Thursday, 7 April 2011

God of Renewal: The Pope's Conversion

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.


  1. I'm always wary of those who seek to psychoanalyse away one or the other side in a serious debate (and it's nearly always the 'traditionalists' who have psychologically "defective selves" that need to be buttressed) - as though no substantive issues were at stake. It's patronising and insulting, honestly.

  2. The idea was to use psychology along with the spiritual and religious insights that Pope Benedict mentions in Ratzinger's Faith, so that it is not a one-sided argument. Psychological insights are important as they tell us much about the human person, but psychology cannot be divorced from spirituality and theology.
    The article is not meant to be patronising and insulting because it comes from my own experience and is primarily a self-analysis, though I believe it does relate to other people. I am just saying how much this understanding has helped me and I hope it will help others.
    I apologise if it is strong. I understand that there is a healthy traditionalism that values the time honoured teachings of the Church for what they are and does not enforce a kind of moralism, but there is also an unhealthy traditionalism that is described in the article. There are also healthy progressive attitudes, though, as mentioned in the article, there are also unhealthy progressive attitudes that are equally moralistic. However, for myself, I have experienced the former and not the latter in myself, hence why I wrote about it.

  3. There's some interesting points here. I'd say that Latin liturgy can be elitist, but it can also be unifying. It depends on your mindset, to a foreigner the vernacular is alienating, and the Latin may be the only parts with which he can join. However, this isn't a huge concern of mine - my biggest concern is just to make the liturgy reverent and free from improvisation.

    The labelling of "needy identifying with systems" does also appear a little patronising to those who do identify with a system. I believe myself to be stronger and less prone to error when I identify with a system and use it as the informing starting point on matters of contention. When I cut myself free to do whatever is in my heart, it requires a great strength and knowledge of self to just act in the way in which I my desired incline at the time. More often than not this turns out to be the way in which I wish I hadn't and is rarely in hindsight the path which was in accordance with God's will for me.

    Identifying with a system does not preclude a healthy, thoughtful critique of that system where necessary, but where the system is 2000 years of received wisdom of the Church instituted by Christ, I think it is a better starting point than my own initial thoughts, which are as likely to be informed by the slant of the journalist I read in the paper that morning or the pop-pyschology artice I read on the internet. Witness the irreconcilable position of the self-proclaimed anarchists in the recent protests in London who were protesting about stores' failures to pay tax. Without a system your average person just ends up with a series of positions with no anchor.

    Ultimately though I think the danger in believing that you're free of a system is a failure to realised that you're unwittingly enslaved to a system which gives you a false notion of being "free".

    As GK Chesterton said:
    "There are two kinds of people in the world, the conscious dogmatists and the unconscious dogmatists. I have always found myself that the unconscious dogmatists were by far the most dogmatic."

  4. And a caution on attaching too much weight to what a social pyschologist might tell you (you need to take into account their inherent prejudices) . . .

    “Has social psychology become a Tribal Moral Community since the 1960s?” asked social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, pointing out the discrimination against conservatives in his field and in academia in general. “Are we a community that is bound together by liberal values and then blind to any ideas or findings that threaten our sacred values?”

    Social psychologists have “taboos and danger zones,” he told a convention of his peers, drawing on his own observations and some statistical data. Harvard’s president Larry Summers asked why so many more men taught math and science at the nation’s top universities, and instead of reasonably considering his hypothesis that there may be “a sex difference in the standard deviation of IQ scores between men and women,” social psychologists stood by or joined the resulting attack on Summers as a sexist. “If you’re inside the force field, [Summers’ suggestion] is not a permissible hypothesis. It is sacrilege.”

    And there is, Haidt continued, “a statistically impossible lack of diversity” in social psychology. He polled his audience of approximately 1000 social psychologists and found the ratio of liberals to conservatives was approximately 266 to 1. “When we find any job in the nation in which women or minorities are underrepresented by a factor of three or four, we make the strong presumption that this constitutes evidence of discrimination. And if we can’t find evidence of overt discrimination, we presume that there must be a hostile climate that discourages underrepresented groups from entering.”

    Contrasting this to a Gallup data that showed that Americans are about two-to-one conservative, he concluded that “underrepresentation of conservatives in social psychology, by a factor of several hundred, is evidence that we are a tribal moral community that actively discourages conservatives from entering.”


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