You've found Father McKenzie. But are you really looking for Eleanor Rigby?

Tuesday, December 09, 2003

Habeas Papam!

[UPDATE: They say some of these hyperlinks are broken. Specify which ones in the comments box, will you? It's eye-scrunching to do this in the matchbox-sized window that Blogger gives you for editing.]

Well, if a Papacy can re-unify Andrew Sullivan with Mark Shea, ending the Iran-Iraq Gulf War would’ve been easy. A meme is now emerging…

[I]f the problem with Islam is that it seems constantly to give rise to sects violently hostile to secular institutions, to reason, and to cultured sentiment; that the countries in which it predominates have a chronic tendency toward theocratic despotism; and that as a religion it exhibits no institutional structure that might finally impose some discipline on the chaotic and lawless spiritual impulses that it generates - if all that is the problem (which it surely is), then it is absurd to hold that the solution is for Islam to find its Martin Luther. It has already had its Luther, not to mention its Calvin and its Henry VIII, all rolled into one: his name was Muhammad. What Islam needs is a Pope”.

- Edward Feser, “Does Islam Need a Luther or a Pope?”, Tech Central Station (4 December 2003)
As Mark and others have noted, Feser (Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles) is “cribbing” from an argument made by Jonah Goldberg, in very similar terms, about 18 months ago:
In the Islamic world, the Caliphate - a very poor analogy to the throne of the Holy Roman Emperor or the Pope - came to an end in 1924… Until then, the Caliphs or their surrogates could speak with one voice for much of the Islamic world. With them gone, the Islamic world has spun off into a wild orbit, in
which nations without a mature notion of civil society also lack an outside moral authority like the Catholic Church. Hence, today every fanatic and murderer can “shop around” for a cleric willing to issue a fatwa condoning almost any crime or atrocity, like an addict looking for a corrupt doctor to scribble some prescriptions. Too many of these retail Islamic Martin Luthers compete with each other to be more devout, more angry, more willing to deflect the anxieties and shame of their societies onto outside forces, be they "
crusaders" or “Jews”… And that’s why the Islamic world doesn’t need any more Martin Luthers. It needs a Pope."

- Jonah Goldberg, “Islamic Rites: Why Muslims need a Pope”, National Review Online (4 April 2002)

Now, to be honest, my initial assumption was that the TCS article was a parody of Goldberg’s piece; firstly because the author comes close to plagiarising Jonah’s arguments (unintentionally, I guess) and secondly because of his name: I expected a follow-up parody by “William D. Konkra” entitled “No, Muslims Need A Dalai Lama”, in the manner of those “Point/ Counterpoint” satirical debates you read in The Onion. But then I really shouldn’t make puns about other people’s surnames. This “Muslims need a Pope” trope lends itself more to the making of a Top 10 list (“No #10: Election is announced by a puff of white smoke … from a hookah. No #9: When disembarks from an airplane, takes care to face Mecca when kissing ground. No #8: All condoms are intrinsically evil, but those made from pigskin are really intrinsically evil. No #7…").

I agree with one of the comments chez Shea: Islam would be better off (or less worse off) with the Pope, the Catholic one (or the Coptic Pope for that matter), by converting en masse (as it were) to Christianity. Catholicism would be more familiar to Muslims than Protestantism, while Orthodoxy - as William Dalrymple notes in his book From the Holy Mountain: A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium (NY, Holt, 1998, p 168) - would be closest of all:

Today the West often views Islam as a civilisation very different from
and indeed innately hostile to Christianity. Only when you travel in Christianity’s Eastern homelands do you realise how closely the two religions
are really linked. For the former grew directly out of the latter and still, to
this day, embodies many aspects and practices of the early Christian world now
lost in Christianity’s modern Western incarnation. … Certainly if [Saint] John
Moschos were to come back today it is likely that he would find much more that was familiar in the practices of a modern Muslim Sufi than he would with those
of, say, a contemporary American Evangelical”.

But simply grafting a Pope, empowered to infallibly interpret the Qur’an and the Hadith, upon the existing body of Islamic teaching and practice, would be no improvement. The leading candidate for a Muslim Vatican would be the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, whose monarch’s titles include “Guardian of the Two Holy Shrines” of Mecca and Medina (the nearest Christian analogy might be if both Nazareth and Jerusalem were in Rome). Possession of the keys to the Ka’aba would be an even more powerful bargaining chip than the Pope’s property title to the Vatican, or (say) Jesus’ tomb in the Holy Land, since for Muslims pilgrimages to these places are not just works of supererogation, but non-negotiable religious duties. So I remain unpersuaded that a Muslim Pope would not simply instruct the faithful they'll receive plenary indulgences if they fall in battle against the infidels, and be met with joyous cries of "Allah le veult!"

Both Feser and Goldberg take a few swipes at Protestantism, along lines familiar to anyone who's ever opened Belloc and read a page at random:

If you travel around peace-loving Switzerland, for example, you’ll
discover that a couple of centuries worth of art is simply missing, because
Protestant iconoclasts burnt it in giant bonfires to fuel their fondue-pots of
religious fervour. The Catholic Church, meanwhile, has a very nice art
collection, which includes depictions of lots of pretty-naked ladies and a few
naked pretty ladies.
” (Goldberg)

The Taliban who dynamited those Buddhist carvings thereby demonstrated their kinship, not to the Medieval Catholics who venerated Plato, Aristotle, and other great writers of pagan antiquity, nor to the Renaissance Popes in their patronisation of the arts, but to the Protestant mobs whose vandalism purged so many once-Catholic European churches of their stained glass, statuary, and beauty". (Feser)

Who in turn demonstrated their kinship to Moses, King Hezekiah, King Josiah, and Saints Paul and Silas - although not to King Solomon. But hey, the Borgia Popes did leave us great artwork. Thou shalt not make unto thyself any graven image … at least not an unattractive one. (But I agree, it was unnecessary for the Taliban to destroy the Bamiyan Buddhist statues, because there are no longer any Buddhists left in Afghanistan using them for worship - a point that a number of the Taliban’s own theologians made at the time. not enthusiastic about centralised systems where one single person, on top of the pyramid, has power to decree what shall henceforth be permitted or forbidden, or to prevent different solutions being experimented with and adopted if successful. In fact, one of Hayek’s main arguments is that decentralised systems are capable of coordinating themselves without a top-down ruler. By contrast, the Catholic position is that you get not just annoying disagreement but intolerable anarchy if you say “Let each be fully persuaded in his own mind”, and deal with heretics by separating yourself from them rather than by forcing them to recant. Those of us who’ve witnessed Baptists, Presbyterians and Anglicans sharing the Eucharist together, or watched the Jesuits and Opus Dei duke it out with barely disguised hatred, might not be "fully persuaded" that much is gained simply by agreeing on a common infallible arbiter whose teachings you then interpret in widely conflicting ways. Contrary to the much-repeated Catholic argument that the role of the Papacy is to stop different people from reading their Bibles and coming to different conclusions, in fact the role of the Papacy has been to stop different people - in different centuries and countries; the Waldenses, Hus, Tyndale, Wycliffe, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Cranmer - from reading their Bibles and coming to the same conclusions.

Note also that Hayek was rather scathing (using terms like "mirage", "road to serfdom", "fatal conceit") about one of the favourite projects of the recent Popes: "social justice".
... such opposition makes the defender of tradition the true upholder
of freedom and rationality: for there can be no true freedom divorced from the
rule of law and the equal submission of all to rules whose authority does not
rest on any individual’s arbitrary will… The teachings of a Pope are never
strictly his teachings, but merely those of the 2,000-year-old institution of
which he is a temporary steward and to which he must submit as dutifully as any
of the faithful
”. (Feser)
But what if he doesn't submit? “… if a minor spiritual power err, it will be judged by a superior spiritual power; but if the highest power of all err, it can be judged only by God, and not by man…" - Pope Boniface VIII, in Unam Sanctam (1302).
... this distinction between Church and State has survived the
Reformation to become one of the most prized elements of Western Civilisation.
Or at least it has in those countries in which some Protestant sect or other
hadn’t captured the apparatus of government: it must never be forgotten that it
was Calvin, and not some Medieval Catholic, who founded in Geneva the world’s
first Christian totalitarian state, that it is Lutheran bishops who were
traditionally the paid employees of German and Scandinavian governments…"

Ah, so this explains all those worrying reports coming in of Catholics being arrested on the streets of London, New York, Geneva and Amsterdam and being tortured until they agree to sign a statement professing their belief in Double Predestination … What, not a single word about France under the Bourbons, or about Spain or Austria-Hungary under the Hapsburgs? Did they develop the “prized element” of distinction between Church and State before those heretical separatist Protestants in America did? I mean, seriously. What colour is the sky on Planet Feser?
“… and that it is the Church of England, and not the Church of Rome,
whose head is a secular monarch”.
And if the Pope, as Head of State of the Vatican City, is not a “secular monarch”, by what right does he have a seat, an ambassador and a vote at the United Nations, and sovereign immunity under international law, when the Southern Baptists or the Wesleyan Methodists or the Lutheran World Federation don't?
This is a Tradition that the Church herself does not create but merely
preserves and passes on - emendations to that Tradition occurring only very
infrequently, deliberately, gradually, and minimally, and always in a way which
merely draws out the implications of what was there already rather than
introducing some novel or foreign element".
Forget the Protestants for a monent, and take this up with the Orthodox. (It may be true that Henry VIII terrorised almost everyone in England into rejecting Papal supremacy, but he could hardly have influenced the thinking of Greek Bishops half a millennium before he was born.)

Heaven knows, the excesses of triumphalist Whig history can always do with reining-in by sober reminders of the skeletons in Protestantism’s closet. But this wave of recent Catholic revisionism - switching from centuries of condemning democracy and liberalism to claiming to have invented them - fails the Chestertonian “common sense” test. Professor Feser’s argument is long on generalities and short on specifics: by naming, for instance, one Catholic-majority country that can match the record of the Protestant-majority countries in upholding democracy and the rule of law for several centuries (three for Britain, two for Switzerland and the USA).

Protestantism’s worst excesses and cruelties were committed in periods when it was the most “Catholic” - when it still held to the belief that allowing doctrinal “live and let live” meant anarchy, that it was the duty of the civil magistrate to prevent heretics from sending themselves to hell. The solution is and was never to revert to Catholicism but to return to the Gospel - to remember Christ’s words about wheat and tares, for a start.

A much better solution is put forward by one “Zathras”, who in the TCS comments box (nearest link is here) argues that if you really want the Islamic religion to become more compatible with democracy and free debate, then the best form of “church” governance is one based on democracy and free debate. Who would've guessed?!!
A Pope - the electée of previous Pope’s appointees, the head of an
enormous, entitled institution - would be overkill. Something like a
Presbyterian General Assembly would suffice. It would not prevent
misinterpretations of Islam, but it would make it more difficult for extremist
clerics to act as spokesmen for their religion without fear of contradiction by
other learned senior Muslims. It would also be an example of the kind of open
discussion practiced in the North American and Western European democracies that emerged from the Protestant tradition

oldberg and Feser are absolutely correct, though, on one point. We don’t want an Islamic Luther. The reason is that, unlike the situation with the late-mediaeval Catholic Church, Islam’s scriptures are no more liberal than its traditions are. A Muslim Reformer who went back ad fontes (“to the sources”) would strip away accreted centuries of conservative Hadith only to be left with… a conservative sola Qu'rana. Rather than a Muslim Luther, or a Muslim Pope, what the world really needs is an Islamic Melanchthon.

No comments: