I cannot say that I expected Leon Wieseltier, who does the heavy intellectual lifting at the New Republic, to encourage a generous treatment of Benedict's argument. As Kenneth Woodward has written in First Things, Wieseltier is infamous for his "contemptuous screeds" against Christianity and Catholicism in particular. Last April, Wieseltier ran a rant of what seemed like 30,000 words against First Things and our alleged ambitions to replace this constitutional order with a theocracy, or something like that. It was pathetically incoherent. So I wasn't expecting much from TNR with respect to the Regensburg argument. Even considering Mr. Wieseltier's proclivities, however, what appeared was disappointing.
In its October 9 issue, TNR enlisted David Nirenberg, a historian with the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, to write a long attack, including this:
It is true that the [Regensburg] talk concludes with an invitation: "It is to this great logos, to this breadth of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures." But it also concludes with the claim that "only through [rationality of faith] do we become capable of that genuine dialogue of cultures and religions so urgently needed today." The bulk of "Faith, Reason,and the University" is explicitly dedicated to the thesis that European Catholicism has effectively mixed faith and reason in the logos, and that other religions, specifically Islam, have not. Forget for a moment the historical inaccuracies (not just about Islam, but about other religions as well) in such a statement, and focus only on the logic. What kind of invitation begins by denying its guests the qualifications for attendance at the party? The pope's "invitation" at Regensburg was not to a "dialogue of cultures" at all. What he was [sic] at least a convergence of all religions and cultures toward a logos that is explicitly characterized as Catholic and European. Just like Manuel's medieval "dialogos" with a Muslim (the Greek title of the emperor's treatise means "controversy" or "debate" rather than "dialogue" in our modern sense), Benedict's lecture was a polemic posing as a dialogue. Some among the faithful will rejoice that Benedict, once known as "the Rottweiler" for his dogged defense of doctrine as a cardinal, has bared his teeth as pope. But his speech must not be mistaken for something more noble or more ecumenical than the articulation of Catholic dogma that it was, even if the extreme response in certain quarters of the Muslim world casts it in a more sympathetic light. There are no champions of dialogue in this story. In the harsh universe of religious polemic, there rarely are.
In the harsh universe of TNR polemic, such a meanspirited attack is not entirely surprising, but it is nonetheless, as I said earlier, disappointing. (I pass over the implication made along the way that the Regensburg lecture was anti-Jewish, if not anti-Semitic.) Nirenberg's suggestion is that there is something deeply sinister about the lecture. This becomes evident when you understand that the pope is a Catholic, and what he is really up to is setting forth a Catholic understanding of the relationship between faith and reason. Aha!
Of course, Benedict was not "denying the qualifications" of others to enter into dialogue. Very explicitly to the contrary, he affirmed the capacity of all people and cultures to engage in a conversation about whether it is not true that to act against reason is to act against the nature of the creating and ordering logos whom Christians call God.
Mr. Nirenberg seems to assumeand a good many Christians, regrettably, share the assumptionthat "dialogue" requires that truth claims be set aside or can only begin from the stipulation that all truth claims are equally true, or false, as the case may be. But genuine dialogue is not pretending that our differences make no difference. Genuine dialogue is the engagement of our deepest differences within the bond of civility and mutual respect.
Benedict sets forth a Catholic understanding of the synthesis of faith and reasonan understanding that, not incidentally, is foundational for the history and culture of the West. He then invites others to join in an exploration of this and alternative ways to understand and respond to the urgent problem of religion linked to the irrationality of violence. TNR declines the invitation to the dialogue because, don't you know, the pope is advocating a Catholic response to the problem. One might hope that TNR and the Committee on Social Thought have alternative responses to the problem. Or maybe Messrs. Wieseltier and Nirenberg do not think it is a problem.
More likely, the refusal to enter into dialogue with Benedict is a reflection of a longstanding intellectual bigotry with respect to Christianity, and Catholicism in particular. There is no getting around the fact that Pope Benedict is a Catholic. It is a sadness that for some people that appears to be an insuperable obstacle to conversation.
Over on Beliefnet.com, Rod Dreher explains at length why he and his family have left the Catholic Church for Orthodoxy. It is painful reading, as it was undoubtedly painful for him to write. For those whom I have described as "ecclesial Christians," Orthodoxy has to be very seriously considered. In Catholic Matters, I discuss some of those considerations and why I am convinced that an ecclesial Christianity is more fully realized in the Catholic Church.
Having said that, however, Dreher's essay is important. Yes, his decision is in large part reactive. But he is reacting to very real corruptions in the Catholic Church. I hope every Catholic bishop and priest will read his essay, and especially those bishops and priests who are inclined to heave a sigh of relief that we have weathered the sex-abuse scandal. And every Catholic engaged in the standard intra-church quarrels, whether on the left or the right, should take to heart what he says about Catholics being more preoccupied with church battles than with following Jesus.
Dreher concludes his reflection with this: "Still, those of you more charitably inclined, please just pray for me and my family, that we always live in truth, and do the right thing, and be found pleasing to God, the Father of us all." No Catholic should hesitate to join in that prayer.
Yes, the huge four-part series this week in the New York Times on religious exemptions from taxes and government regulations is noteworthy. There will be a detailed analysis of that in a forthcoming issue of First Things. To cut to the chase: The series says a great deal about the Times but will make very little difference, except to reinforce the prejudices of those who believe, as one of the experts quoted puts it, that religion is "aggressively expanding its power in a way that is harmful to the public good." Most others will think it a very good thing that, despite controversies and confusions, the government still works at honoring the First Amendment guarantee of the free exercise of religion.
At the height of the uproar over Pope Benedict's September 12 lecture at the University of Regensburg, I referred to statements attributed to Father Dan Madigan, S.J., that appeared in several newspapers. Fr. Madigan is an expert on Islam, and the statements appeared to be condescending and patronizing, suggesting that, not to put too fine a point on it, the pope didn't know what he was talking about. I expressed my hope that perhaps Fr. Madigan had been misquoted. I have it from an unimpeachable source that Fr. Madigan's views were indeed misrepresented by Malcolm Moore in The Telegraph (London) and by other reporters. In particular, he did not call for the return of Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald to the pontifical council on interreligious affairs. Such a move is extremely unlikely, and Fr. Madigan's position is that the discussion must now move forward from Regensburg.