The McBrien Prize… And The Winner Is…

By combining low-grade sourcing, a faux-authoritative voice, and leftist political spin in equally impressive measures, Michael Sean Winters and the editors of the Washington Post’s “Outlook” section have won the pole position in this year’s chase for the coveted Father Richard McBrien Prize in Really Inept Vaticanology (named for the Notre Dame theologian who memorably announced that Joseph Ratzinger couldn’t possibly be elected pope, less than 24 hours before Ratzinger was elected).

In “Not Eye to Eye: Wholly Different Angles on the World,” a front-page “Outlook” piece on March 30, Winters claimed that, during his forthcoming visit to the United States, Pope Benedict XVI will “show how much his worldview differs from President Bush’s when he denounces the continuing U.S. occupation of Iraq before the U.N. General Assembly — a denunciation that’s expected to be especially harsh after the recent martyrdom of a Chaldean Catholic archbishop killed by insurgents in Mosul.” In that one sentence, Winters managed to commit several of the capital sins of Vaticanology: He confused the views of low-ranking bureaucrats with the thinking of senior Vatican officials, the pope’s own thinking, and the official position of the Holy See; he assumed that the pope comes into international forums like the U.N. as a policy proponent rather than as a voice of moral reason; and, perhaps worst of all, he somehow imagined the Benedict XVI would cheapen the sacrifice of the slain Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho by using the Chaldean prelate’s death as a way to score a political point.

In my own conversations with senior Vatican officials over the past 18 months, I have been struck by the fact that the debates of 2002-2003 are over. That there was serious disagreement between the U.S. government and the Holy See prior to the invasion of Iraq is, and was, obvious. Today, however, the page has been turned, and despite what Winters’s Vatican leakers may be telling him, the people who make the decisions tell me, as they have told the Bush administration, that a precipitous U.S. withdrawal from Iraq would be a disaster for both Iraq and the entire Middle East.

Pope Benedict will likely urge President Bush to demand that the Iraqi government be more assertive in defending the Christian minority population of Iraq; but that means more and stronger American involvement in the evolving politics of Iraq, not the end of an “occupation.” As for a papal “denunciation” at the U.N., Winters and his friends among Catholic Democrats are likely to be disappointed; Benedict XVI is far too shrewd to give fall campaign sound-bites to Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton (either of whose victory in November would cause nightmares for the Holy See at the U.N. and other international agencies).

Moreover, the pope is coming to the U.N., not to give a pontifically guided tour of the world scene, praising this and lamenting that. In this 60th anniversary year of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, he is far more likely to challenge the world body to take more seriously the moral truths that undergird the human dignity the U.N. was founded to defend — moral truths that can be known by reason.

Winters also argues that the Vatican’s “foreign policy” apparatus thinks rather like the Eurocrats in like Brussels. There is a truth here, but Winters misses it, badly. Yes, the default positions in the Second Section of the Holy See’s Secretariat of State (usually referred to as “the Vatican’s foreign ministry”) tend to reflect the default positions in chancelleries and foreign ministries in western Europe. But to conclude from this that those defaults are shared by Benedict XVI and his most senior advisers on world politics is to make a very serious mistake. If the permanent bureaucracy in the Vatican Secretariat of State had had anything to say about it, Benedict XVI would never have given his historic Regensburg Lecture on faith and reason in September 2006 — the lecture that caused a firestorm of protest in parts of the Islamic world.

Eighteen months later, however, Benedict has been thoroughly vindicated in his challenge to Islam to think seriously about religious freedom and the separation of spiritual and political authority in the state. For the Regensburg Lecture, as intended, dramatically reshaped the Catholic-Islamic conversation, focusing it on the issues where Islamist aggression makes pluralism and peace difficult, rather on the exchange of banalities that too often characterizes interreligious dialogue. The new Catholic-Muslim Forum that was established following last year’s “Letter of 138” Muslim leaders (itself a response to Regensburg) is one example; negotiations with the government of Saudi Arabia on the construction of a Catholic Church in the kingdom are another; King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia’s call for a new dialogue among the monotheistic religions is yet another. None of this would have happened had Benedict XVI deferred to those of his diplomats who “think Brussels.”

Nor would a pope who thought in Eurocrat terms about world politics have appointed as his “foreign minister” Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, a man who combines extensive experience of Islamist aggression (he was formerly papal nuncio in Khartoum) with a fondness for the United States and a clear-eyed view of the weaknesses and corruptions of the present U.N. (where he served for three years). Furthermore, Benedict XVI and Archbishop Mamberti are both fully aware that the “dictatorship of relativism” of which then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger warned just prior to his election as pope is not only being imposed across Europe by radically secularist governments like the Zapatero regime in Spain; it is also being imposed by the E.U. bureaucracy, the European Parliament, the European Commission, and the European human rights courts. Rather than the pope and Mamberti being driven by the “Brussels-think” in the permanent Vatican bureaucracy, it is far more likely that this pontificate will continue to challenge those default positions; it may even start the process by which the defaults are decisively changed.

Winters’s effort to set Benedict XVI at loggerheads with the present U.S. administration fails on another point: The Holy See’s gratitude to the Bush administration for its defense of religious freedom, its commitment to AIDS relief in Africa (including the administration’s tacit rejection of the salvation-through-latex approach to AIDS prevention characteristic of the multilateral aid agencies), and its stalwart pro-life position both domestically and in international arenas. As a very senior Vatican official told me recently, the people who actually make the decisions in Rome know that the future is unlikely to provide an American administration as comprehensively sympathetic to core Holy See concerns in international arenas as the Bush administration has been. There is, alas, a kind of Obama swoon going on in at least some parts of the Roman Curia at the moment; but once the Illinois senator’s positions on the life issues and the nature of marriage come into clearer focus along the Tiber, the honeymoon will be adjourned, quickly.

Americans interested in hearing what the pope actually has to say about the United States and its role in the world, and about the deeper issues of world politics, should pay particularly close attention to Benedict’s remarks at the White House welcoming ceremony on April 16 and his address to the U.N. General Assembly on April 18. Far from playing Jeremiah against the Great Satan Bush, Benedict XVI is going to teach the world a lesson about moral reason as the “grammar” by which the world can have a conversation about the world’s future. There are truths built into the world and into us, he will remind Americans and the U.N.; thinking together about those truths is one way to change noise into conversation and incomprehension into dialogue. I hope Mr. Winters, his sources, and the editors at “Outlook” are listening.

— George Weigel, distinguished senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is the biographer of Pope John Paul II and the author of God’s Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church. His most recent book is Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism.