How the Right has Disappointed Michael Sean Winters

Last month Michael Sean Winters wrote a piece entitled Not Eye to Eye: Wholly Different Angles on the World (Washington Post March 30, 2008), playing up the differences between Rome and the United States on everything from the war in Iraq to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to third world debt relief and economic development to the United Nations itself.

To which George Weigel responded: “Michael Sean Winters [wins] the pole position in this year’s chase for the coveted Father Richard McBrien Prize in Really Inept Vaticanology* (National Review March 31, 2008), in which he concluded:

Far from Jeremiah against the Great Satan Bush, Benedict XVI is going to teach the world a lesson about moral reason as the “grammar” by which the world can have a conversation about the world’s future. There are truths built into the world and into us, he will remind Americans and the U.N.; thinking together about those truths is one way to change noise into conversation and incomprehension into dialogue.

Personally, I’m inclined to agree with Weigel: Benedict is simply not coming to the U.S. to give President Bush a whuppin’ over Iraq, much as the thought would make critics like Winters giddy with delight. By the same token, contrary to the speculations of the press he’s not necessarily going to “read the riot act” to Catholic educators, as much as it satisfy those frustrated with seeing their college campus play host to ‘The Vagina Monologues.’

Well, it appears that Michael Sean Winters has resumed his crusade against Catholic conservatives — this time in a piece for Slate.com entitled “God’s Rottweiler” Becomes the Church’s “Beloved German Shepherd”: How Pope Benedict has disappointed the right (April 11, 2008):

When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected Pope Benedict XVI on April 19, 2005, Catholic conservatives in America were licking their chops. “The ‘progressive’ project is over,” Catholic neocon George Weigel triumphantly announced. William Donohue, the eccentric, right-wing president of the Catholic League, said of Catholic liberals, “We expect that the weeping and gnashing of teeth will begin soon.”

Three years later, as American Catholics prepare for the pope’s visit next week, those same conservatives in the United States have been disappointed. They had hoped Benedict would confront liberal tendencies in the church. Some, like Weigel, sought to purge the presbyterate of gays whom they blamed for the sex-abuse scandal. They wanted the ecclesiastical equivalent of court-packing, with the pope appointing only conservatives to major posts. But Benedict has defied them in his appointments, in his views on capitalism and the war in Iraq, and even in his approach to other faiths. “No one would call Benedict the darling of the left, but he has been moderate, pastoral, tolerant, nuanced,” says Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, a theologian and U.S. leader of the Catholic group Communione e Liberazione.

According to Winters, conservative distress began “almost immediately” with Benedict’s naming of Archbishop William Levada to fill his old job as prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (“the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog”), and later with his appointment of Bishop Donald Wuerl as Archbishop of Washington D.C., “a moderate who has opposed turning the communion rail into a political battle station.”

While Fr. Neuhaus did express his reservations about the appointment of William Levada to the CDF, there’s little indication that he is particularly dismayed by his performance at this point. Indeed, in the few years under Levada the Congregation has released some substantial and laudable documents, reasserting the Catholic understanding of the Church and its ecumenical relations in 2007 as well as critiquing politicized “liberation theology” in the form of its cautions regarding the works of Fr. John Sobrino.

In 2006, Weigel praised Weurl’s appointment, describing him as (a man who can make the church’s convictions make sense in terms that non-Catholics — and less-than-fully-on-board Catholics — can understand” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette); more recently, he referred to Wuerl as a “quieter, more restrained personality [and] takes the role of the bishop as chief teacher of the church very seriously” (Washington Post April 2008).

Readers should note that Michael Sean Winters and “Catholic conservatives” have some past history — in April 2006, Winters published a similar rant in The New Republic entitled “Benedict the Ecumenical” (of course implying that conservatives aren’t, at least not in the way that Mr. Winters envisions). Fr. Neuhaus gave a brief response in First Things:

The gist of the now-familiar spin is that Pope Benedict has turned out to be a pussycat, much to the consternation of those of us who wanted him to be the biblical raging lion seeking whom he may devour.

It is all nonsense, of course. But I can see the hoped-for partisan utility of it. Mr. Winters is writing a book on how the Democrats can win back the Catholic vote. Readers may judge the elegance of his reasoning.

and St. Blog’s own Amy Welborn gave a thoughtful rebuttal:

So the point is that a general admiration of and support for a Pope doesn’t preclude questions or even disappointment. Levada was, indeed, a surprise choice, I maintain still, mostly because of his, let us say, low-key theological reputation. There were other theological heavyweights who were at the top of most people’s lists. The Niederauer appointment [as Archbishop of San Francisco] prompted a little more consternation, but I’d say for most, it’s balanced out by some other, quite interesting appointments in the US.

But what I’m saying is that in essence, this is a false conflict. “Conservatives” had a complicated relationship with the previous pope. The general tone and approach of Benedict’s papacy has not really surprised anyone who knows him or his work – read the material from last spring by the likes of Weigel, Neuhaus and Fessio, (and I read a great deal of this and more for a book chapter I wrote) and they all, to a man, said, “This is not going to be the Panzer Pope. Public perception does not match reality.” Most observers from the end of the spectrum that Winter is trying to score points on are delighted by Benedict, his clarity of teaching, his focus on preaching the Gospel, his uncanny understanding of his audiences, and most of his administrative moves.

* * *

Returning to Winters’ current piece, he claims that “Pope Benedict shares virtually none of the core political beliefs of American neocons,” — struggling to bolster his claims with a series of claims he imagines Fr. Neuhaus, George Weigel and Michael Novak ((assuming by “American neocons” Winters is referring to the distinctly religious ones) would find repugnant. The whole attempt is laughable were it not so ridiculous.

Consider the first: “In his book Jesus of Nazareth, he warned against “[a] capitalism that degrades man to the level of merchandise.'”

In the same sentence, Benedict goes on to speak of “the perils of wealth, and we have gained a new appreciation of what Jesus meant when he warned of riches, of the man-destroying divinity Mammon which grips large parts of the world in a cruel stranglehold.”

There is nothing in which a Catholic conservative would disagree with — in fact, as I’ve made the case previously ( Pope Benedict’s Critique of Capitalism Against The Grain September 2007), Ratzinger’s criticisms are reminiscent of Pope John Paul II’s condemnation of neo-liberalism — a system which he described as being rooted in “on a purely economic conception of man” and which “considers profit and the law of the market as its only parameters” (Ecclesia in America). It is this very kind of “capitalism” that is opposed by Novak, Neuhaus and company, who likewise agree that the economic sector should reside “within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality, and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious.”

Likewise, there is nothing particularly objectionable in Benedict’s visit the United Nations (“not the neocons’ favorite organization”) — Winters omits the fact that the Vatican itself has had a somewhat rocky relationship with the United Nations. For example, in as late as 2006, it refused to sign the U.N.’s “Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities” on account that it also affirmed the right to “sexual and reproductive health.” As Archbishop Celestino Migliore wryly noted, “in some countries reproductive health services include abortion, thus denying the inherent right to life of every human being, affirmed by article 10 of the convention.”

Winters writes with the hope that Benedict will use the United Nations as a pulpit to denounce U.S. foreign policy in Iraq. However, while he might indeed include Iraq in a “checklist of Vatican diplomatic concerns”, John Allen Jr. believes that

It will be Benedict’s argument [at the United Nations] that what the world desperately needs today is a global moral consensus – that is, a consensus on fundamental moral truths that are universal and unchanging that can serve as a basis for things like protection of human rights and human dignity. I think his analysis is that in an era in which you have several important players on the world stage – China and Iran come to mind – arguing that the whole concept of human rights is a sort of Western cultural artifact, I think the pope believes that the construction of a kind of moral consensus that we can all agree upon based on truths about human nature and open to the wisdom of spiritual traditions and religious traditions is a critical priority. And I think that probably will be the heart of that speech.

Again, a point on which the so-called “Catholic neocons” and Benedict are in mutual agreement. (See also Russell Shaw’s recent article: Benedict to the UN: In Defense of Natural Law InsideCatholic.com, April 11, 2008).

But there is one claim made by Winters that is particularly disingenuous:

“According to one American present during a spring 2004 Vatican meeting with U.S. bishops, then-Cardinal Ratzinger laughed when he heard of denying politicians communion based on their political views. After all, popes have, over the years, given communion to Communist mayors, gay legislators, and countless pro-choice politicians.

First, anybody who has read Ratzinger’s 2004 letter to Cardinal McCarrick and the USCCB (Worthiness to receive Holy Communion: General Principles”) understands that Pope Benedict takes the unworthy reception of the Eucharist.

Secondly, writing on this very subject last year, John Allen summarized Benedict’s position as follows:

In the abstract, Benedict clearly seems to feel that a Catholic politician who knowingly and consistently supports legislation that expands access to abortion is in violation of church teaching, and thus should not receive communion. Moreover, the pope seems prepared to support bishops who apply this principle to specific cases.

However, Allen adds, it is not clear that Benedict is not ready to “impose this position on bishops convinced of the wisdom of a different pastoral course in other cases” — which is something altogether different than the “wink and a nod” towards self-proclaimed “pro-choice Catholics” that Winters attributes to him here.

In short, we have an article that tells us more about how Michael Sean Winters feels about those dreaded “neocons” than what Pope Benedict actually thinks.

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