The New Yorker Spins the Pope

Published April 25, 2007

The New Yorker was once famous for the ferocity of its fact-checking and editing. No more.

Any magazine whose editors give a pass to falsehoods (e.g., Catholics believe that “heaven, and possibly earth, belongs exclusively to them”), grossly tendentious mis-readings of documents (e.g., Vatican II’s Nostra Aetate taught “the dim possibility of Jewish salvation”), and factual errors (e.g., Karol Wojtyla was “one of the young theological advisers at Vatican II”) is a magazine that is not seriously edited.

Jane Kramer’s lengthy tantrum in the New Yorker‘s April 2 issue, “The Pope and Islam,” is really several articles in one. It’s a wailing wall for left-leaning Vaticanisti, disgruntled Curial bureaucrats, and Italian Catholic activists unhappy with Benedict XVI’s challenge to Islam.

It’s an effort — rather unsuccessful, I fear — to come to grips with the substance of the Pope’s Regensburg Lecture in September 2006. It’s yet another attempt to drive a wedge between Benedict XVI and John Paul II, along the hoary “nice Wojtyla/nasty Ratzinger” axis of pseudo-analysis.

And it’s a brusque dismissal, without serious examination, of Benedict XVI’s suggestion that the first inculturation of Christianity in the world of classical rationality was providential, because it gave early Christians the intellectual tools to turn their evangelical confession of faith (“Jesus is Lord”) into doctrine and creeds, such as the Nicene Creed universally prayed by the Church.

The Wojtyla-vs.-Ratzinger business is easily rebutted. In “Crossing the Threshold of Hope,” John Paul II stated flatly that “not only the theology but also the anthropology of Islam is very distant from Christianity.” That’s a far more dramatic statement of the gap between Christianity and Islam than anything Benedict XVI said at Regensburg.

The “nice Wojtyla/nasty Ratzinger” trope is a cartoon, period. Anyone who hasn’t come to grips with what John Paul II wrote about Islam isn’t in a position to comment seriously on the differences in approach — which certainly exist — between the two popes.

A similar lack of research, or so one assumes, distorts Ms. Kramer’s reading of Benedict’s approach to Islam. Ms. Kramer makes no reference at all to the Pope’s address to the Roman Curia last December, in which he suggested that the interreligious dialogue of the future focus on assisting Muslims who wish to assimilate the best of the Enlightenment (like the institutional separation of religious and political authority) by developing the resources of their own religious tradition.

She makes passing reference to the post-Regensburg “Open Letter to Pope Benedict XVI” from 38 senior Muslim leaders, but does not conjure with the fact that this Muslim condemnation of violence in the name of God followed a robust papal challenge, not the platitudes too frequently typical of “interreligious dialogue.”

As for the issues put on the global table at Regensburg, does Ms. Kramer really think it a bad thing to challenge irrational forms of faith that command the murder of innocents in the name of God? Is it wrong to suggest that there is danger in the obverse of irrational faith: that trouble is afoot in the West’s loss of faith in reason, which erodes our capacity to defend the universality of human rights and the superiority of the rule of law over the rule of coercion?

Then there’s Ms. Kramer’s bugbear about reason-and-faith. Classical ideas of reason have a privileged place in Christian theology, not because of xenophobia (“Ratzinger is Eurocentric. To him, Europe means Christianity.”) but because the conviction that human beings can know that some things are true is essential in a Church whose Lord taught that the truth is liberating. Doctrine is not excess baggage on the journey of faith. It’s the vehicle that makes the journey possible.

Finally, Jane Kramer really ought to find herself some new Roman sources. The men she cites remind me of nothing so much as those unfortunate Japanese soldiers found on remote Pacific islands in the 1970s — men who never, somehow, got the word that Emperor Hirohito had packed it in 30-some years before. One of her-refugees-from-radicalisms-past sighs that Vatican II was “the 1968 of the Catholic Church.” Memo to source: It’s over. Get over it.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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