CathBlog - John Paul II's 'progressive' critics

On 15th September CathNews published comments by Michael Walsh, an author and journalist. In the article, Walsh described Pope John Paul II's "innate conservatism".  He used this in the context of the former Pope's stance on abortion, contraception, women's ordination and homosexuality. 

  Walsh is not alone in his criticism of John Paul II's "conservative attitudes".  Hans Kung wrote that John Paul II’s "papacy has repeatedly declared its fidelity to Vatican II, in order to then betray it for reasons of political expediency. Council terms such as modernisation, dialogue, and ecumenicalism have been replaced by emphasis on restoration, mastery, and obedience."   

For people who like to think of themselves as progressive, it is commonplace to believe Pope John Paul II was conservative in his intellectual thought and was somehow hostile to the modern world, wishing to return to pre-Vatican II attitudes.  

Such beliefs are totally outrageous and a great offence against a Vicar of Christ, a most holy man and an intellectual giant. Their attitudes are so obviously and demonstrably false. In fact they show that Kung, Walsh and co are the conservatives, who proclaim modernisation but deliberately obstruct aspects of the modern world that disagree with their pre-conceived ideas.   

Pope John Paul II was an intellectual revolution in the Church. In the first place, he was primarily a philosopher more than a theologian.  Secondly, he was not  only an Aristotelian or Thomistic philosopher.  Pope John Paul II was a phenomenologist. His intellectual lineage included the philosopher Franz Brentano, Max Scheler and, more importantly, the mighty Edmund Husserl. Through Husserl, Pope John Paul II introduced the Vatican to important concepts from the semantic tradition of philosophy.  

It is impossible to exaggerate the significance of this event. Consider this: while Pope John Paul was bringing semantics to Rome, Sir Michael Dummett was doing the same thing to analytic philosophy in the UK and USA. He helped established semantics as the dominant tradition in the English speaking world through his monumental work on Gottlob Frege. This achievement  is considered so important that many analytic philosophers describe their tradition as either pre-Dummett or post-Dummett. In 1995 Dummett received the Schock prize for philosophy, placing him with Quine and Kripke in the Analytic pantheon.  

Yet for the bringing insights from the semantic tradition into the Church in Rome, Pope John Paul II is called "conservative"??   

Pope John Paul II did call for orthodoxy declaring that the Church's dogmatic teaching can express transcendent and perennial truths. He also reaffirmed the continuing validity of St Thomas but he did so, not out of conservatism but from a grasp of modern insights that few of his peers could equal.  

The greatest problem for people like Kung, is that Pope John Paul, like many Catholic thinkers with a semantic background, reasserted that it is possible for Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition to actually express the word of God.    

This is and always has been Catholic tradition but for most post Kantian thinkers such a belief is absurd.  This is one of the founding dogmas of their post Kantian vision. To think God's word could be expressed through human words is the height of silliness. Humans are culturally, historically and psychologically limited, how could humans express the divine word?  

Consider Karl Barth, the great Reformed Theologian who most influenced Hans Kung. Barth thought that Scripture could at best provide a witness to the Divine word, but could never express it (not even with the aid of the Holy Spirit). Barth thought that by using the historico-critical method, Christians need to discover where Scripture is reliable as a witness to the Incarnate Word. Barth thereby demolished the principle of the Authority of Scripture.  It was a natural step for Kung to use this same framework to question Papal Infallibility and attack the Authority of Church.  

For the semanticist, these men, like all post Kantians, are just confused. They assume that the meaning of a word is a purely psychological entity.  They do this because they consistently confuse the content of speech acts with the act of speaking. The idea that meaning has a non-subjective element is beyond their comprehension.  They therefore fail to realize that human speech transcends it's cultural and historical context in many ways each and every time we communicate. This everyday transcendence is a rich ground from which to draw analogies for both Scriptural Inspiration and the expression of the divine word.  

Seen from this perspective the encyclicals Pope John Paul II not only call for theological renewal but also supply the instruments for this renewal.

In Fides et Ratio he wrote "it is possible to move from the historical and contingent circumstances in which the texts developed to the truth which they express".

The clear distinction between the development of the text and what it expresses reveals the intellectual depths of a great Pope.

As for Walsh, Kung and others, accusations of conservatism and political expediency are highly inappropriate. They are simply mechanisms to avoid dealing with the intellectual challenge posed by this extraordinary pontiff.

Simon RowneySimon Rowney is a CathNews reader who blogs from Corrimal, NSW.



Disclaimer: CathBlog is an extension of CathNews story feedback. It is intended to promote discussion and debate among the subscribers to CathNews and the readers of the website. The opinions expressed in CathBlog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the members of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference or of Church Resources.

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