Op-Ed ContributorIn one of my favorite movies, Silverado, John Cleese plays a sheriff whose posse runs up against Danny Glover, a cowboy with mad skills with his rifle.
In Praise of Folly
By JOHN BERWICK
Published: April 27, 2009 BERLIN — The Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi has good reason to feel nervous. On May 8, Pope Benedict XVI begins an eight-day visit to the Middle East. The pope doesn’t think much of spin doctors. But when he makes waves, it’s his director of communications who has to bail water out of the boat.
The pope has already caused Father Lombardi a number of headaches. In a press conference on the papal flight to Brazil last May, Benedict appeared to suggest that legislators who support laws allowing abortions should be excommunicated. That sparked a torrid debate in the world’s largest Roman Catholic country. The furor overshadowed the whole trip.
Not surprisingly, when the pope flew to Africa in March, Father Lombardi said firmly: No in-flight press conference. But en route to Cameroon, the pope told journalists that the distribution of condoms was contributing to the AIDS pandemic. International health organizations were enraged.
Benedict XVI made his first major blooper in September 2006, one day after the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The former theology professor speculated that there might be a correlation between the subordinate role of reason in Islam and the violence committed in its name. His comments were intended as an invitation to inter-religious dialogue, based not on the feel-good approach of his predecessor John Paul II but on frank discussion of the differences between Islam and Christianity.
Perhaps nobody was more surprised and shocked than he when radical Muslims in the West Bank responded by burning down Catholic churches.
But that wasn’t the end of the story. An international group of 138 Islamic scholars wrote to the Vatican, requesting an opportunity to make their case. The pope met them and apologized for hurting Muslim sensibilities. Two years later an unprecedented Catholic-Muslim summit was held at the Vatican. It resulted in the creation of a permanent interfaith forum.
The work of this group, which includes scholars and leaders representing every Muslim country and every major school of Islam, has hardly been noticed by the media. And that’s probably a good thing. The discussions are delicate, and any progress will likely be incremental. But its mere existence is a sensation. This is the first time in their thousand years of coexistence that the world’s two largest monotheistic faiths, represented by high-ranking scholars, are discussing their differences in a spirit of mutual respect and genuine inquiry. And without Benedict XVI’s disparaging remarks in Regensberg, foolish by any standards of diplomacy, it wouldn’t have happened.
The pope’s second monumental blooper was lifting the excommunication in January of four ultra-conservative Catholic bishops, including that of Richard Williamson, who had denied the Holocaust. Jewish groups reacted with fury; many Catholics, with incredulity. In an unprecedented move, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany publicly asked the pope for “clarification” of his actions. Once again, Father Lombardi was bailing water for all he was worth.
The Vatican spokesman explained that the bishops had not been “fully reinstated,” that the lifting of excommunication was simply “a gesture of compassion,” an invitation to dialogue. Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, chairman of the German Catholic Bishops Conference, added that it was Benedict’s “nightmare” that the ultra-conservatives might take the final step and break with the Church during his pontificate.
There are no grounds for supposing that this pope will have any truck with anti-Semitism. He has actively promoted Catholic-Jewish relations for decades and publicly said there can be no place for anti-Semitism in the Church.
Nevertheless, his obsessive desire to preserve Church unity in this case was foolish — as foolish, in fact, as that shepherd in the Parable of the Lost Sheep, who left 99 of his flock to go in search of the one that had strayed. Incidentally, as the great 16th century Catholic Humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam pointed out, the Gospels are full of such foolishness.
At present it looks as though the pope’s “compassionate gesture” will not bear the desired fruit. But, paradoxically, it has focused attention on Nostra Aetate, a decree of the Second Vatican Council, which marked a new beginning in Catholic-Jewish relations in the mid-20th century. It teaches that Judaism has not been replaced by Christianity; God’s covenant with the Jewish people is eternal. And therefore Judaism has a special place alongside Christianity.
Some conservative elements within the Church have disputed that Nostra Aetate is binding because it is “merely” a decree, not a constitution or a declaration. That sophism is now exposed. And without Benedict XVI’s foolish gesture of goodwill toward Bishop Williamson, it might never have been.
Perhaps we should be less worried about the pope’s bloopers than the arbiters of political correctness would have us be. In his classic Praise of Folly, Erasmus concluded: “All men are fools, even the pious ones. Christ himself, though he was the wisdom of the Father, took on the foolishness of humanity in order to redeem sinners. Nor did he choose to redeem them in any other way but through the folly of the cross and through ignorant, sottish disciples.”
There’s no accounting for folly, except to recognize that it’s perhaps the most endearing and creative human quality. And in the long run, it can be a lot more productive than prudent diplomacy.
After the law men are relieved of their hats and such, with lapidarian precision, despite the protests of a slack-jawed deputy that "he ain't hit nothin' yet," Cleese chooses the better part of valor.
Sometimes my irony meter doesn't work. Is this editorialist playing John Cleese, or the deputy?