Thursday, April 21, 2005

Going Medieval

The whingerati have been looking for a label that expresses their anxieties about the likely doctrinal stance of Pope Benedict XVI, and one that has cropped up all over the place is "Medieval" - an epithet previously reserved for the likes of Osama Bin Laden.

It's the kind of thing that gives the Middle Ages a bad name, suggestive as it is that most medieval people were more likely to have minty fresh breath than an open mind. Yet of course it was actually quite difficult to be a hardline traditionalist in an era when going backwards actually meant going forwards, and most people died before they were old enough to become conservative.

Papa Ratzi's style of cleric actually emerged in the period of the Counter Reformation when the Catholic church lost its spiritual monopoly and needed institutions like the Inquisition to maintain its competitive positioning in the new multi-denominational environment. These were the days when you literally fired your off-message bloggers.

One such unfortunate internal commentator was theologian Michael Servetus, churrasco'd in 1553 along with all copies of his book The Reconstitution of Christianity, in which he rather stupidly (all bloggers that openly criticise their employers are a bit duh! aren't they?) questioned one of the key elements of the Church's brand - the Holy Trinity. It was he said, an irrational doctrinal fudge concocted by the Council of Nicea in AD325 and one for which the bible provides no support whatsoever.

Educated Greeks at the time of the Council liked a bit of theological argy-bargy. Indeed, public debate on matters of doctrine was generally considered culturally healthy and not the first step on the muddy road to relativism. But a priest called Arius was causing more than the usual ammount of controversy by insisting that if God was God, Jesus couldn't be God at the same time. Emperor Constantine, being the supreme secular authority in the land and the man that brought the faith out of the backstreets, wanted to establish an ecclesiastical authority to parallel his own - one that was similarly one size fits all, yet expressive of the local flair for flexibility. The doctrine of the Trinity set a wishy-washy framework for the debate on the nature of the Divine. Over time though, the Western spin-off version of Constantine's Church built up a great deal of theology and ritual around the compromise decreed by these cunning, ecclectic Greeks. An artefact of disingenuous spin became one of the cornerstones of the whole edifice of Catholicism.

Anyway, if we were to call the new Pope "pre-Enlightenment" as opposed to "Medieval", we would have a better chance of saying something positive about the worldview that he stands against. "Medieval" is used laxly and negatively, in the same way that Bush used "Liberal" to stain his rival John Kerry.

Many thinkers of the Enlightenment considered the whole institution of the Church to be grounded in irrationality and worth dispensing with. But the Enlightenment helped foster a modern world in which people are inclined to feel spiritually deprived. Last week our TV screens were full of triumphalist prelates crowing about how empty the world would be without them.

Yet as Benedict XVI obviously understands, the biggest threat to his institution now is not outright atheism and anti-clericalism, but the modern limp-wristed version of ecclecticism, which would tranform it along Liberal lines into an unrecognisable collective of liberal-agnostics, feminists, relativists and re-badged Marxists. This kind of Church would be encouraged to stand up against contemporary secular evils like communism and consumerism, to promote morality with a small "m" and to generally avoid the kind of divisive remarks that the erstwhile Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger made quite a name for.

There are good reasons to be suspicious of the cake-and-eat-it bunch. They are the sort of people that would modernise the Monarchy by having the Royals all go round town on bicycles. They appear to want to incrementally soften the edges of life until there's nothing left worth caring about, until the only form of change that remains is re-positioning. Rather than have us confront the serious and difficult issues, they would have us merely re-imagine them. Yet is a lesbian Pope really the way the make the Vatican relevant to future generations or are we better off creating new and better institutions?

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