Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Pope Benedict and Public Display of Crucifixes

Corriere della Sera, a main stream italian newspaper, published an intervention of Ratzinger on the public place of religion. Here's the text with my comments in italics:

The Pope: ”Don’t remove the crucifix from schools and offices.”Benedict XVI: “It is important that God be present in public life, through the sign of the cross, in homes and public buildings.”

On the eve of the opening of World Youth Day in Cologne, the pope has asked for crucifixes not to be removed from public places. “It is important that God be present in public life, through the sign of the cross, in homes and public buildings,” said Benedict XVI during his homily for the mass of the Feast of the Assumption celebrated in Castelgandolfo, the pope’s summer residence.

It is puzzling that Ratzinger says that 'God should be present', and not 'Christians (Catholic) symbols should be present in public life'. After all, the controversy in Italy sprang up when muslims claimed to be offended by the presence of christian crosses in classrooms (see below).

The subject had already caused controversy in Italy when leading Muslims requested that the crucifix be removed from classrooms. And last year the affair finished in the courts. The pope insists: the symbol has to stay, in schools and all public buildings.

The mere fact that the Pope insists for his symbol to stay should be a ground for getting rid of it. It is not clear at all to me with which authority he claims this. Moreover, the reasons he gives are quite loose. Let's examine them.

The pope’s call is based on his reflection that “where God disappears from public life, man does not become greater but rather loses in dignity, becoming the product of blind evolution and for this reason may be used and abused".

The central concept in Ratzinger's mind is dignity. So, now it seems that if men believes in evolution, progress, the force of reason, they are bound to be fooled and to fool themselves. To the contrary, following Ratzinger, if they hold on to a strong metaphysical belief in the existence of a supranatural entity, then everything is fine. And the more they believe in this metaphysical entity, the better they are likely to be. Hmmm, this sounds like a 'brilliant' piece of propaganda.. Coca Cola could say pretty much the same: 'if you don't drink it, you'll be damned. The more you drink it, the better you'll feel.

"The modern age", the pope observed, “has believed that in setting aside God and following only our own ideas and will we would become totally free, but this has not happened. Only if God is great can man be great.”

You see there is a non-sequitur in the previous argument. One may well agree that the mere belief in evolution and progress does not carry very far, and, more importantly, doen not necessarily increment the overall level of human liberty. Why should it? But from there it does not follow that human beings should ground their hope for liberty in the belief of a great God. Religion can be a part of everyone's life, but it does not guarantee the goodness of a man, or one's moral achievement. Many other efforts are necessary to do so.

That is why the presence of the Christian symbol remains important. “We must apply all of this,” concluded the pope, “to our everyday lives. It is important that God be visible in private homes and public places, that God be present in public life, through the sign of the cross, in public places,” because if God is absent, “differences become irreconcilable”.

I would tend to say the opposite: If symbols of only one confession, as opposed to many others, are present, then differences become irreconcilable. In a pluralist society, this seems to me to be plain.


Anonymous said...

Here are some thoughts of the previous Pope, illustrating that it must be a superior intellect and philosophical ability that elevates one to papal authority:

"IF MAN can decide by himself, without God, what is good and what is bad, he can also determine that a group of people is to be eliminated. Decisions of this kind were taken, for example by those who came to power in the Third Reich by democratic means, and then used their power to implement the wicked programmes of National Socialist ideology based on racist principles.

Similar decisions were also taken by the Commmunist Party in the Soviet Union and the countries subject to Marxist ideology. This was the context for the exterminations of the Jews, and also of other groups, for example Romany peoples, Ukrainian peasants, Orthodox and Catholic clergy in Russia, in Byeloruss and beyond the Urals.

At this point we cannot remain silent regarding a tragic question that is more pressing today than ever.

The fall of the regimes built on “ideologies of evil” put an end to the forms of extermination just mentioned in the countries concerned. However, there remains the legal extermination of human beings conceived but unborn. And in this case, that extermination is decreed by democratically elected parliaments, which invoke the notion of civil progress for society and all humanity.

Nor are other grave violations of God’s law lacking. I am thinking, for example, of the strong pressure from the European Parliament to recognise homosexual unions as an alternative type of family, with the right to adopt children. It is legitimate and even necessary to ask whether this is not the work of another “ideology of evil” — more subtle and hidden, perhaps, intent on exploiting human rights themselves against man and against the family."

Of course if a rational argument was all that was needed to convince others to change their attitudes and beliefs, then there would be no need at all for emotional appeals like the above. However, religion naturally gravitates towards the irrational argument. This is unsurprising as religion requires a leap of faith- if rational proof existed that any religion was indeed “correct”, then undoubtedly most of us would be converted- just as most of us acknowledge that the world is not flat. But for religion, a leap of faith is the proverbial eye of the needle- reason and logic are relegated to the realm of the disbelievers. The psychological “us” and “them” distinction is, unfortunately, used by religious leaders relentlessly, and surely we can all appreciate that this is hardly conducive to progress.

In contrast, here are some interesting and relevant thoughts of Julian Baggini:

"The idea that moral laws derive their authority from God's authorship of them was dismissed convincingly by Plato more than two millennia ago. His question, updated for our monotheistic times, is: does God command what is good because it is good; or is what God commands good because he commands it? If he commands what is good because it is good, then things are already good or bad irrespective of what he desires and we don't need God to establish morality after all. But if what God commands is good only because God commands it, that would mean that anything could be good or bad, and we're just lucky that God doesn't command us to kill and torture. Ironically, start with the idea that you need God for ethics and you end up either proving you don't, or with the ultimate form of relativism: the idea that God could make it so that "anything goes"."

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