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How Pope John Paul’s Critics Would Tame the Church of Rome
by David Mills
Perhaps the most interesting of the responses to the death of John Paul II were those of critics who used his death to offer their vision for the Catholic Church, and by extension for Christianity in general. It may be useful to look at what they said, because they followed a pattern used whenever a major orthodox religious figure needs taking down a peg.
The treatment of Pope John Paul II is especially revealing because he was so important and substantial that his critics—the more thoughtful ones—could not dismiss him with the contempt they show for American “fundamentalists.” The critic must work at bringing him down.
Two articles published in the English newspaper The Daily Telegraph offer good examples, partly because it is politically the most conservative of the major English newspapers (it has run pro-life editorials, for example). The editors chose two learned critics: Ferdinand Mount, former editor of The Times Literary Supplement, and Geza Vermes, Professor Emeritus of Jewish Studies at the University of Oxford.
Mount describes himself as “only an occasional churchgoer” in the Church of England. Vermes is, though the article does not tell you this, a former Catholic priest who had renounced his orders and then his church. Though they are only on the fringe of the Christian religion, they are not secularists.
And are therefore the more effective critics. The average reader will assume the purely secular writer to be arguing a case, but think the somewhat religious writer to be in general sympathy with the thing he is attacking. He may in fact be even more hostile to orthodox Christianity than the secularist, because he cares more about it and wants it to be something else, but the naive reader (and most readers will be naive) will read him as a friend of Christianity.
John Paul’s Failure
The critics work from a mind or a worldview that may not be entirely clear even to them. Here are three of the assumptions that seem to support their case against the traditional Christian like John Paul II.
Sex is the test. As you would expect, John Paul II failed mainly in not approving the theory and practice of modern sexuality. Remove the sex and gender issues and Mount would have no article, while Vermes would have a very short one. Did Christianity not insist on chastity as a public good, no such critic would bother with it.
To the secular and semi-secular mind, sex is something we cannot control. The church’s teaching is impossible to follow, at least for man in the mass, and therefore needs to be abandoned. Abstinence, writes Mount, “as recommended by the Church, is a good thing, too, but is it any more likely to work in the long run than the rhythm method?” The answer he wants is, “Of course not, so let’s hand out the condoms so people won’t get pregnant or AIDS.”
Moral liberalism is self-evidently good. Both writers proceed with the force of assurance, as if there were no doubt about the matter. No traditional Catholic teaching is ever engaged, because engagement would imply that it might be true, or at least not as completely untrue as the critic thinks.
Mount begins his article with four recent social changes he thinks “unequivocally good in their effects,” which the reactionary, outdated Catholic Church still opposes. In China and India, “runaway population growth was stabilised by encouraging contraception, abortion and sterilisation on a massive scale,” though he concedes that these were done “often by pretty unpleasant methods.” The result, in combination with a freer economy, is that “the lives of billions in both countries, which had been poor, nasty and short throughout recorded history, are now brimming with hope.” Abortion, in other words, helps make people happy, and we should all know that, and knowing that, approve of it.
The three other changes are the acceptance of homosexuality, the need for condoms to stop AIDS, and the access of women to every position, including ordination in the Protestant churches. All, you see, having to do with sex and all asserted as if there were no reasonable alternative.
Both writers, in fact, assume that what they are saying is not only obvious, but is really obvious even to the people they oppose. Vermes claims that “a look at the New Testament produces a picture that even they [conservative ‘Church dignitaries] must find disturbing.” Mount insists that “the papacy of John Paul II, splendid in so many other ways, turned away its face and opposed every one of these changes”: turned away, notice, meaning that he refused to see what was clearly there to be seen.
The church suffers from remaining what it was. Both writers assume that the Catholic Church is suffering in the West—they never mention the rest of the world—because its leaders hold to outdated doctrines and practices, and assume that the only hope for it is to modernize. Though people want something the church offers (what that is they never say), they do not want all the old doctrines and, even more to the point, all the old morals.
Beginning with these assumptions, the critics use several techniques to make their case. Here are some of them.
The undermining compliment. Both Vermes and Mount praise John Paul as a man (sort of), though the effect of their criticism is to insult him as a pope. His virtues as they describe them are personal and private, his faults also personal but public, their final judgment being in effect, “A good man but not fit for the job.” Mount praises his courage in resisting illness but insists, in the thesis sentence of the article, that he turned away from the truth, which is to say, that however bravely he faced illness, he failed to show courage at the crucial point of his ministry.
The myth of the repression of the heroes. John Paul, it is said, oppressed those who would have shown Catholicism the way to future success. Vermes writes of “the chains placed on” those he thinks “highly competent Catholic scripture interpreters and theologians,” which is news to anyone who has read the Catholic Biblical Quarterly or looked at the names of the biblical faculties in the average Catholic college.
The myth of the better self betrayed. Associated with this is the idea that John Paul II started out as a liberal or “moderate” and for one reason or another declined into conservatism. Mount likens him to the “inferior” Pope Pius IX (Pio Nono), who “took fright at the world’s disorder and abandoned the liberal ideas of his youth, to become known to his critics as Pio No-No.” Vermes does this to then-cardinal Ratzinger as well.
I have yet to see those who insist on this reading of the pope produce any evidence for a substantial contradiction between the pope’s early works and his latest. The explanation, I think, is that they identified the Polish cardinal with a “spirit of Vatican II” entirely of their own invention and found to their horror that as pope he taught what the Second Vatican Council actually said.
History betrayed. Then there are the false historical claims produced with such confidence that the unwary might well believe them, which seem to show that the modern conservative has actually betrayed the Christian tradition, and that the innovators are the ones truly loyal to the Christian tradition.
Mount asks, “Why is it so unthinkable that women should be advanced at least to the rank of deaconess, as they were in the early Church?” (He must mean female deacon, since no one objects to deaconesses, who are not ordained.) The problem, of course, is that women were not made deacons in the early Church.
The distorted doctrine. These critics often exaggerate or otherwise misrepresent Christian doctrine in a way that makes it look foolish or inconsistent to the point of hypocrisy. Mount declares the Western discipline of clerical celibacy “an eternal principle that priests should be celibate.” It may be a good discipline or a bad one, but no one has ever asserted it as “an eternal principle.” This exaggeration lets the writer knock down his subject’s belief in a way that makes him look ridiculously simple-minded.
As Mount proceeds to do. “Former Anglican clergy who go over to Rome are allowed to keep their wives and in the Eastern Church men have always been permitted to marry before, though not after, ordination,” he says. An eternal principle that the pope ignores: what inconsistency, and more to the point, evidence that it ought to be abandoned. Vermes makes the same argument.
Slanders & Confusions
The “gotcha” arguments. Both writers depend upon claims that are indeed true and seem conclusive if you do not know anything about the subject, though they have reasonable answers. They do not argue these points, though surely they must know how dubious they are. They assert them as if they were final and conclusive and beyond question.
Vermes throws them out with abandon: “Homosexuality no doubt existed in ancient Palestinian society, but it was not prominent and was never directly mentioned by Jesus”; “There is not one word in the gospels to disqualify women from the priesthood”; “In his outlook of an impending arrival of God’s reign, Jesus seems to have opposed divorce as an inappropriate move when so little time remained”; the synoptic gospels don’t use the word “Church”; and so on. Mount does this only once, when he notes, apparently in support of abortion, that the church once argued that a fetus was “ensouled” forty days after conception. These all have answers, but Mount and Vermes write as if they do not.
The argument the writer doesn’t actually accept. Mount argues for approving homosexuality because, since orientation is “genetically transmitted . . . it would be cruel and unreasonable to expect them either to change their natures or to abstain from sexual expression of their affections.” The argument is: One gets the inclination to act in a certain way from his genes; therefore, he should be able to act that way. Mount surely does not accept that someone genetically disposed to alcoholism should drink too much, and would reject the same argument made for a whole range of behaviors were they found to be genetic in origin. (Never mind how dubious is the claim in the first place.)
Slander. The critics often caricature Catholic practice. Vermes declares that “leading Catholic spokesmen,” treated as representing John Paul, “have decried homosexuality as the worst abomination (though speaking sotto voce when the culprits were paedophile priests).” Really? The worst abomination? Who? When?
The unnamed villains. The failures of the old order are often demonstrated by the sins of people the critic does not identify. See the preceding item for an example.
Insist that doctrine causes suffering. Whenever possible, the critics insist that traditional doctrine affects the real world, and affects it badly. That opposing homosexuality is “cruel” is one of the most popular examples. In Africa, Mount declares, the church’s resistance to the use of condoms “is producing a death toll that threatens to rival that of a third world war.” (Vermes mentions this one as well.)
And finally, simple confusion. Sometimes the critics offer criticisms that have no actual content, but will be taken by the quick or casual reader as added evidence against the subject. Vermes declares that “regarding the situation of the millions of AIDS victims, on past performance one can be sure Jesus would have shown to these latter-day ‘lepers’ his customary compassion and given them a helping hand.”
This has no more meaning in context than it does here. The reader is meant to take this as a criticism of Catholicism, in fact as evidence that it is not “based on the gospel,” but does Vermes really think John Paul II or any orthodox Catholic would disagree?
To a great extent, of course, the articles represent a profound difference of mind or worldview from the Catholic one. The pope’s Catholicism seems so irrational and irresponsible to Mount and Vermes because they do not see what vision it offers of human life and destiny.
When Mount argues that the rhythm method does not work, he means that couples sometimes had children they did not want and could not have sex whenever they wanted it, which he must think self-evidently bad. But to the traditional Christian mind, a marriage open to children, and the full self-giving of each spouse to the other in sexual intercourse that it requires, is a marriage that works because it is a marriage doing what marriage is given us to do. The “bonus baby” is a gift, not a burden.
The two visions differ radically, and I can understand a critical writer rejecting the Christian vision, but he should understand what he is criticizing before he rejects it, and this neither Mount nor Vermes seems to do. They argue, as I said, with the force of assurance, which any attempt to engage Catholic teaching would undermine.
That said, there is one significant difference in the writers. Though Mount appeals to the Christian tradition, or his version of it, but generally judges John Paul II by secular standards, Vermes actually argues against the pope’s Catholicism by appealing to “the gospel” and the “one sure criterion—the teaching of Jesus.” Near the end of the article, he calls for “revitalizing” Catholicism through “the authentic gospel of Jesus.”
The “authentic gospel” is not “the doctrine about Jesus developed by St. Paul and two millennia of Christianity,” but “a simple and moving message” about
God, the heavenly Father, the dignity of all human beings as children of God, a life turned into worship by total trust, an overwhelming sense of urgency to do one’s duty without delaying tactics, a sanctification of the here and now, and, yes, the love of God through the love of one’s neighbour.
This makes Vermes the more effective critic because he is in his religiousness closer to his subject.
Both writers predict that the Catholic Church will die unless it does what he wants, but the question one naturally asks of the visions of skeptics like Mount and Vermes is what their revised church would look like, and what would it do? Is there really a point to it? Would anyone get up on Sunday morning were this what the Catholic Church offered?
Mount does not say what his ideal Catholic Church would look like. All he says is that the questions he has raised “will have to be addressed,” by which he clearly means “answered the way I want.” If they are not, “the pews and the seminaries will go on emptying, and those who remain in the Church will become even more detached from its teaching.” The Catholic Church should “become an ally and pathfinder,” he says, but whose ally and what paths it should find he does not say.
Vermes’s dream Catholicism expresses his “authentic gospel” and presumably approves of homosexuality, women’s ordination, and contraception. It is now “concealed under verbiage about sex, rituals, mass canonisation of saints and Mary worship,” but if freed from this—he means Catholicism as it exists, not to put too fine a point on it—it “would concentrate on the true essence of religion, an existential relationship between man and man, and man and God.” This religion, vague as it is, would appeal to “thinking people all over the world.”
This is the point, I think, at which all such sweeping visions for a new Catholicism, or a new Christianity, break down. Even if you accept the critics’ critique of the old religion, you really won’t want the new one. Mount doesn’t seem to want it, and Vermes does not suggest that he would return to the church were it the church he wants.
In the Catholic Church of Mount’s and Vermes’s dreams, there’s no there there, as Gertrude Stein famously said of Peoria. The Catholicism proposed by Mount and Vermes has no future because it offers so little—nothing not available elsewhere to men and women in the affluent West and available to them without the costs that even a new, minimal Catholicism would impose.
The average American and European can get a simple and moving message from television, and he will always feel that he has done his duty as soon as he could, that he has always treated others with dignity, and that he loves his neighbor. He does not have to be a Catholic to have what Vermes offers him.
One wonders if, for all the critics’ concern for the future of the Catholic Church, this is what they really want: a church conformed to their ideals now, when its cultural and intellectual influence can still be used to advance their goals, even though, because it has conformed to their ideals, it will shortly die out. A worldly Catholicism cannot compete with the world. The world has all the advantages in being worldly.
David Mills is executive editor of First Things. He was editor of Touchstone from 2003-2008. His most recent book is Discovering Mary: Answers to Questions About the Mother of God (Servant Books). He is living with his wife and two of their four children in Manhattan, where they attend Immaculate Conception church.