The Wall and the Desert
[Reihan] Speaking of Jane Kramer, I was a little disappointed by her take on Pope Benedict XVI from a few weeks ago. Mainly I was disappointed because of this brief aside.
It is well known that Benedict wants to transform the Church of Rome, which is not to say that he wants to make it more responsive to the realities of modern life as it is lived by Catholic women in the West, or by Catholic homosexuals, or even by the millions of desperately poor Catholic families in the Third World who are still waiting for some merciful dispensation on the use of contraception.
I actually think -- and I'm no expert on the Catholic Church, so do take my words with a grain of salt -- that this is almost the opposite of the truth. Recently, Civitas, a British think tank, released On Fraternity, an extraordinary pamphlet by Danny Kruger, a close advisor to British Conservative leader David Cameron. I really wish I could link to the complete text, but I'm afraid I'll have to settle for this much-abridged version that appeared in Prospect late last year. Kruger opens his pamphlet with a brief discussion of Benedict XVI, and the kind of conservatism he represents.
John Paul's main political concern in the 1980s, the time of his vigour, was with the wall which passed through Berlin and divided the free west of Europe from the communist east. His wish was to dismantle the dominating structures of communism, liberating individuals and nations from state oppression. His object was freedom. Twenty years on, Benedict sees a different problem: not a wall, but a desert. His concern is with the arid emptiness in Western culture, an emptiness which extends from private loneliness all the way to environmental desolation. 'The external deserts are growing', he said in his first papal pronouncement, 'because the internal deserts have become so vast. His object is fraternity.
Kruger goes on to offer a brilliant and incisive interpretation of the twin failures of Conservatism and Socialism to reckon with and reverse the "social desertification" of British life, and he offers a tentative way forward. It's the kind of argument that would drive a lot of American conservatives up the wall, I'm afraid, and it is very, very smart. Anyway, by taking on this social desertification, it seems to me (I like to think of myself as a Humanistic Muslim, though I suspect the mullahs would disapprove) that Benedict is indeed making the Catholic Church "more responsive to the realities of modern life, even if it's not in quite the ways Kramer would like.