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Values in a Time of Upheaval

Values in a Time of Upheaval

Although Pope Benedict does not quite tell us what “upheaval” he is referring to in the title of his new book, it soon become clear that he observes the present condition of mankind as a whole and Europe in particular with a degree of pessimism unexpected from a Christian prelate. After all, Christianity is known as the “faith of hope.”

The first cause of the Pope’s pessimism is the domination of the world by what he calls “the three mythical values of today”. These are progress, science and freedom.

The trouble is that the Pope dopes not spell out what he means by any of those terms. For example, does he mean to say that the recent unprecedented progress in medical sciences represent a threat to mankind? Should we steer away form a science that has helped us uncover more and more of the mysteries of nature and mobilize its resources for improving our lives? And, last but not least, in what way can freedom be regarded as a “mythical value”? By coincidence, the Pope’s book has been published at a time that the world prepares to mark the centenary of the ablution of slavery, an evil that Christianity, along with other faiths, never even questioned. For those released from the shackles, freedom was real, not mythical.

The second cause of the Pope’s apparent pessimism is the demographic decline of Europe. The Pope’s europhilia, not to say eurocentrism, is at times to passionate that one wonders whether he regards Christianity as little more than an ingredient in a more complex ideological mix in which the Hellenic heritage and medieval scholasticism are also present.

In this book, the Pope is so focused on Europe, which he believes is about to be lost to outsides, notably Muslim immigrants, that one wonders whether he has forgotten that more than half of his Catholic flock live on other continents. At one pint ( page 41, last paragraph), the Pope speaks of the ” actual non-universality” of the Christian faith.

Even then, the Pope’s lamentations about the decline of Europe, echoing those of his fellow-German Oswald Spengler more than a century ago, may well be misplaced.

If we consider Europe not in ethnic terms, a method that is always dicey, but as a model of civilization, it is clear that the world as we know it now is a European production. As the British historian Arnold Toynbee forecast many decades ago, the European model of nation-state has now been adopted by all peoples all over the world. The Japanese, the Chinese, the Indians, the Persians and the Arabs now write European-style novels and poetry, produce European-style paintings, make Western-style films and television programmes, publish European-style books and newspapers, and largely dance to the same European-style music. Most of them also wear European-style clothes and aspire after the very European values that the Pope dismisses as “myths”, that is to say: progress, science and freedom.

Today, all nations, including the so-called “Islamic Republics” in Pakistan, Iran and the Sudan, have legal systems that are basically European in origin. And all nations are signatories of more than 22,000 international charters, treaties, protocols and accords that have been written by Europeans on the basis of European values and traditions.

In some cases, native cuisines have avoided full Europeanisation, although “balti” the most popular dish in India today was invented in Yorkshire and “chop-suey”, the best-known Chinese meal has an American recipe dating back to the 1920s.

Some European ethnicities, notably Germans, Italians and Spaniards, may be facing eventual extinction because they do not produce enough babies. But this does not mea that Europe as such is dying. Even in the worst-case scenario, envisaged for Germany, Italy and Spain, no one can seriously suggest that those countries will become uninhabited deserts. If the present inhabitants do not produce the babies needed, new immigrants would be on hand to correct the demographic imbalance. One example of this came in Spain last year when the government regularised illegal immigrants, thus producing one million new Spaniards overnight.

Benedict admits that “Europe needs a blood transfusion” but is clearly uneasy at the thought that the fresh blood that it needs may come from Arabs, Africans and Turks, not mention the Chinese. His unease is not motivated by racial considerations , however. It stems from his belief that non-European ethnic groups are somehow immune to European values and traditions, especially now that Islam, African tribal cultures, and Asian traditions are beginning to affirm themselves.

The third cause of the Pope’s pessimism is what he regards as a deification of democracy. He writes: ” A majority {in a democracy} is a kind of divinity against which there is no appeal.”

But is that so? Anyone familiar with recent European political history would know that the answer is : no. Changes of majority, and hence of governments, have been regularly features of life in all European democracies since the Second World War. In France, for example, not a single majority has been re-elected on two consequent occasions.

The Pope is right in reminding us of Aristotle’s great lesson that every system is corrupted by exaggerating is basic principle. Thus, democracy can be corrupted by too much freedom. Nevertheless, democracy has more self-correcting mechanisms than a religious system. The reason is that democracy can undo a mistake in the next election whereas established religion needs centuries to admit that it had even made a mistake. The reader of the Pope’s book would be glad to see that Benedict XVI quotes Origen, the great theologian of early Christianity ( a native of what is now Algeria). The reason is that Origen was excommunicated by the church and remained branded as a “heretic” until the Vatican corrected the mistake in the 1960s. It is also refreshing to see the Pope quote Hans Kung on numerous occasion, indicating that theologians return to pontifical grace after years of risking ostracisation if not actual excommunication. More surprisingly, Benedict comes close to endorsing kung’s ” A Project for a World Ethos”.

Nevertheless, Benedict is not prepared to correct the mistake of having had Giordano Bruno burned alive on the orders of the Inquisition in 1601, by rehabilitating the great philosopher.

Not surprisingly, the Pope’s favourite theologian turns out to be the sin-obsessed and pathologically pessimistic Saint Augustine. It is also not surprising, that the Pope goes to Plato to find his ideal model of government. He quotes Plato’s celebrated claim that only those who know and have experienced the good themselves are capable of ruling well.

Benedict is not the first to be seduced by Plato’s totalitarian world vision. The papacy has used it for centuries as the backbone of its theory of pontifical infallibility. The same concept is at the heart of Khomeinism, the ideology now controlling Iran and based on the claim that only a “learned and pious” mullah can assume the “divine task” of ruling men on earth. (Needless to say, most Muslims, including a majority o Shi’ites, regard Khomeinism as a beda’a or false innovation.)

Acknowledging the impossibility of a system of government based on Platonic principles, the Pope concedes that the church must not become a state, as it was for centuries and still is, at least as far as the Vatican is concerned. But then he adds that the church must be “in the service of the state”. Does he mean any state, including the Apartheid state that was backed by the South African Dutch Reformed Church? Why give the state a blank cheque? Didn’t Jesus himself proclaim a distinction between what is due to Caesar and what is due to God?

In all his reflections, Benedict is clearly haunted by a spectre that he thinks is haunting Europe, the spectre of Islam. It is clear that the Pope knows next to nothing about Islam, a lacuna surprising for one of contemporary Christianity’s best theologians. Not surprisingly, the only Muslim he names on several occasions is Osama bin Laden who, although certainly born a Muslim, can hardly be regarded as a representative scholar of the faith.

Since the book came out late last year, the Pope has visited Turkey and talked to the Turkish leaders. There are reports that he may have modified his fierce opposition to Turkey’s admission into the European Union. In this book, however, he advocates for shutting the door to Turkey on the grounds that it has ” never been part of Europe. ” This is strange, if only because the Ottoman Empire, of which Turkey is the successor, was Europe’s principal power for centuries. In the 19th century, the empire was dubbed by Western powers as “the sick man of Europe”, indicating that even its enemies recognised it as part of the broader European polity.

All in all this is a fascinating book and a joy to read for all those interested in a frank debate among the world’s many religions. Benedict’s merit is that, unlike some of his recent predecessors, he speaks his mind frankly, giving more value to his position as a theologian than to his status as head of the Vatican state.

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

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