By Alan Jacobs
Jane Kramer and the Feast of St. Martin Elginbrod
Jane Kramer is a highly distinguished journalist, whose writings about Europe have enlivened the pages of America's most distinguished periodicals for many years now. But her recent essay on Pope Benedict in The New Yorker is not a highlight of her career. Few Christians who pay attention to the coverage of religion in the media will find this surprising: the essay is in several ways, most of them discouraging, representative of much current writing about religion in general and Christianity in particular. But it might be worthwhile to explore just why Kramer's essay is so typical.
The provocation for Kramer's interest in Benedict was a now–notorious address the Pope delivered at the University of Regensburg in Germany in September of last year. (Benedict taught theology at Regensburg for several years, starting in 1969.) Because Benedict quoted a critical judgment of Islam by the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus (who ruled from 1391 to 1425) without disputing that judgment, his address became highly controversial and was seen by many—Jane Kramer included—as marking a setback for Muslim–Christian dialogue.
In the course of her article Kramer quotes, by my count, sixteen people critical of Benedict; she quotes only two in direct support of him. (The only quoted statement of another person whom she identifies as "a supporter of Benedict" merely offers a mild criticism of the previous Pope, John Paul II; and Father Federico Lombardi, whom Kramer graciously identifies as "the Vatican's official spinner," is only allowed to say, "I don't know the intentions of the Pope. I do know that his Regensburg speech was directed to the culture of the West; it wasn't given to engage Muslims.") It's clear from the beginning that the essay is not a report so much as an indictment and a warning.
Though Kramer clearly did a great deal of research and investigation in preparing her essay, it remains littered with errors. For instance, she believes that the Church of England is a distinct "religion," apparently like Islam. She thinks that Karl Barth was a "progressive" theologian. She seems utterly unaware that a statement made by Benedict when he was still Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, claiming that the place of non–Catholics in relation to God is "gravely deficient," is not a pugnacious baring of fangs by "God's Rottweiler" but rather elementary and universal Catholic teaching.
But let's try to understand why errors like this arise, why they are so common. Let's do so by looking a little more closely at one of Kramer's most revealing statements. In situating Benedict within the recent history of the papacy—which Kramer, following a line familiar to anyone who knows anything about liberal Catholicism in America, sees as a betrayal of the generous "spirit of Vatican II"—she writes: "Ratzinger and Wojtyla [John Paul II] shared this: an exceptionally narrow view of what constitutes a morally acceptable Christian life. That view is reflected in the daily decisions of bishops who in the past few years have denied the sacraments to pro–choice politicians (St. Louis); refused to allow Muslims to pray at a church that was once a mosque (Córdoba); and denied Catholic burial to an incurably ailing man who, after years of suffering on a respirator, asked to die (Rome)."
One can see how deeply confusing Kramer finds this material simply by attending to her second example: How, exactly, is a dispute over whether Muslims should be allowed to pray in a Christian church related to what constitutes "a morally acceptable Christian life"? Isn't that rather a matter of interfaith relations? But more noteworthy, I think, is the fact that she does not offer any explanation for or defense of her claim that these positions mark "exceptionally narrow" views. These illustrations appear because, for Kramer and for the audience she imagines she's writing for, their aptness is self–evident.
There would, therefore, be no point in suggesting that there might be reasons why a church with a clearly established set of teachings—a church, moreover, which does not force anyone to belong to it—should withhold its most sacred rites from people who explicitly dissent from some of those teachings. There would be no point in suggesting that a church which has consecrated certain places to the worship of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit might have reasons for asking people who hold a very different view of who God is to pray elsewhere. For Jane Kramer, and for many like her, those reasons could not be worthy of exploration—still less of being described in the pages of The New Yorker— because they cannot possibly have any validity whatsoever.