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Matthew Fox's Critique of the Roman Catholic Church

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) June 24, 2011: In THE POPE'S WAR: WHY RATZINGER'S SECRET CRUSADE HAS IMPERILED THE CHURCH AND HOW IT CAN BE SAVED (2011), Matthew Fox has written a thorough and mostly temperate critique of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI. Even though some of the cases highlighted by Fox do not involve Americans, other cases do, including of course Fox's own case. In any event, liberal Americans who are concerned about the Christian right in the United States may want to read Fox's book, even if they are not Catholics. It's a very readable book.

Fox (born 1940) was silenced for one year in 1988 by then-Cardinal Ratzinger (born 1927). Three years later, Ratzinger expelled Fox from the Dominican religious order. But Fox was welcomed into the Anglican communion and has served as an Episcopal priest since 1994.

Fox is the prolific author of twenty-eight books. His books have been translated into forty-two languages and have sold in total more than 1.5 million copies. He was the first person to translate into English the work of the twelfth-century Benedictine abbess and mystic Hildegard von Bingen. Fox also translated into English a generous selection of the writings of Meister Eckhart, the fourteenth-century Dominican priest, preacher, and mystic, which has been reissued recently as PASSION FOR CREATION: THE EARTH-HONORING SPIRITUALITY OF MEISTER ECKHART (2000; originally published in 1980 as BREAKTHROUGH). In his 550-page book titled SHEER JOY: CONVERSATIONS WITH THOMAS AQUINAS ON CREATION SPIRITUALITY (1992), Fox has imaginatively constructed conversations between the famous thirteenth-century Dominican theologian Thomas Aquinas and himself, featuring of course selections from Aquinas's writings organized into back-and-forth conversations with Fox. By doing this, Fox brings out how one of the heavyweights of Catholic theology thought thoughts that are similar to the thoughts that Fox himself has been setting forth as creation spirituality.

For Ratzinger/Benedict's long-time critics, Fox's new book about Ratzinger/Benedict will probably not offer them much new information about Ratzinger/Benedict. Nevertheless, Fox has done a good job of enumerating and explaining clearly Ratzinger/Benedict's many misguided mistakes. Unfortunately, conservative American Catholics actually admire Ratzinger/Benedict. As a result, they will probably not be interested in Fox's critique of Ratzinger/Benedict.

One of the greatest strengths of Fox's lucid book about Ratzinger/Benedict is his discussion of grief in the last chapter. Fox lists more than a dozen items that have led many Catholics in the United States and elsewhere in the world today to feel betrayed by the actions of Ratzinger/Benedict and by Pope John-Paul II. (Cardinal Ratzinger was the henchman for Pope John-Paul II before he himself became the next pope.) Fox wisely urges people who have felt such betrayal to pay attention to their grief, rather than trying to disregard it.

As a result of their feelings of betrayal, I would suggest that they are feeling abandonment feelings such as the abandonment feelings that Susan Anderson insightfully discusses in her fine book THE JOURNEY FROM ABANDONMENT TO HEALING (2000).

However, in the spirit of giving credit where credit is due, I want to give credit to Pope John-Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI for NOT carrying on a crusade against evolutionary theory, as we have seen certain Protestant fundamentalists in the United States carry on to this day. If you are willing to give up the so-called literal interpretation of the two accounts of creation in Genesis, then you could adopt a metaphorical interpretation of those two accounts. Using a metaphorical interpretation of those two accounts, you could then say that the monotheistic God is the God of evolution.

I should also mention that Matthew Fox is most famous for promoting what he terms creation spirituality, in which he stresses the state of original blessing in the Garden of Eden, instead of stressing the story of the Fall of Adam and Eve and the Christian interpretation of so-called original sin. Centuries before St. Paul and St. Augustine conspired to construct the doctrine of original sin, Plato and Aristotle and other ancient Greeks did not think we humans were born virtuous. On the contrary, they thought we needed to work to cultivate being virtuous. Which doesn't sound as dismal as the doctrine of original sin sounds. But the positive imagery of original blessing in Genesis that Fox stresses in creation spirituality arguably goes beyond anything that the ancient Greeks imagined.

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In the spirit of giving credit where credit is due, perhaps we should also give Benedict credit for recognizing that the priest sex-abuse scandal is a problem, even though he has chosen to see it exclusively as a problem involving the priest-perpetrators, ignoring the role of bishops in compounding the problems occasioned by the priest-perpetrators. But in contrast, John-Paul II basically stone-walled the problem during his long reign as pope.

Psychotherapists and others who have interviewed abusive priests report that they usually show no remorse for what they have done to their victims. In his new book THE SCIENCE OF EVIL: ON EMPATHY AND THE ORIGINS OF CRUELTY (2011), Simon Baron-Cohen of the University of Cambridge discusses how some people really do suffer from what I would term an empathy deficit. Priest sex-abusers who show no remorse for what they have done to their victims are surely suffering from an empathy deficit. The bishops who disregarded allegations of sex abuse made against certain priests and just transferred them to new parishes certainly appear to me to have suffered an empathy deficit for the victims. Benedict should be commended for expressing remorse about what happened to the victims of priest sex abuse. Nevertheless, his exclusive focus on the role of the priest-perpetrators and his silence on the role of the enabling bishops is troubling.

In any event, Fox details the numerous crusades that the Polish pope and his German henchman and successor have carried on in different parts of the world. In an appendix, Fox lists the names of ninety-two individual theologians and pastoral leaders who have been silenced, expelled, or banished under Ratzinger/Benedict, including about twenty Americans. In my view, as long as there is an institutional church, there will probably be a church authority that will determine who is in and who is not in the church group. But Fox urges us to consider carefully what the people who have been silenced and/or expelled have said or done to deserve their punishment. When we do consider the alleged offenses, we should note how Baron-Cohen's discussion of empathy can shed light on the alleged offenses. In brief, many of the alleged offenders seem to be guilty of showing too much empathy for the poor and the disenfranchised people of the world.

Another point from Baron-Cohen's book strikes me as worth mentioning in connection with the issues that Fox discusses. Baron-Cohen points out that many people are not cruel to other people because of their sense of empathy for the other people. However, certain people who do not have a strong sense of empathy but an empathy deficit may also be strong systematizers, in Baron-Cohen's terminology. Strong systematizers may follow a strong code of behavior that prevents them from cruelty toward others, despite their empathy deficit.

So how does this connect with anything Fox discusses? Strong systematizers tend to adhere strongly to their systematizations. Catholic moral theology would surely qualify as an example of strong systematization based on so-called natural-law theory. But natural-law is not based on a strong sense of empathy. However, deontological moral theory growing out of Kant's thought is arguably based on a strong sense of empathy, as is Martin Buber's critique of I-it interactions.

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Granted, somebody always has to bring up the rear. The Polish pope and his German henchman and successor represent the rearguard in the Roman Catholic Church, along with the bishops. But Protestant fundamentalists in the United States seem to be competing with the American Catholic bishops and conservative American Catholics in bringing up the rear. Indeed these religious groups have formed a coalition to fight against legalized abortion in the first trimester in the United States and against legalizing gay marriage in the United States. But Fox is silent about the Protestant fundamentalist allies of conservative American Catholics.

As the lengthy subtitle of his new book indicates, Fox does indeed see the Roman Catholic Church as being imperiled by the papacies of the Polish pope and the German pope. However, when Fox turns his attention to suggesting how the church can be saved, he does not seem to me to be discussing how to save the institution known as the Roman Catholic Church. Even though the Roman Catholic Church is the apparent focal point, Fox seems to me to be spelling out suggestions about how Christianity as a whole might be saved, if it is to be saved.

I should point out that Fox does not go to the trouble of constructing the arguments that the devil's advocate might advance against saving Christianity, instead of abolishing it and moving self-described Christians back into the fold of Judaism. Because Fox has served as an Episcopal priest since 1994, I suppose that it is understandable that he might not want to suggest that his livelihood as a Christian priest should be taken away from him, as newly enlightened self-described Christians return to the fold of Judaism and settle for regarding the historical Jesus as a Jewish prophet, instead of regarding him not only as being messiah but also as being somehow God.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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Matthew Fox's Critique of the Roman Catholic Church


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Many liberals are well aware of how conservative t... by Thomas Farrell on Saturday, Jun 25, 2011 at 7:07:04 AM
I met Fox at a conference we both spoke at. He's o... by Rob Kall on Saturday, Jun 25, 2011 at 7:08:53 AM
His two works of note are Spirit in the World and ... by Christopher Rushlau on Saturday, Jun 25, 2011 at 11:42:59 AM
and it is reasoned, impassioned and compassionate,... by Richard Girard on Saturday, Jun 25, 2011 at 1:11:38 PM
I'm glad to learn from the comments that Rob Kall ... by Thomas Farrell on Saturday, Jun 25, 2011 at 1:45:07 PM
at his website, where he interviews himself. ... by Christopher Rushlau on Sunday, Jun 26, 2011 at 4:44:55 PM
The Church is going down. It is betrayal against h... by R. A. Landbeck on Saturday, Jun 25, 2011 at 2:42:00 PM
The church is nothing more than a means of control... by Joni Greever on Sunday, Jun 26, 2011 at 4:40:41 PM
Among the more notable deeds of the early nascent ... by Dante DeNavarre on Sunday, Jun 26, 2011 at 8:30:08 PM