March 29, 2007

[T]he Antichrist presents himself as a pacifist, ecologist and ecumenist.  He convokes an ecumenical council and seeks the consensus of all the Christian confessions, conceding something to each one.

The crowds follow him, except for tiny groups of Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants.  Chased by the Antichrist, they tell him, “You have given us everything except for the one thing that interests us, Jesus Christ.” 

“€”Giacomo Cardinal Biffi, meditation at Lenten Retreat for the Papal Household, February 2006.

Giacomo Cardinal Biffi is not a man to shy away from controversy.  For the better part of the past decade, the deeply conservative former archbishop of Bologna has been the most outspoken Catholic advocate of the writings of Russian journalist, philosopher, and mystic Vladimir Solovyov  (1853-1900).  Solovyov is best known for his “Three Dialogues on War, Progress and the End of History,” which includes, as part of the narrative, a “Short Tale of the Anti-Christ.”  (Despite its apocalyptic subject, Solovyov’s story fails to mention either the Rapture or the state of Israel, so it is not much read in America today.)

Those of us who have followed Cardinal Biffi’s career with appreciation were pleasantly surprised when the Vatican announced that he would lead this year’s Lenten retreat for the papal household.  We weren’t at all surprised, however, when the cardinal turned to Solovyov’s musings on the Antichrist for his one of his meditations.

The same can’t be said for the American Catholic blogosphere.  Knowing nothing about the good cardinal (or Solovyov), they latched on to the details of his remarks, running as far as their misinterpretations would take them.  If the Antichrist will be a pacifist, an ecologist, and an ecumenist (as well as a vegetarian, as news reports reminded us that the appropriately named Cardinal “Beefy” had claimed a few years back), what better way to combat this evil than to rally behind a warmongering Texas rancher and oilman?  If only the President would agree to nuke the Orthodox and Prots, then we could be sure he’s an anti-ecumenist . . . Of course, being a Protestant himself, President Bush might be more likely to lob a few bombs at Catholics, but that’s OK, since all the parishioners of St. Blog’s Parish know that there are no real Catholics outside of America (and quite a few false ones here”€”those who, for instance, agree with Pope Benedict on the war in Iraq or on Israeli aggression in Lebanon, or with Pope John Paul II on torture).  Either way, the Orthodox would get it, which would be the greatest triumph for Western Christianity since the sack of Constantinople in the Fourth CrusadeBombs away, O Lord, we pray, for they make their crosses backward….

Virtually alone in the Catholic blogosphere, the redoubtable Mark Shea, who has taken quite a beating from his fellow “conservative” Catholic bloggers for agreeing with two successive popes, took note of the forest, pointing to something else that Cardinal Biffi had said:

“The Antichrist is the reduction of Christianity to an ideology, instead of a personal encounter with the Savior.”  Any attempt to co-opt the Faith for the service of a particular ideology has about it the air of sulfur.

Solovyov, Cardinal Biffi pointed out, had predicted that “Days will come in Christianity in which they will try to reduce the salvific event to a mere series of values.”  Could there be any better description of the state of Catholic (not to mention more broadly Christian) political action in the United States today?  Christianity transformed the Roman Empire and built up the medieval Europe we know as Christendom not through the preaching of Christian “values” but through the lived experience of Christians’ encounter with Christ.  What, exactly, are “values voters” building up now?

The problem with “values” is that they are inherently relative.  (Consider, for a moment, the very meaning of the term.)  “Conservative” Catholics have understood this when criticizing the “seamless garment” approach to politics, which was often used simply to justify the political agenda of the Democratic Party, but they have failed to realize that their own emphasis on values is, in some ways, even worse.  At least the seamless garment has a presumption in favor of life, which is more than we can say for pro-life Catholics who have never met a war they didn’t like.

If our principles consist entirely of a series of “values,” then we can easily convince ourselves that political circumstances”€”elections, cold hard cash”€”justify stressing some and deemphasizing others.  We can see this process at work in the current pandering of Newt Gingrich to the Christian right, as he desperately seeks the Republican nomination for president in 2008.  After his resignation from the House of Representatives, he took a cushy job at a neoconservative think tank (the American Enterprise Institute) and spent much of his time as a cheerleader for expanding the war in Iraq into Iran and Syria, but now he’s stressing a different set of values.

In a widely publicized two-part interview last week with Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, Gingrich dealt with the question of his multiple marriages and admitted affairs (one of which he was carrying on while leading the impeachment of Bill Clinton for lying about his affair with Monica Lewinsky).  “There are times that I have fallen short of my own standards,” Gingrich told Dobson.  “There’s certainly times when I’ve fallen short of God’s standards””€”which explains why he felt comfortable authoring (or at least putting his name on) a new book entitled Rediscovering God in America.

Why would a man who has made his name as a Christian moral leader squander that capital on the political rehabilitation of a philandering laptop bombardier?  The answer, of course, lies in the values that Dobson and Gingrich share.  “€œMy theology indicates that Israel is covenant land,”€ Dr. Dobson told the New York Times last fall, explaining why he thought it was wrong for the media to dwell on Lebanese civilian casualties in Israel’s assault on Hezbollah.

How far will this inversion of values go?  Noemie Emery, a moderately socially conservative contributing editor to the Weekly Standard, provides us with a clue.  In answering objections to her Weekly Standard article “Let’s Make a Deal: Social Conservatives, Rudy Giuliani, and the End of the Litmus Test” at The Corner on National Review Online, she wrote:

[A]ll things being equal, I would support a pro-life candidate against one who was not.  This does not mean I would do so if things were NOT equal: for instance, I would vote for Joe Lieberman over Sam Brownback, or another Republican who was not strong on the war.

If the early poll numbers for Giuliani are to be believed, Emery is far from alone.  Apparently, the best way to show your pro-life credentials these days is to be willing to rain death and destruction upon the home of the oldest Christian communities in the Middle East.  The blood of thousands of dead Iraqi and Lebanese civilians, it seems, can cover a multitude of aborted American babies.

Scott Richert is Executive Editor of Chronicles Magazine.


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