April 19, 2005

Habemus Papam*

I'm not a Catholic, so my thoughts about the new Pope count less than a small hill of beans. But since all the liberals seem dismayed over Joseph Ratzinger's elevation on the grounds that he's "anti-modern," I thought this might be a good opportunity to speculate about what it would mean to be anti-modern and anti-conservative at the same time.

I read about the new Pope Benedict XVI's refusal to defer to contemporary trends and opinions and I'm heartened. Yes, I think, there is no reason to think that the way we do things today is always better than the way we did things yesterday, and it's refreshing to know that at least one of our world leaders won't turn every public speech he gives into an homage to "progress" or "the future."

On the other hand, when I read about the things that Cardinal Ratzinger has defended against "progress," I'm reminded of why I'm not a conservative, much less a Catholic. The opposition to the ordination of women seems to me to be to be a frank rejection of the idea that women are fit to hold power -- especially when this position is defended by the head of a Church that tries so hard to protect the authority and power of its clergy. The Church's opposition to homosexuality is simply unnatural and bigoted. Both positions fetishize irrelevant gender differences. There's nothing about these doctrines that would ever lead me to accept them, apart from the sheer fact that they're traditional.** But to rely entirely on tradition is as big a mistake as the modern habit of disparaging tradition as having no intrinsic value at all.

At first glance, it might seem that 'rejecting modernity', whatever that might mean, commits us to embracing some kind of conservative ideology. After all, can anyone really point to an influential anti-modernist that wasn't profoundly conservative? If people can name any anti-modernists at all, they usually point to people like Russell Kirk or Richard Weaver (or John Paul II). Liberals and other leftists seem to want nothing to do with any criticisms of progress. The most left-wing among us choose to describe themselves as "progressives." It hardly seems that there's much hope for a good critique of modernity from that quarter...

I'd like to think that we might all recognize the wisdom of Joseph Ratzinger's insistence that some good things are timeless, and that change can as often lead us away from the good as it can lead us towards it. Why should conservative dogma be a prerequisite for recognizing this wisdom? Must they always go together?

* I seem to have misspelled the Latin the first time around. Ah, illiteracy. Most of my Latin comes straight from the New York Times, IrishLaw, and Jussi. The mistakes come from me.

** There are the theological arguments, but these seem irrelevant for someone without faith in certain very specific church teachings. I'm not criticizing Catholics here, I'm just saying why I'm unlikely to ever convert.

Posted by Carey at April 19, 2005 10:42 PM

I'm also not a a Catholic, but I have read that up until around the 9th century, women were actually allowed to be priests etc within the Catholic Church. So it is possible to be both 'anti-modernism' and 'progressive', at least theoretically, if you go about eleven hundred years or so in rejecting modernity.

I'm afraid, however, that the media generally use 'anti-modernist' as short-hand for 'thinks the Spanish Inquisition (not the Monty Python skit) was a good idea'.

Posted by: sarni at April 20, 2005 01:14 AM

It might be naive of me but since becoming Pope tends to imply that the Pope has actually read a book, possibly more than one, I have to assume he's a bit more thoughtful than our current crop of knee-jerk conservatives. I fully expect to disagree with the man strongly on a lot of issues, but the Catholic Church's allegiance is not to the American Pentacostal/Fundamentalist theocratic movement, and I suspect they will find each other uncomfortable bedfellows.

Posted by: Thud at April 20, 2005 05:43 AM

I AM a Catholic and my thoughts about the new pope STILL count less than a hill of beans!

Posted by: at April 20, 2005 08:41 AM

Our current crop of knee-jerk conservatives read books. Sure, they may gravitate to the "Left Behind" series, but hey, they're books, right. (lol). I am an agnostic Jew, so my opinion on all of this counts less than a hill of beans (But this is my hill. And these are my beans) but the Catholic Church lately seems to be more accepting of science (reversing position on Galileo, accepting evolution) and therefore of rational thought than conservative Protestant churches. hey, it's a start.

Posted by: Larry at April 20, 2005 04:20 PM

Very thoughtful post--one little piece of nitpicking, though: It should be "Habemus Papam," as in "Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum. Habemus Papam" (I announce to you a great joy. We have a Pope). Not "Habemus Papem." :)

Posted by: Jussi at April 20, 2005 09:41 PM

I just noticed that I had posted my comment at exactly 4:20 pm. If anyone was so engrossed with the comment that they didn't do what they normally do at 4:20, please accept my sincerest apologies.

Posted by: Larry at April 20, 2005 11:39 PM