Sunday, February 21, 2016

Religion and Politics (the Two Most Dangerous Words in the English Language)

When "news" broke of the dust-up between Donald Trump and Pope Francis, my impulse was to avoid writing anything about it - because I frankly don't care.

When I was asked what I thought about it, I refused to offer any response - because, well, see above.

When I was visiting a Trappist abbey in my neck of the woods, having a relatively pleasant discussion about Orthodoxy and Catholicism with a monk and the topic still came up in discussion (largely due to someone who happened to overhear us talking) I realized that, much like the Borg, resistance to this topic is futile.

To begin, what the Pope says on any given topic isn't entirely relevant to me; I do not identify as a member of the Church of Rome and thus feel no need to consider of his comments on any number of issues.

This said, it was hard not to notice how much the secular media and their chosen darlings of modern American Catholicism gushed over the report of Francis' remarks regarding Donald Trump. It is worth asking, would one have seen the same devotion to the pope's remarks had the bishop been Benedict XVI and the target of his comments been a liberal darling? I suspect not, save from some of the more conservative outlets, though they would turn a deaf ear had the former Patriarch of Rome criticized a conservative stalwart.

Of course, you wouldn't expect to see such open politicking from Benedict XVI, who contrary to both his predecessor and successor was/is the most a-political pope in recent history, if not since the dawning of the modern papacy under the aegis of infallibility.

Benedict is the type to criticize ideas (not an individual) and more often than not eschewed political entanglements. Francis, by contrast, is a sort-of hyper-political pope, using the papacy as a vehicle to advance political agendas and using  his media image to convey an atmosphere of divine mandate upon his said agendas. In this respect, Francis' papacy, though influenced by Liberation Theology, is more the fulfillment, or perhaps apotheosis, of the concept of the papacy established by Pius IX's definition of papal infallibility. His papacy is, perhaps, "the end" of modern Catholicism, in so far it is the last possible conclusion of the changed sense of self-understanding brought about by Pius IX's assumption the entirety of the tradition into the papacy itself.

Liberals will scoff at the above assertion. Pius IX, they will argue, was an arch-conservative and a reactionary. Perhaps; ideologically the two men may differ, but in terms of conception and actualization of the papacy, Francis follows perfectly the trajectory set by Pius IX. The tradition/religion is the papacy, the papacy is the tradition/religion.

For liberals, the power to bind and loose has never felt so good. Conservatives, meanwhile, hope their next man, whenever he arrives, will exercise the office in the manner Benedict XVI refused. In both cases, the Orthodox feel justified in thinking Rome has seriously misunderstood both the office and the tradition.

Perhaps more dangerous than realizing the concept of the papacy initiated by Pius IX is that Francis is treading closer to reducing religion to political exercise. One's political opinions ans support are increasingly equitable to moral and spiritual truths. It is the ultimate triumph of nominalism over the religious worldview, a reduction of the supernatural to politics which, setting aside the theological problems, has the deadly potential to whip political partisanship into a mass of religious fervor, replacing prayer and adoration with political action spun with religious vocabulary and mission. Never do people become so intolerant in civil society as when they believe their political opinions are transcendental truths obligatory in an open society.

Although there is a level of caution that ought to be shared among those subsets who clamor for a return to a pre-Constantine Christianity, it is worth acknowledging that for the first three hundred years Christianity operated by working around the dominant political system. After Constantine, Christianity became the dominant political system. Since then, it has found itself unable to conceive of itself outside of the political system, save for perhaps the monasteries and other communities that consciously reject said system. Would it were that those who would politicize Christianity reflected upon this.

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