The New Yorker spins the pope

The New Yorker was once famous for the ferocity of its fact-checking and editing. No more. Any magazine whose editors give a pass to falsehoods (e.g., Catholics believe that “heaven, and possibly earth, belongs exclusively to them”), grossly tendentious mis-readings of documents (e.g., Vatican II’s Nostra Aetate taught “the dim possibility of Jewish salvation”), and factual errors (e.g., Karol Wojtyla was  “one of the young theological advisers at Vatican II”) is a magazine that is not seriously edited.

Jane Kramer’s lengthy tantrum in the New Yorker’s April 2 issue, “The Pope and Islam,” is really several articles in one. It’s a wailing wall for left-leaning Vaticanisti, disgruntled Curial bureaucrats, and Italian Catholic activists unhappy with Benedict XVI’s challenge to Islam. It’s an effort — rather unsuccessful, I fear — to come to grips with the substance of the Pope’s Regensburg Lecture in September 2006. It’s yet another attempt to drive a wedge between Benedict XVI and John Paul II, along the hoary “nice Wojtyla/nasty Ratzinger” axis of pseudo-analysis. And it’s a brusque dismissal, without serious examination, of Benedict XVI’s suggestion that the first inculturation of Christianity in the world of classical rationality was providential, because it gave early Christians the intellectual tools to turn their evangelical confession of faith (“Jesus is Lord”) into doctrine and creeds, such as the Nicene Creed universally prayed by the Church.

The Wojtyla-vs.-Ratzinger business is easily rebutted. In Crossing the Threshold of Hope, John Paul II stated flatly that “not only the theology but also the anthropology of Islam is very distant from Christianity.” That’s a far more dramatic statement of the gap between Christianity and Islam than anything Benedict XVI said at Regensburg. The “nice Wojtyla/nasty Ratzinger” trope is a cartoon, period. Anyone who hasn’t come to grips with what John Paul II wrote about Islam isn’t in a position to comment seriously on the differences in approach — which certainly exist — between the two popes.

A similar lack of research, or so one assumes, distorts Ms. Kramer’s reading of Benedict’s approach to Islam. Ms. Kramer makes no reference at all to the Pope’s address to the Roman Curia last December, in which he suggested that the interreligious dialogue of the future focus on assisting Muslims who wish to assimilate the best of the Enlightenment (like the institutional separation of religious and political authority) by developing the resources of their own religious tradition. She makes passing reference to the post-Regensburg “Open Letter to Pope Benedict XVI” from thirty-eight senior Muslim leaders, but does not conjure with the fact that this Muslim condemnation of violence in the name of God followed a robust papal challenge, not the platitudes too frequently typical of “interreligious dialogue.”

As for the issues put on the global table at Regensburg, does Ms. Kramer really think it a bad thing to challenge irrational forms of faith that command the murder of innocents in the name of God? Is it wrong to suggest that there is danger in the obverse of irrational faith: that trouble is afoot in the West’s loss of faith in reason, which erodes our capacity to defend the universality of human rights and the superiority of the rule of law over the rule of coercion?

Then there’s Ms. Kramer’s bugbear about reason-and-faith. Classical ideas of reason have a privileged place in Christian theology, not because of xenophobia (“Ratzinger is Eurocentric. To him, Europe means Christianity.”) but because the conviction that human beings can know that some things are true is essential in a Church whose Lord taught that the truth is liberating. Doctrine is not excess baggage on the journey of faith. It’s the vehicle that makes the journey possible.

Finally, Jane Kramer really ought to find herself some new Roman sources. The men she cites remind me of nothing so much as those unfortunate Japanese soldiers found on remote Pacific islands in the 1970s – men who never, somehow, got the word that Emperor Hirohito had packed it in thirty-some years before. One of her-refugees-from-radicalisms-past sighs that Vatican II was “the 1968 of the Catholic Church.” Memo to source: It’s over. Get over it.

COMING UP: On Fathers and Christian Masculinity

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The Year of St. Joseph points us to Jesus’ adoptive father, Joseph, as the essential model for fathers. Joseph not only manifests genuine masculinity, he also images God’s own fatherhood, as Pope Francis makes clear in his apostolic letter, Patris Corde: “In his relationship to Jesus, Joseph was the earthly shadow of the heavenly Father: he watched over him and protected him, never leaving him to go his own way.” Jesus, though the Son of God, obeyed Joseph, learned from him, and worked with him, acknowledging Joseph as a true expression of God’s own fatherhood.  

God does not just use fatherhood as an image of himself, because he himself is Father, even within his own triune life. Earthly fatherhood comes forth from him and should manifest his life and love. St. Paul speaks of honoring the “Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 3:15). God wants everyone to be able to see his own fatherly love and called certain men to share in his own paternal gift of bringing forth life and caring for others. Every father is called to be liked Joseph, “an earthly shadow of the heavenly Father” for his own family. 

Our culture, however, often denigrates masculinity, sometimes viewing even its proper expressions as toxic. We too often see maleness in its fallenness — dominating and selfish — rather than showing self-sacrificial service. In fact, later in Ephesians, Paul speaks of the true vocation of the husband and father: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). He also speaks of the role of fatherhood: “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). Paul shows us the goal of fatherhood — sacrificing himself for the flourishing of the family by putting the good of his wife and children before his own desires.   

No matter what the contrary voices of our culture say, we need strong men and fathers. God created man and woman in complementarity, and they need each other to thrive, helping the other in relation to their own strengths and weaknesses. Children need the strong presence of a father to discipline and teach, as Paul reminds us. Study after study has shown that fathers have the largest impact on the faith of their children. Christian Smith explains in his sociological study, Young Catholic America, that “the faith of Catholic fathers is powerfully determinative of the future faith of their children (125). The same can be said for general wellbeing and success. When fathers are absent or refuse to exercise their role, a moral and spiritual vacuum appears. A strong majority of felons, for instance, grew up without fathers in the home.  

St. Joseph helps us to understand the strength of Christian fatherhood. First, like any good husband, Joseph listened — not just to his wife but also to God. Woken up frequently by angels, he demonstrated obedience and trust, quickly leaving everything behind to follow God’s instructions and to protect his family. We also know Joseph for his work as a carpenter and builder, content to live simply and to work hard. Importantly, he also taught Jesus how to work, showing that fathers model and teach by drawing their children into their life and work. And we can also learn from Joseph’s humility, serving the Incarnate God and his Mother without even a single recorded word in the Gospels.  

This humility points us to the essence of Christian fatherhood. Although living with two perfect people, Joseph was still called to lead. He quietly and humbly did what was needed for his family and taught his own maker how to share in his work. Fathers do not lead in order to be in charge or to get their own way. They lead because God asks them to care for and protect their families. Fathers and mothers share in the great and beautiful partnership of family life, although fathers cannot simply sit back and let mom take the lead in the spiritual life, as they are often tempted to do. Like Joseph, fathers should act firmly and lovingly to put God and the family before self, obeying God and leading the family in the right direction. They are called to model faith, work, and sacrifice to their children. 

On Father’s Day we can affirm that masculinity and fatherhood are not just good — they are essential to understanding God and his plan for human flourishing. If our culture turns around, it will be because, in large part, Christian men stand up and fight. As Christians, we cannot give in to the culture’s attempt to denigrate masculinity and fatherhood or to pit men and women against each other. We can use this celebration to affirm the essential role that our fathers play, leading their families like St. Joseph.