The Pope and the President

Portolani Books, Volume 1: Anthology 

 

The Pope and the President

A view from outside*

By Gerald Vouga

Half a century ago the New Yorker magazine published what soon became a famous cartoon. Two uniformed maids are standing beside an open door through which a group of animated guests are to be seen around a dining-table. One maid says to the other: 'Who are the guests tonight?'. The second answers: 'Don't know this lot, but they must be intellectuals—all they talk about is sex, sex, sex!'
 
The sexual revolution was the third of the twentieth century's great revolutions, and possibly the most lasting. Progressive intellectuals today may have little enthusiasm for the politics of either socialism or fascism, or for the ideologies of Communism or Nazism, but on one thing they are universally agreed: the social agenda of libertarianism with its doctrines on abortion, gay marriage, promiscuity, and radical feminism—all of this is non-negotiable.  Not surprisingly its most aggressive militants are in the media. If we were to use Foucault's divining rod, D'ou parles tu?, and look for the social interest that lies behind this phenomenon, we would not have far to seek; for who would deny that without the pervasive sexualising of modern life the press, TV, cinema and advertising would be deprived of a good deal of their material and income? Of course multiculturalism is also a touchstone of modern social ethics. But it is a notoriously risky one because 'enlightened' approaches to sexual relations and behavior are to be found only in Western culture—other peoples and cultures tend to be lamentably backward on such questions.


That today a candidate’s stance on the ethical and behavioural issues listed above is perhaps the most critical factor in modern political life is evident from the careers of two prominent, influential, and sharply contrasting figures.


George W Bush and Josef Ratzinger
George W. Bush, President of the United States, and Josef Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, could scarcely be more different in background, education, cultural interests and personal history. Yet the 2004 election of Bush and the 2005 Vatican choice of Ratzinger both aroused a deeply visceral and hostile reaction from the same quarters.

No matter that the Pope like his predecessor was a declared opponent of
US intervention in Iraq. No matter that Bush when governor of Texas pursued notably progressive policies on education, immigration and other social issues. What counts nowadays for a favourable political image is where one stands on social liberation and the freedom to do as one wants. This, of course, is true of both sides. But the trouble for the enlightened, sophisticated, post-modernist school is that the supporters of Bush and Ratzinger are bearers of a much deeper and more ancient tradition. By which I mean respect for tradition itself.


Ratzinger, the music-lover who plays Mozart on the piano for
recreation, and converses with the former Frankfurter Habermas, was a leading reformer during Vatican II. Now he defends the Latin liturgy and wants correction of what he considers to have been the errors of many 1960s Church reformers. Furthermore he reiterates the basic traditional teachings on family and sex of all three Abrahamic religions. Shortly before his election Ratzinger set out his guiding principles in a homily guaranteed not to endear him to post-modernists: 'We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as definitive and has as its highest value one's own ego and one's own desires.' So if Europe is to survive, he says, it will have to somehow recover its Christian roots. Bush, not notable for high-brow tastes, was once something of a play-boy. Now he defends 'family values' and wants to purge the courts of legislating judges, especially those who would force changes in domestic life and sexual conduct into law whether voters like it or not. Despite all the accusations against him the U.S. President takes a traditional American constitutional stance: toleration for all religions, and equal toleration for those who profess none. But he proclaims his own faith and never fails to invoke the Divinity's protection of America, at the same time declaring repeatedly that his quarrel is not with Islam but with tyranny.

Pope Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict XVI has taken a stand against Moslem persecution of Christians and for the rights of converts from Islam to Christianity. He has even supported Christian missionary activity among Moslems—activity banned in many Moslem countries. But it is clear that he also has some sympathy for Islamic religious conviction, and contrasts this with the pusillanimity of European governments who hesitate to recognize Europe's Christian roots for fear of provoking their Islamic immigrants.

'What offends Islam,' said Cardinal Ratzinger, 'is the lack of reference to God, the arrogance of reason, which provokes fundamentalism.' He has criticized multiculturalism, 'which is so constantly and passionately encouraged and supported,' because it 'sometimes amounts to an abandonment and disavowal of what is our own.' Not just militant secularists but post-modernist Catholics call Ratzinger the 'panzer cardinal'. As might be expected, unwavering believers—Catholic or Protestant—with varying degrees of individual reservation, have little difficulty in supporting, indeed welcoming the emergence of both Bush and Benedict XVI as influential moral leaders in a doubting and disturbed world.

Less expected is the fact that a considerable number of non-believers feel the same way. It is also remarkable that enlightened sophisticates, when they discuss Bush or Ratzinger, are singularly unworried about the theological positions of either. Intellectual problems relating to the Genesis story, to divine miracles or the Cult of the Virgin Mary, and even less to the content of the articles of faith contained in the Apostles' Creed, arouse neither interest nor disagreement.

What sparks indignation is the pro-family stance of both figures. Equally noteworthy is that non-believers are similarly unconcerned with theological matters and concentrate attention on moral questions.

Friedrich Hayek: the paradoxes resolved

If Friedrich Hayek were alive today he would have no difficulty explaining these paradoxes. Famous for his The Road to Serfdom, he is usually associated with free market economics. What is less well-known is that his later life was devoted to cultural studies and the origins of civilization. It was his insights into the workings of the market, derived from Adam Smith, and his sympathy with the views of Burke and Hume on politics, that laid the basis for his approach to cultural phenomena.

He regards human behaviour as having three sources, the innate or instinctual developed over some 50,000 generations of pre-history, the deliberately chosen, and lastly, that which has developed through a natural process of cultural selection akin to biological evolution.

'What has yet to be more widely recognized is that the present order of society has largely arisen, not by design, but by the prevailing of the more effective institutions in a process of competition. Culture is neither natural, nor artificial; neither genetically transmitted nor rationally designed. It is a tradition of learnt rules of conduct which have never been invented and whose functions the acting individuals usually do not understand. There is surely as much justification to speak of the wisdom of culture as of the wisdom of nature—except, perhaps, that because of the powers of government, errors of the former are less easily corrected.'**

According to Hayek, just as we see in the market, there is no design in biological or social systems. Mutations in biology or societal changes vanish or survive according to whether they benefit the survival of the relevant species or population in the circumstances in which they find themselves. In his last great work, Law, Legislation and Liberty, Hayek elaborates his theory of cultural evolution. Its vehicle, he maintains, is tradition, and he argues strongly that the onus is on those who would break with tradition to justify such a momentous step. There are always complicated reasons for the long-term survival of traditions, and we should deeply and patiently consider those reasons, however obscure, before impulsively changing moral rules that have been with us for thousands of years.

The presumption in favor of tradition
Hayek does not deal with religion; indeed, it is not even mentioned in the index to Law, Legislation and Liberty. What he does examine at some length is the pernicious effect on education and society of a permissive relativising ethos, which he condemns as a corrosive force leading to disorder and the breakdown of civilization. He regards Marx and Freud (until Freud’s very last years) as the two great negative influences in this direction. Long-established and virtually universal moral rules have survived since the dawn of civilization because they conduce to orderly social life, itself a condition for increasing prosperity and human wellbeing.

None of this means that Hayek is against innovation when need arises, or change when it is due: but he believes that when in doubt there must be a presumption in favour of tradition. This, too, is the approach we find today among many non-believers in the presence of religious defenders of social conventions going back hundreds of years. It is especially apposite in the case of Europe. Ratzinger sees Europe as under threat, and though he may be looking at its empty churches, he is also very concerned over its empty cradles.

Today a declining population that has abandoned its work ethic for hedonistic pursuits faces a growing inflow of peoples who cling stubbornly to traditions that are the opposite of permissive. And these immigrants are rapidly multiplying thanks to European science and the welfare provisions of liberal western states.

Pope Benedict XVI is no unconscious transmitter of tradition. He may have religious grounds for his moral judgments, but he has made it clear that he also has pragmatic motives. It is these which are shared by non-believers. The internal problems facing President Bush in America on the moral plane may not be as acute as those which face the Pope in Europe, but similar ruptures with tradition threaten American well-being, and it is clear that Bush also has pragmatic motives for concern. This is why he too finds support among those non-believers who, like Hayek, accept that when in doubt—and when we have nothing better to guide us—there is an unmistakable presumption in favour of tradition.

  • *First published in The Culture Cult  website, May 2005
  • **F.A. Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty, (London, 2003). Vol.3, pp. 154-5