Modern culture has reduced the pope to an actor in red shoes

Seduced by the cover headline – “Benedict’s Quiet Revolution” – I’d invested in the February 15th edition of Newsweek before …

Seduced by the cover headline – “Benedict’s Quiet Revolution” – I’d invested in the February 15th edition of Newsweek before it struck me the magazine was supposed to have retired at the end of 2012 to a life of meditation and contemplation online.

Media and church have long stood, alongside kings and soldiers, among the four major “estates” of human society. For the moment they remain, but confront different kinds of cultural pressure that threaten both with extinction.

Ironically, then, among the most pressing crises faced by the churches is that they must function within a culture of simplistic positivisim, generated and consolidated by the media. In this culture, truth is recognisable only in the visible and demonstrable.

This was the theme of Pope Benedict XVI’s 2011 Bundestag speech, in which he spoke of the windowless “bunker” humans build for themselves to inhabit, excluding not merely transcendence but also the mysteriousness of human existence. The bunker is built from God’s materials, but the existence of God, being incapable of comprehension in the logic of positivism, becomes implausible.

Triumph of positivism

The triumph of positivism owes much to processes whereby mass-media society absorbs copious information about everything but avoids the most fundamental questions. Thus, we feel “informed”, can regurgitate isolated pieces of seemingly definitive knowledge and speak assuredly about scientific progress with a vague sense that this is creating a new understanding of reality. But overall the effect is an approximation that works only inside the bunker. Meanwhile, we remain immobilised before the questions that left our ancestors, in their piety and supposed ignorance, unfazed. Our heads feel we are part of an escalating project of human deification, but our hearts feel excluded.

It was interesting, then, that Newsweek chose two British novelists, Tim Parks and AN Wilson, to write about the pope. Elsewhere, the novel remains one of the few remaining refuges of non-positivist thinking. In these islands, however, the genre has really become a subset of conventional media, being largely concerned with sociological themes.

Parks grew up in Finchley, London, the youngest son of what he has described as a “missionary-minded” Anglican vicar. Both his parents were “hyper-religious” and, when he was 12, became involved with the charismatic renewal movement. AN Wilson was once as much a media darling as Richard Dawkins; he was a long-time atheist who once published a pamphlet entitled Against Religion. Four years ago, however, he revealed that he had rediscovered his faith and reconverted to Christianity, causing his media profile to go into sharp decline.

Parks is a rather typical knee-jerk bunker-liberal who appears to think gay marriage and condoms are the most vital issues facing humanity. His Newsweek piece touches on an interesting comparison between the global media’s ready enthusiasm for John Paul II and its total incomprehension of Benedict, but he misses his own point by deciding John Paul II’s appeal was all down to charisma and theatrics. On Benedict he decides: “Now, suddenly, the heavy robes and ecclesiastical trappings were more interesting than the man himself.” He finishes with a bizarre liberal lament that Benedict failed – until his resignation – to promote “personal choice” as a definitive option for living a human life – a pity, in other words, that the pope was a Catholic.

Parks also shows that, like 99.9 per cent of those commenting on these matters, he lacks the slightest understanding of one of Benedict’s key proposals, deriding the straw-man idea that the pope had “proved the compatibility of reason and faith”. It is hard, says Parks, “to imagine anything less inspiring”. But, of course, Benedict “proved” no such thing, nor did he seek to. His case here was a Newmanesque plea for the extension of reason beyond the rational intellect, to engage the heart with the mind. One suspects that Parks finds uninspiring the idea of integrating faith and reason because, like many Anglicans, he sees religion as a source of cultural consolation and refuge. This tendency of Anglicanism was one of the reasons John Henry Newman became a Catholic.

AN Wilson’s essay is rather better. He understands Benedict’s affection for Newman, but he suffocates the chances of original insight with a protective cynicism.Detectable in both pieces is a desire not to fall foul of the positivist culture being addressed. It is a strange feature of this culture that, while claiming the capacity to countenance virtually anything, it does so in language and logic that exclude most of reality, including most spectacularly the nature and original structure of the human being. Cursed by the logic of objectivity, latter-day humanity must exclude the most sensational aspects of existence – human subjectivity and awareness – from calculations about reality. Because positivist culture is unable to identify the spirit of man, it has been more or less declared that this cannot exist. From here, the annihilation of the holy becomes inevitable, and among the many consequences is that popes are reduced to affable actors in red shoes.