Whatever happened to scholarly impartiality?

Prof. Diarmaid MacCulloch is an eminent church historian, the author of solid (and stolid) books many buy but few read. Still, there’s nothing he doesn’t know about his subject – a truly learned man.

That’s why his post-mortem on the ministry of Benedict XVI piqued my interest: Prof. MacCulloch, I thought, would be in a perfect position to elucidate the place Joseph Ratzinger occupies in history.

Alas, he didn’t write his article A Brilliant Theologian but a Dreadful Leader as a scholar – he wrote it as an ideological leftie and a man obsessed with sex, a defensive reaction one often observes among homosexuals.

Prof. MacCulloch does attach more importance to his sexuality than it warrants, at least to his readers. Actually in 1987 he declined ordination to Anglican priesthood over the Church’s attitude to his own predilection. This fact of his biography matters to him considerably more than to those who, like me, have waded through his excruciatingly detailed history of the Reformation and a rather sentimental biography of Cranmer.

And it’s certainly not an adequate platform from which to launch an analysis of Benedict’s papacy. ‘How disappointingly undistinguished Ratzinger’s time has been, considering that he is probably the most talented theologian to have held the papal office since Gregory I…,’ writes MacCulloch.

He’s entitled to that view, and certainly there would be nothing unusual in a scholar whose leadership qualities don’t quite match his intellect. The time of philosopher kings has passed, if indeed it ever was more than Plato’s wishful thinking.

However, if Ratzinger’s theological brilliance doesn’t require any proof, his dreadful leadership does – just to keep all the ducks in order. Instead MacCulloch kills the birds with a few mad salvos.

First he attacks Benedict’s opposition to ‘the landmark Second Vatican Council of 1962-65, which ended so much authoritarian clerical control, listened to the voices of non-Catholic cultures, introduced worship in the language of the people and implied much more change to come’.

This is rhetorically unsound. The views of a Catholic prelate can only be attacked within the framework of the Catholic Church, not from MacCulloch’s own position on the left wing of evangelical Protestantism.

‘Worship in the language of the people’ is yet another modern perversion – all Abrahamic religions use a liturgical language that’s different from street speak. This applies even to the great scriptural texts of MacCulloch’s own Anglican Church. Though written in the vernacular, they have never been, and certainly aren’t now, merely a reflection of everyday speech. As to the Latin that Vatican II effectively expunged, it was the liturgical language of the people, a great unifying force for Catholics from all over the world.

Obviously a staunch Protestant wouldn’t see things that way, but perhaps the erudite Prof. MacCulloch ought to know that Benedict XVI is a Catholic after all. As to not paying much attention ‘to the voices of non-Catholic cultures’, fair cop. One doubts His Holiness spent sleepless nights wondering if ayatollahs or TV evangelists approved of his policies.

Then we get to the meat of the criticism, with MacCulloch taking exception to ‘the huge sums that the Catholic episcopate has spent… in opposing same-sex marriage, all to no effect: each time some British or American bishop opened their mouths to rally the faithful, it converted hundreds more to the cause of social equality.’

I’m not aware of any great debate within the Catholic Church on this subject. Unlike the C of E, its advocacy there falls into the domain not just of the left, but of the loony left. Nor have I noticed a groundswell of support for same-sex marriage among Catholic laity.

Clearly, MacCulloch’s own sexuality overrides not only his mind, but also his eyesight. The former is particularly lamentable: a thinker must not allow personal quirks to interfere with his judgment. And surely MacCulloch, self-described as someone ‘brought up in the presence of the Bible’, must know that opposition to same-sex marriage, or indeed to homosexuality, isn’t without some scriptural support.

Towards the end of his diatribe MacCulloch graduates from crepuscular, prejudiced thinking to sheer madness: ‘Perhaps the greatest humiliation that the Vatican has experienced in recent months was the re-election of President Obama, when it was quite clear that most of the American episcopate were doing their best to boost the chances of the Republican Party. The US electorate humiliated the Holy Father and his cohorts. Now, quite wrongly, Catholics are associated with begrudging gay people dignity and personal happiness, when only a clique of their clergy and hierarchy are to blame.’

One doesn’t know where to begin, apart from pointing out that this illiterate use of ‘cohorts’ is most unfortunate in a professional writer. The American episcopate, Sir Diarmaid, traditionally stands on the political left, much more so than European bishops. With a few exceptions it has consistently supported the Democrats for as long as Prof. MacCulloch has been around.

He also seems to think that, just like his own life, Obama’s presidency revolves around the issue of same-sex marriage and all it entails. This is cloud-cuckoo land, pure and simple. MacCulloch really ought to steer clear of politics; it’s not his subject.

As to the notion that ‘the US electorate humiliated the Holy Father’, this is grounds for mandatory commitment to an institution, and not one of higher learning. His Holiness neither stood in the US election nor, to the best of my knowledge, acted as Romney’s campaign manager. Privately, he may have been upset by the vote, but it takes madcap stridency to aver that he was in any way humiliated.

The Old Testament, so dear to MacCulloch’s Protestant heart, has a saying about people like him: ‘Hear now this, O foolish people, and without understanding; which have eyes, and see not; which have ears, and hear not.’

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