Benedict XVI and the dictatorship of knee-jerk punditry
-- Cardinal Ratzinger, in his homily before the first meeting of the papal conclave
In a scene from Kenneth Lonergan's outstanding film, You Can Count on Me, Sammy -- one of the film's protagonists -- has invited the pastor of her church to her house out of concern for her brother, Terry, a sympathetic but screwed-up drifter who appears to be pathologically unable to get his life together. Sammy apparently hopes that "Pastor Ron" will offer some guidance -- even some hope -- to Terry. Here's part of their exchange:
Pastor Ron: Even in this little town, I really feel like what I do is very connected with the real center of people's lives. I'm not saying I'm always Mr. Effective, but I don't feel my life is off to the side of what's important. I don't feel that my happiness and comfort are based on closing my eyes to trouble within myself or trouble in other people. I don't feel like a negligible little scrap, floating around in some kind of empty void with no sense of connectedness to anything around me except by virtue of whatever little philosophies I can scrape together on my own. Can I ask you , Terry, . . . do you think your life is important?
Terry: Do you mean, like, me personally, like, my individual life?
Pastor Ron: Yeah.
Terry: Hmmm, I'm not really sure . . . what do you mean, I mean, it's important to me, I guess, and, like, to my, you know, the people that care about me . . .
Pastor Ron: But do you think it's important? Do you think it's important in the scheme of things? Not just because it's yours or because you're somebody's brother . . . because I really don't get the impression that you do.
Terry: I don't particularly think that anybody's life has any particular importance besides whatever, you know, like, whatever we arbitrarily give it . . . which is fine, I mean, you know, we might as well. I mean, I think my life is important as anyone else's. I don't know . . . a lot of what you say has real appeal to me . . . you know, the stuff they told us when we were kids. But, you know, I don't wanna believe in something or not believe in it because I might feel bad. I wanna believe in it or not believe in it because I think it's true or not. Yeah, I mean, I . . . I wanna believe that my life is important, that it's connected to something important.
Pastor Ron: Well, isn't there any way for you to believe that without calling it God or religion or whatever term it is that you object to?
Terry eventually shrugs, and says, "Yeah, I believe that," though I think it's clear that it's more something he desperately wants to believe than something he really does believe. What the film leaves open, however, or at least asks the viewer to consider, is the possibility that the answer to Pastor Ron's final question is always no -- that without God or religion, the meaning of any individual life is always arbitrary and contingent. It also leaves open the possibility that such arbitrariness and contingency is the true thing to which Terry refers when he says he wants to believe in something "because it's true."
This film doesn't answer any questions, but it asks some important ones. It doesn't offer the kind of relativism-sans-the-abyss that idiots like Margaret Carlson seem to embrace in their rush to declare the new pope an arrogant bully. Carlson translates Cardinal Ratzinger's concern with "the dictatorship of relativism" as, roughly, "don't worry, boys (wink, wink) -- we'll maintain our centuries-old sexist hegemony if it's the last thing we do." Carlson may be an idiot, but she is, of course, free to think and say whatever she wants about the new pope and the Catholic Church. She is free to concentrate on the "social issues" while whistling past the philosophical and theological ones.
Here's Cardinal Ratzinger again (from the same homily quoted above):
"We have received the faith to give it to others - we are priests meant to serve others. And we must bring a fruit that will remain. All people want to leave a mark which lasts. But what remains? Money does not. Buildings do not, nor books. After a certain amount of time, whether long or short, all these things disappear. The only thing which remains forever is the human soul, the human person created by God for eternity. The fruit which remains then is that which we have sowed in human souls - love, knowledge, a gesture capable of touching the heart, words which open the soul to joy in the Lord. Let us then go to the Lord and pray to him, so that he may help us bear fruit which remains. Only in this way will the earth be changed from a valley of tears to a garden of God."
Cardinal Ratzinger is asking Carlson -- he's asking all of us -- "do you think your life is important?" Carlson's answer seems to be, "Never mind about that. What about women priests?" That's why she's one of the semi-nameless rabble of knee-jerk punditry, and he's the head of the Roman Catholic Church.