Thanks for Nothing

This just in: unbaptized infants have been saved from an eternity in limbo. We have Pope Benedict XVI and the Roman Catholic hierarchy to thank for this good news. In a report released on Friday, April 20th (coincidentally only 2 days after the Gonzales v. Carhart 5-4 decision from the U.S. Supreme Court that upheld the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act -- the one protecting the eternal fate of the unbaptized and the other the rights of the unborn), it was announced that parents who might have had a baby who died before being baptized are now entitled to "prayerful hope." In the news report about this story from the Associated Press, Nicole Winfield tells us that Catholic theologians are telling us that this decision is "highly significant" because of "what it says about Benedict's willingness to buck a long-standing tenet of Catholic belief" (See the story here).

Indeed Benedict, who before he became the pope was known as an arch-conservative and the enforcer of Catholic orthodoxy, is showing yet again that he is as astute as a politician as he is precise as a theologian, for with his conservative bona fides long since established, he is now able to wrap himself in the cloak of a certain kind of compassionate conservatism. And like that other famous conservative who champions his own compassion, this too is a conservatism that ironically masks a radical agenda.

For instance, many have observed that Benedict has effectively written off the European and American church where the "dictatorship of relativism" is most pronounced, allowing it to wither away on the vine with the hope that a new remnant of the pure and stalwart might take its place. Dan Brown styled conspiracy theories notwithstanding, this is an invitation to Opus Dei and other likeminded groups to claim the future of the Roman Catholic Church.

Further, by extending his and the church's compassion to the unbaptized, while this might be welcome relief to those who are grieving an incalculable loss, it is also a calculated claim for jurisdiction, and not just pastorally, but morally and politically as well. After all, who speaks for the unbaptized? If we are truly waiting on Benedict to warrant our hope in the face of tragic loss, then our dependency on the church as our moral arbiter is all but assured.

Finally, as indicated above, the document states "these are reasons for prayerful hope, rather than grounds for sure knowledge." This distinction between hope and knowledge is an interesting one considering its source. That is because in his inaugural sermon as pope, Benedict famously rallied the church against what he deemed were the evils of relativism (along with liberalism and socialism). The alternative to this relativism, which seems to be the guiding conviction of Benedict's theology, is that the church provides moral certainty and is a bulwark for truth in an age that has become increasingly secular and skeptical.

As benign and necessary as this might sound, the trouble is that it betrays a gross nostalgia for a past age in which the Roman Catholic Church had a monopoly on religious truth, education, and culture. At least since the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, if not long before (consider the split between the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians in the 11th century, or before that the great diversity of the early Christian community during the first three centuries of the Christian era as so powerfully chronicled by Elaine Pagels in such best-selling books as Beyond Belief), the truth of our history is that the church is not, nor has it ever been, uniform, but diverse, that its teachings were not eternal, but time and culture specific, and that its leaders were not infallible, but ordinary men caught in the treacherous no-man's land where religion and politics meet. I believe religion functions best when it is honest about this all-too-human condition.

Thus, while this particular decision might be applauded for its compassion and its reserve, it is what it holds in reserve that is so worrisome - namely, that in certain other instances, the pope may still provide sure and certain knowledge when it comes to religious belief. This offends not only because of its stubborn pretense of absolute and infallible authority, but also because it is theologically and philosophically so simplistic. Any student of the philosophy of religion knows the distinction between faith and knowledge, and to confuse one with the other sets one along a slippery path towards fundamentalism and the exclusionary logic with which it is so often associated.

So while I applaud this report for its common sense pastoral care, it is just that - a matter of common sense. After all, who in their right mind would disagree and make the counter-argument that an infant would be kept out of the gates of heaven for all eternity because of the neglect of his or her parents?

In the end, the rebel in me wants to say that I do not need Benedict's or anyone else's permission to hope. The philosopher in me tells me that anyone that promises you the possibility of sure and certain knowledge is a charlatan who has forgotten the whole history of modern epistemology. And the theologian in me tells me to remember the mystery of God's love and to be skeptical of those more interested in God's power.