Pope Benedict's letter this past week to the Catholics of China is a development of potentially historic importance. In reading the letter and talking with people who know the situation in China, the most striking thing is Benedict's insistence that there is one Catholic Church in China, not an Underground Church and a Patriotic Church. The pope's letter develops the theological reasons why there is only one Church, and underscores the importance of the fact that most "patriotic" bishopsmost sources say more than 90 percent of themare in communion with Rome. He urges these bishops to be more public about that fact so that the faithful will know there is only one Church in China. Although it is not clear how this could happen, he is also urging underground bishops to find a way to become certified by the government; in short, a way to no longer being underground.
The great obstacle to a united and flourishing Catholicism in China is the regime's Religious Affairs Bureau. Those who run the bureau have a vested interest in maintaining their control over religion and, not incidentally, what is estimated to be claims of billions of dollars in church property seized after the communist revolution. It is noteworthy that the government directed the removal of Benedict's letter from the Internet shortly after its release, although it is assumed that the letter has already been widely disseminated. Striking, too, is Benedict's insistence on the importance of forming a united episcopal conference for China. As Cardinal Ratzinger, he was frequently critical of episcopal conferences, but he obviously sees it as something essential to achieving ecclesial self-government (libertas ecclesiae) in the Chinese context.
As he has done on many occasions, Benedict emphasizes that the Church has no political ambitions and can live under various kinds of regimes. She seeks cooperative relations with the government and asks only for the freedom to govern herself. The letter is, perhaps most important, a fervent plea for reconciliation between those Catholics who have suffered persecution, including in many instances the shedding of martyr blood, and those Catholics who took the course of collaboration with the regime. The letter can also be seen as a possible step toward official relations between Beijing and Rome, although that is probably a long way off. There will be further commentary on the pope's letter in the pages of First Things.
Meanwhile, there is an interesting article on Catholicism in China by Adam Minter in the current Atlantic, "Keeping Faith." It is most regrettable that Minter thinks it necessary to take a slap at Cardinal Zen of Hong Kong, who is a man of enormous courage and a real hero in the cause of religious and other freedoms. Another China-watcher is concerned that Minter is uncritically admiring of Bishop Jin Luxian of Shanghai, who, while undoubtedly having paid a steep price for "keeping faith," is viewed by many Chinese Catholics as having compromised himself by frequent cooperation with the regime's repression of fellow believers. All of which highlights the suspicions and bitter memories that make so urgent Benedict's moving appeal for reconciliation in the one Catholic Church in China.
Enough, you might say, about Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and their atheist pamphleteering against religion. But perhaps I can persuade you to sit still for one more critique (subscription required), this time by the ever provocative Stanley Fish, the distinguished John Milton scholar and author of Postmodern Sophistry and numerous other exercises in intellectual unconventionality.
"Writings against God and religion have been around as long as God and religion have been around," writes Fish. (Of course God and religion have been around ever so much longer than writing.) The objections that the current band of atheists "make against religious thinking are themselves part of religious thinking," Fish writes. Their objections are "the very motor of that [religious] discourse, impelling the conflicted questioning of theologians and poets (not to mention Jesus, who cried, 'My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?' and every verse of the Book of Job)." In other words, Hitchens et al. are posing the age-old questions of theodicy, except that, unlike poets, theologians, and other more reflective thinkers, they believe that posing the questions excuses them from wrestling with possible answers. Indeed, they believe that posing the questions is the answer: There is no God and anyone who thinks there is is dangerously deluded.
These atheists launch an all-out assault on faith, pitting faith against reason and evidence. Yet, as Fish notes, in their claim that "science" will eventually explain reality by their reductionist mode of reason, they typically employ the same vocabulary as believers"hope," "belief," "undoubtedly," "there will come a time." In fact, they are believers who, says Fish, "exemplify the definition of faith found in Hebrews 11, 'the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.'" (The best examination of how science necessarily entails faith is, for my money, Michael Polanyi's Personal Knowledge.)
But then Fish goes off the rails. Is it possible that the claims of the Christians or of the atheists could be falsified? Fish answers: "As it is usually posed, the question imagines disconfirming evidence coming from outside the faith, be it science or religion. But a system of assumptions and protocols (and that is what a faith is) will recognize only evidence internal to its basic presuppositions. Asking that religious faith consider itself falsified by empirical evidence is as foolish as asking that natural selection tremble before the assertion of deity and design. Falsification, if it occurs, always occurs from the inside." The difference between Dawkins and Saint Paul, says Fish, is that they are each enmeshed in different "structures" of reason and faith that "speak to different needs and different purposes."
Not quite. In fact, not at all. The reasons that Christians give for their faith are not an inside job, so to speak. See, for instance, 1 Corinthians 15: "If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain." That is a "structure of reason" shared with Dawkins et al., and indeed with all reasonable people.
Christians can imagine the hypothetical possibility that the remains of the physical body of Jesus of Nazareth will be found buried in the Holy Land and scientifically identified beyond reasonable doubt, with foundation-shaking consequences for Christian faith. That is because Christian faith is informed by and vulnerable to a universal reason that Fish refuses to acknowledge. (Impressive statements of the convincing case for the physical resurrection of Jesus are Wolfhart Pannenberg's JesusGod and Man and, more recently, N.T. Wright's The Resurrection of the Son of God.)
Stanley Fish and I have been around the track on some of these questions before (see our exchange in the February 1996 issue of First Things). His demolition of the constricted form of reason employed by Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens is both scintillating and convincing. His attempted demolition of reason itself is quite another matter.
Presumably, Pope Benedict's motu proprio on the two versions of the Roman Rite of the Mass is on the edge of being released. It will no doubt warrant careful study and, if we then have anything to say about it that might be a contribution to understanding, a comment will appear here in due course. (Due course meaning Monday or Tuesday, maybe.)
A friend tells me that the blogosphere doesn't do nuance. In too many instances, I'm afraid he's right. In last Friday's posting, I respectfully dissented from my friend John Fund's assertion that the presidential candidacy of a Mormon will be a test of whether the country has overcome religious barriers. I described the concerns that many voters have about a Mormon in the White House. That people have such concerns should be obvious. My point was, and is, that at least some of these concerns should not be dismissed as evidence of religious bigotry, and I expressed the hope that Mr. Romney would find a way to address effectively such concerns. Blogging critics to the contrary, in no way did I suggest that his being a Mormon disqualified Mr. Romney as a candidate for the presidency. In fact, I said that he is, in both substance and style, a very attractive candidate. And I underscored that voters will and should make their decision by comparing Mr. Romney with the other candidates and, if he is nominated, with the candidate of the other party. In that case, even those who are concerned about a Mormon as president may well decide that other considerations lead them to support Mr. Romney. That, too, seems to me rather obvious. In sum, I am neither supporting nor opposing the candidacy of Mitt Romney. That applies as well to those opposing him for the nomination. I don't do the endorsement of candidates. I would like to think that this position is not excessively nuanced.