The Long View 2005-04-05: Spengler, Ratzinger, Bret Schundler

David P. Goldman, who in 2005 was writing under the pseudonym Spengler for the Asia Times, ended up writing for First Things, among other publications. Goldman was right about Ratzinger.

Spengler, Ratzinger, Bret Schundler

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith who spent most of John Paul II's pontificate annoying uppity theologians, has received a nomination to the Throne of Saint Peter from no less a person than the Spengler at Asia Times. According to that Other Spengler, ten years ago, the cardinal shocked the Catholic world with this warning:

We might have to part with the notion of a popular Church. It is possible that we are on the verge of a new era in the history of the Church, under circumstances very different from those we have faced in the past, when Christianity will resemble the mustard seed [Matthew 13:31-32], that is, will continue only in the form of small and seemingly insignificant groups, which yet will oppose evil with all their strength and bring Good into this world.

The notion that Christianity might become less important in the future sounds increasingly odd from an American perspective, but the cardinal was thinking chiefly of Europe. In any case, Spengler argues that what John Paul II and Ratzinger have been trying to do is of universal relevance:

John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger belonged to the "Augustinian" minority of senior clergy who tried to steer the Church back to its fundamental mission, namely repentance and salvation...John Paul II's Augustinian leaning made him more of a unifying figure in the Christian world, in particular among US evangelicals. The scriptural rather than philosophical emphasis of the Augustinian current, moreover, deepened the late pope's instinctive sympathy for Judaism, the scriptural religion par excellence....Ratzinger places his hopes on the purely spiritual weapons that made Christianity a force to begin with. He has said, in effect, "I have a mustard seed, and I'm not afraid to use it." I do not know, of course, whether he will have the opportunity, but were he to ascend to the throne of St Peter, the next papacy might be more interesting than the last one.

No doubt. But again, the argument against Ratzinger being elected is that so many people have mentioned him as a candidate.

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Glancing for a moment at religion in popular culture, I am continually struck by the theological illiteracy of television writers, who nevertheless insist on taking up religious themes.

For instance, in last week's episode of Lost, there is a flashback in which a woman claiming to be John Locke's mother tells him that he had no father, but that he was "immaculately conceived." For the 10,000th time: "immaculate conception" does not mean "conceived without sexual intercourse." It means "conceived without Original Sin." In Catholic theology, Mary the mother of Jesus was immaculately conceived, by two ordinary parents.

Rather less seriously, we have the FOX show, Arrested Development, where the teenage son of the surreal sitcom family is dating a minister's daughter. In describing the minister's activities, the characters refer to all the early-morning Masses the pastor has to say, though he is obviously some kind of generic protestant who preaches in a chapel like a well-appointed lecture room. This may be a joke on the sitcom family's clueless secularism, but if so, why doesn't the narrator remark on the error, as he does on all the family's other gaffes?

* * *

On the subject of religion in politics, readers may be aware that Bret Schundler, once the Republican mayor of Jersey City who was often mentioned in the same breath as Rudolph Giuliani across the Hudson in New York, is running again for governor of New Jersey. (I live in Jersey City, so please indulge me.) Giuliani is usually described as a reformer who is scarcely on speaking terms with the cultural-issues wing of the Republican Party. Schundler was just as successful in running Jersey City as Giuliani was in running New York, but Schundler was and remains the apple of the eye of the cultural traditionalists

In 2001, he won the Republican nomination for governor, against the concerted effort of the Republican establishment to defeat him. That hostility lost him the general election (along with the fact that 911 dominated the news media during the campaign, which on his part was singularly incompetent in any case). Should he get the nomination again, he will probably find himself running against the popular Senator John Corzine. Like Schundler, Corzine is an immensely wealthy man who retired from Wall Street to Do Good. In addition to having even more money than Schundler, however, Corzine is also very well known, which Schundler never succeeded in becoming.

People ask, "What makes Schundler think he can beat Corzine?" Well, Schundler is on a mission from God. More important, as we see from this excerpt from Schundler's Third Inaugural Address as mayor, he is on a mission from God as revealed by His prophet, Immanuel Kant:

This was the subject of Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. Instinct might tell you that you want to do this or that, but it is by faith that one exalts some instincts and represses others. Reason might tell you that instituting a penalty for murder is a good way to improve your chances of not being murdered. But it is by faith, once again, that you assign value to the preservation of your life and to the lives of others, and that you do not murder people even when no one else is looking or could possibly find out. Fundamental values are not the product of empirical research and reason, Kant demonstrated, they are statements of faith: commitments to that which is believed, but can never be proven.

When the news media cover "The Religious Right," they persist in quoting a small number of television preachers and advocacy groups, with perhaps a few words from a church lady who attends a clapboard chapel at a crossroads in Iowa. Schundler's level of sophistication is not representative of cultural traditionalists in the United States, but it is not unusual, either.

* * *

Finally, for my readers in the College of Cardinals, here are three: points to keep in mind during the coming conclave:

---John Paul II outlived the liberal opposition. Many individual critics actually died before he did, but the important point is that the once vibrant institutional infrastructure of the liberal Catholic Church is largely derelict. It survives in a few dwindling publications, and in parts of the academy.

---The chief gender issue facing the Church day is convincing men to attend Mass. It used to be that Catholicism was unusual in having roughly equal levels of men and women in the pews on a Sunday. This is no longer the case, and it's a bad sign for any denomination. Studies show that the chief predictor of whether children will continue religious practice in later life is whether their fathers are regular church-goers

---Decentralization leads to scandal. Bishops who are keen to be independent of Rome are also quite autocratic about ignoring genuine popular criticism in their own dioceses. The clergy-abuse scandals occurred because the Vatican exercised insufficient oversight, while the bishops covered up the problem locally.

Also: try not to drag out the election. The news channels will cover the event 24/7, and one dreads to think what nonsense they will be saying after 72 hours.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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