by Morris West
General confusion exploded in the Catholic blogosphere at Pope Benedict's comments which might be summarised as "It is better for a male prostitute to use condoms". Some saw it as a kind of conversion towards a more humane way at looking at morality, while others felt it was a continuation of the moral reasoning always evident in Ratzinger. Some felt betrayed and disappointed by the man they proudly monikered "the Church's Rottweiler". Has our pope gone soft?
Morris West's Lazarus conceives the fictional conversion of a traditionalist pope after he undergoes bypass surgery to heal his blocked arteries. Hardliner Leo XIV, coming face to face with the anxiety of death, begins to see life with new eyes and is converted from a strict moralism to a practicing heart of compassion and love. The iron hand softens as he is able to sympathise with the suffering of real people through his own pain and weakness. However, along side this internal drama, an Islamic extremist group may be planning the assassination of the beleaguered pope. Part thriller, part psychological study, West reveals the human heart behind the cold monolith of the Vatican.
I was surprisingly bowled over by what could have been merely a fun political-thriller holiday read. You see I myself had undergone a similar conversion only a few years previously. As a teenager, I was a staunch conservative, blindly agreeing with what I believe was the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church (I was obsessed by the reassuringly elitist Latin liturgy for example). However, when I moved to Britain for university, I noticed that the world was not so simple as it seemed. Good and bad became much harder to discern because it required a real exercise of my heart. People I had been told were bad seemed pretty great when I actually met them. Again the interaction with people forced me out of an overly systematic moral world view that had given my life meaning. Gradually, I found new meaning through love.
I, in my former life, like Leo XIV, was a religious person driven by the need for a stable identity in an unstable world. As the psychologist Stephen Johnson notes, "One can often observe this phenomenon in adolescents or other immature individuals who embrace a whole religious, philosophical, or political cult without developing a very complete understanding of the underlying belief structure. Such action is taken in the absence of a well-developed self, and the incorporative introjection shores up a defective self." When our senses of self develop by the healthy experience of mature relationships, then we can leave behind this needy identifying with systems, something Jesus preached against in the attitudes of the Pharisees.
Now I do not mean to project my issues onto the world of life, but my experience of some traditionalists (as I was, and still am to a certain extent) is that they may tend to have the personality type described by Dr. Johnson. However, this engulfment is not limited to the conservatives; the same engulfment in a philosophical cult can be as apparent in liberal people, as for example, those who uncritically adopt feminist or black or gay liberation belief systems. Whether or not this applies to the Holy Father I cannot say, I am not privy to the Supreme Pontiffs personal development history, but my initial feeling is that he is considerably original and well-informed for him not to be overly incorporately introjected. His comments on the "pelagianism of the pious" exhibit that he is well aware of Dr. Johnson's analysis. I will end this article by quoting Pope Benedict from the book Ratzinger's Faith:
They [pious Pelagians] want security, not hope. By means of a tough and rigorous system of religious practices, by means of prayers and actions, they want to create for themselves a right to blessedness. What they lack is the humility essential to any love — the humility to be able to receive what we are given over and above what we have deserved and achieved. The denial of hope in favor of security that we are faced with here rests on the inability to bear the tension of waiting for what is to come and to abandon oneself to God’s goodness.
This is true perfection: not to avoid a wicked life because like slaves we servilely fear punishment; nor to do good because we hope for rewards. . . On the contrary, disregarding all those things for which we hope and which have been reserved by promise, we regard falling from God’s friendship as the only thing dreadful and we consider becoming God’s friend the only thing worthy of honour and desire.
Read it if: you want a conversion, or want a political thriller-style novel with a bit of spirituality.