Monday, May 07, 2007

the pope and liberation theology in the "newspaper of record"

[See also MM's pertinent take here. And WB, perhaps I have answered or echoed your trenchant anaylsis in the comments. Thanks both.]

This article was the lead headline in the print edition of the New York Times today. In light of Pope Benedict's upcoming trip to Brazil, it considers the state of liberation theology in Latin America today (still going fairly strong, apparently). The article discusses Benedict's crackdown on LT's heretical tendencies when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger and the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The problem with LT combines elements of Marxist theory and Christian belief to suggest that Jesus was a sort of Che Guevara of the first millennium. The NYT suggests that the pope's attitudes towards LT have "softened," but this is I think a their misreading. What the pope may have acknowledged is that, in so far as LT tends the needs of the poor and downtrodden, it does what correspond to Christ's commandments: to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. That does not, however, translate into Christianity finding its fullest expression in the Marxist state.

Benedict took up the issues of LT, Marxism, and modern thought in general in his Introduction to Christianity (see the updated preface and introduction), which I have at last taken off my bookshelf and been reading. His point is to recall the uniqueness of the Christian worldview and its central faith in Christ Jesus. When it is admixed with foreign ideologies, its salvific power is seriously undermined. The NYT, like all organs of modern thought, does not see it this way. It persists in believing that there are a plurality of equally legitimate beliefs in the world, and this extends to religion. We should not speak of theology, but theologies, not orthodoxy but orthodoxies. This of course is just an updated, less vigorous, and therefore less satisfying form of Marxism. This of course is nonsense from the inside of the Christian worldview. If the way is not narrow that leads to eternal life, it is not the Way.

Benedict laments in the Intro. that Christianity missed a key opportunity in the last century to engage the world by virgorously countering the corrosive philosophies of Marxist materialism. In 1968 and again in 1989, when the world groaned under the yoke of oppression, the Church failed to make its voice heard, to proclaim the Gospel in the face of social, economic, and cultural dissolution. The instruction given by the CDF in 1984 speaks of the "impatience" of those eager for social justice (a much maligned term in the church these days) who have turned to Marxism in order to pressure society into effecting the Kingdom of Heaven. The problem is those ground-of-being assumptions that Marxism makes about the world differ wildly from those of Christianity. Marxism rests its claims on science, assuming that "science" somehow embodies an objective view of the world and of man and that if human relations can be goverened objectively, then they can be harmonized. The failure of Marxism to achieve such a goal rightly points out the failure of a scientific-materialist world view, that matter cannot provide an objective view of matter. It is the recognition that science has been coming to itself going on a century now. But does this mean we should give up on objectivity? The pluralism latent in the NYT article suggests that we ought to, but as I love to make a point of, such an attitude itself appeals implicitly to an objective order: the objectivity of no-objectivity. But this is mere incoherence. Christianity, on the other hand, recognizes that true objectivity can only be found outside of this world, the world must be considered as an object, and that perspective can only come from the Divine.

It is increasinlgy clear to me, as it was to Benedict forty years ago (the Intro was first published in 1969), that Christianity today has a golden opportunity. From an intellectual standpoint, it's never been easier to justify our faith to the world. As global politics continually show, people desperately want coherence, order, objectivity, and hope, all of which can be found in the Church, and which can only be found in the unique expression of that faith which is the unadulterated belief entrusted to the apostles by Christ. Christianity has not survived or flourished because it rests on universal myths which are reluctantly giving way to the objectivity of science, but because it in itself offers for the first time an objective perspective on the world that resonates with our experience of the world.* When we forget that, we get caught on the same slippery slope that courses straight into the abyss of nihilism.

*This by the way is the perspective offered by René Girard in Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, but there is not room to expound on that here.


MM said...

Fr., you beat me to it! Arrrghh. Now I know a little bit more about liberation theo...

father wb said...


That was Timothy.



I think Christians are in a position not so unlike postmodern critics with resepct to various "isms", which can be useful as critical tools. For example, the Christian can agree with the Marxist about the fetishism of commodities -- i.e. that within capitalist socieities there is a pervasive form of mis-relation to reality wherein relationships between men are construed as relationships between commodities. This is certainly non-Christian, and probably anti-Christian. Compare God's eternity over against the need for accurate clocks in capitalist societies, which Marx discusses -- clocks which enable us to translate human lives -- which we as Christians know to bear the image of God -- into units of work per unit of time, which can then be translated into cold hard cash: this is a non-Christian abstraction, an enforceable standard by which men may (and are expected to) (mis)treat each other as means, and which anchors us in a fetishized reality apart from REAL reality (God's eternity).

So I think Marx is thus useful, particularly in places like America, as a critic. But when it comes to a positive agenda, Marx ceases to be useful so useful. And this is probably where I part comapny with the LT folks. The Kingdom of God is not a pure Socialist Society. Here too I part company with the Anglo-Catholic Socialists, whose agenda presuppose an ahistorical and theologically deficient Erastianism, as well as a grand dialectic of History, which again I think is ahistorical.

But to return to the Christian's position vis-a-vis various "isms" as critical tools, and as analogous to the postmodern critic's position: whereas the true and truly HONEST Postmodern (a la Derrida inter alia) is left merely with an abyss of evacuated meaning, if he has done his job well; the Christian fills the void with Christ, and hides himself, and those whom he loves, in the darkness and silence of God.

MM said...

Woops, T, it is you, isnt it. Anyhoo, Ive linked to you. Nicely done. We miss you.

father wb said...

T -

Good update. Indeed these considerations have always been about "objectivity" in my mind.

Wittgenstein, in the Tractatus, gets at exactly this problem. The secularist is in the position described by Wittgenstein when he says something like: what the solipsist MEANS is true, only it can't be put into words. And thus Witt's solution is all the "mystical" passages, onto which he moves immediately in the course of the Tract., amd which have been the fly in the ointment of much 20th century Wittgenstein scholarship.

I really like your way of putting it: "matter cannot provide an objective view of matter." I always thought that, mathematically, this feeling finds expression in Russell's paradox.

Put another way, one manifestation of the Augustinian restlessness of human hearts, is in the yearning for objectivity. The sad thing about cutting-edge secularism these days is that it seems to have given up and despaired.

timothy said...

Although I used the term pluralism, I could have also used the term relativism, and indeed both terms are synonymous. And this is the moment that the NYT has and always will miss in any and all of its attempts to comprehend catholicism and Benedict. It ought to be remembered that He began his papacy with the explicit intention of combatting moral and cultural relativism, recognizing that Christianity can brook no compromise with such beliefs and retain its claims to the Truth. I assume that people must be absolutely baffled by his commitment to these ends while maintaining a "soft" exterior. They probably expect him to be like a Islamic Fundamentalist, whose unwavering belief in the truth leads to violence.

mmbx said...

Tim, Where have you been? I'm in the hospital. Come and "visit the sick." Fr. WB can't make it. =(

ddx said...

But DDX is here.