the truth that Jesus Christ is the “redeemer of the whole world.” And that there can be but the one true Church. The one true Rome.

If we could imagine a sort of Grand Inquisitor with the power to pose a single question to the world’s already-redeemed believers in the one true religion, starting with the new Pope, the remaining 115 or so cardinals, and the editorial staff of the journal First Things, my hope is that it would be this: If God held the Truth in his right hand, and in his left hand, God held Rome, which hand would you choose?

Habemus Papam! Now that kind of Q & A sure would make for the advancement of a religiously informed public philosophy for the (dis)ordering of society. Don’t you think?

And not only a right-hand filled with Rome, either. Because in his monthly contribution to the print edition of First Things (“The Public Square,” April, 2005—for a copy, also see below), Neuhaus posed a comparison between the work of the “very influential German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, who describes himself as a ‘methodological atheist’,” Neuhaus tells us, and the new Benedict XVI, who, Neuhaus adds, “has been invoking Habermas,” whose book, A Time of Transition, “argues that Christianity, and Christianity alone, is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights, and democracy.”

Assuming that Neuhaus has accurately conveyed Habermas’ position in his new book (and I haven’t seen A Time in Transition, so please let me know if Neuhaus hasn’t), notice how closely the whole bit about Habermas’ avowed “methodological atheism” resembles Pascal’s “utility of interpretations“—except that whereas Pascal was criticizing the hypocrisy of the mindset that works this way, Neuhaus would have us believe that Habermas and Benedict XVI relish it.

Now. Even outside of German philosophical and theological circles, it is widely known that that the fundamental basis for all “methodological atheism” is the threefold combination of methodological methodologicalism, methodological fill-in-the-blankism, and methodological whatever-you-can-get-away-withism. After all, without this tripartite structure of a methodologicalism that runs in any and all directions at the same time, why bother with methodological atheism? Or methodological pietism? Methodological barbarism? Methodological humanism? Methodological legalism? Methodological pedophilism? And so on.

Methodological relativism, in other words. “Postmodern chatter.” Or simply chatter. Gibberish. Plain and simple. The actually-existing Church of Rome in the modern world. In the old world, too. In the time-of-transition world. In every world in-between.

Viewed in light of their avowed methodological relativism, the last six words of Neuhaus’ reflections on Habermas and Benedict XVI are a classic: “[U]ltimately,” Neuhaus instructs us, “utility and truth are one.”

To repeat: Ultimately, utility and truth are one.

Thus does Pascal’s critique of the casuists of his era not only cease to be critical. But it becomes downright affirmative. Even mandatory.

Habermas Papam! Now that is a formula for hypocrisy that the worldly powers are sure to appreciate.

Papal Documents (Homepage), The Holy See, Rome
Papal Encyclicals Online (Master List)
Documents of the Roman Catholic Church (Homepage)
The Catholic Library Online (Homepage)
The Catholic Encyclopedia Online (Homepage)

“Dominus Iesus”: On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, August 6, 2000

The Theologian, the Philosopher, and the Bishop. Three Lessons for the Church and the West,” Sandro Magister (Trans. Matthew Sherry), Chiesa Online, May 20, 2004

From Madrid to Rome: The Secularist Offensive and the Church’s Fears,” Sandro Magister (Trans. Matthew Sherry), Chiesa Online, October 4, 2004

The Church Is Under Siege. But Habermas, the Atheist, Is Coming to its Defense,” Sandro Magister (Trans. Matthew Sherry), Chiesa Online, November 22, 2004

Provincial Letters, Blaise Pascal, 1660, Trans. Thomas M’Crie, [Date?]

Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies, Noam Chomsky (South End Press, 1989)
Chapter Five. “The Utility of Interpretations,” Noam Chomsky, 1989

Jesus Cristo Libertador?, ZNet, April 4, 2005

Postscript (April 22): As some of you may have heard, a combination of chemical efflorescence, erosion, and water stains on a section of the concrete of the major expressway that pretty much bisects Chicago along a north-south axis has recently been embraced by a number of the iconographically-regressed faithful as an incarnation of no less than Mary, the Mother of Jesus. (For a bunch of photos of this weird and depressing and very scary scene.)

I confess to not having checked it out in person. But in an Associated Press photo, we see the shrine that the faithful have improvised there.

And I am reminded of an ominous passage from Dominus Iesus (pars. 21-22):

it is clear that it would be contrary to the faith to consider the Church as one way of salvation alongside those constituted by the other religions, seen as complementary to the Church or substantially equivalent to her, even if these are said to be converging with the Church toward the eschatological kingdom of God.


With the coming of the Saviour Jesus Christ, God has willed that the Church founded by him be the instrument for the salvation of all humanity. This truth of faith does not lessen the sincere respect which the Church has for the religions of the world, but at the same time, it rules out, in a radical way, that mentality of indifferentism “characterized by a religious relativism which leads to the belief that ‘one religion is as good as another’”. If it is true that the followers of other religions can receive divine grace, it is also certain that objectively speaking they are in a gravely deficient situation in comparison with those who, in the Church, have the fullness of the means of salvation.


Those who obey the promptings of the Spirit of truth are already on the way of salvation. But the Church, to whom this truth has been entrusted, must go out to meet their desire, so as to bring them the truth. Because she believes in God’s universal plan of salvation, the Church must be missionary”. Inter-religious dialogue, therefore, as part of her evangelizing mission, is just one of the actions of the Church in her mission ad gentes. Equality, which is a presupposition of inter-religious dialogue, refers to the equal personal dignity of the parties in dialogue, not to doctrinal content, nor even less to the position of Jesus Christ — who is God himself made man — in relation to the founders of the other religions. Indeed, the Church, guided by charity and respect for freedom, must be primarily committed to proclaiming to all people the truth definitively revealed by the Lord, and to announcing the necessity of conversion to Jesus Christ and of adherence to the Church through Baptism and the other sacraments, in order to participate fully in communion with God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Thus, the certainty of the universal salvific will of God does not diminish, but rather increases the duty and urgency of the proclamation of salvation and of conversion to the Lord Jesus Christ.

FYA (“For your archives”):

The Public Square,” Richard John Neuhaus, First Things, April, 2005

While We’re At It” [Excerpt]

The enemy of my enemy. . . . That old maxim has something to do with it, but a deeper convergence is at work as some Europeans, ever so slowly, begin to awake to what they are doing to themselves by their relentless rejection of Christianity as integral to the history and future of Europe. These questions came to a head last fall when Rocco Buttiglione, Italy’s representative to the EU, was rejected as its commissioner for justice. Buttiglione is a cherished friend. He was key to the founding of the Tertio Millennio seminar on Catholic social doctrine which we started fourteen years ago in Lichtenstein and then, at the suggestion of the Pope, moved to Krakow, Poland. Buttiglione’s offense in the eyes of the EU is that he is a Catholic who agrees with the Church on disputed questions such as men having sex with men. No matter that at his hearings he made a clear distinction between what is immoral and what should be criminal; the dogma of the EU allows for no deviation, even privately, from the regnant secularism. Among those who have been roused to challenge this determinedly godless regime is none other than the very influential German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, who describes himself as a “methodological atheist.” Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has been invoking Habermas, who recently published “A Time of Transition,” which argues that Christianity, and Christianity alone, is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights, and democracy. “To this day,” he writes, “we have no other options. We continue to nourish ourselves from this source. Everything else is postmodern chatter.” On the relationship between theology and philosophy, he writes (keep in mind that he is a German philosopher): “I don’t resent it at all when I am accused of having inherited theological concepts. I am convinced that religious discourse contains within itself potentialities that have not yet been sufficiently explored by philosophy, insofar as they have not yet been translated into the language of public reason, which is presumed to be able to persuade anyone. Naturally, I am not talking about the neopagan project of those who want to ‘build upon mythology.’ Today, in the field of antirational postmodern criticism, these neopagan conceptual figures are back in fashion: a broad anti-Platonism carelessly spread by fashions inspired by the late Heidegger and late Wittgenstein, in the sense of a definitive repudiation of the universalism that characterizes the premises of unconditional truth. I rebel against this regressive tendency of post-metaphysical thought.” Although the EU and its constitution affirm Athens to the exclusion of Jerusalem and Rome, Habermas says this is not possible: “In the dialogical dispute among competing religious visions there is a need for that ‘culture of recognition’ which draws its principles from the secularized world of the universalism of reason and law. In this matter, it is thus the philosophical spirit which provides the concepts instrumental in the political clarification of theology. But the political philosophy capable of making this contribution bears the stamp of the idea of the Covenant no less than that of the Polis. Therefore this philosophy also hearkens back to a biblical heritage.” Habermas is among the “atheists for Christianity” who insist that the Church not compromise its integrity. He writes, “In the general leveling of society by the media everything seems to lose seriousness, even institutionalized Christianity. But theology would lose its identity if it sought to uncouple itself from the dogmatic nucleus of religion, and thus from the religious language in which the community’s practices of prayer, confession, and faith are made concrete.” Of course there are, as there have always been, those who criticize “devout atheists” who are supportive of Christianity, and also Christians who welcome the support. The Catholic sensibility, however, going back to the patristic era and its happy use of “the spoils of Egypt,” is inclined to embracing truth wherever it is found. This is very much the message of John Paul II’s 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger and Jürgen Habermas may seem to be improbable allies. But believing, as Habermas does, that what may not be true is nonetheless socially useful to the point of being indispensable is not strategically incompatible with believing, as Ratzinger does, that what is true is also socially useful and indeed indispensable. And working together keeps open the possibility that people such as Habermas will come to the discovery that, ultimately, utility and truth are one.

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