The Folly in Praising Folly

The New York Times published a puzzling op-ed yesterday: In Praise of Folly, by religious affairs correspondent John Berwick. The piece is an attempt to preemptively defuse any unfortunate statements Pope Benedict XVI might make in his upcoming tour of the Middle East by putting a positive spin on some of his controversies to date. The spin, however, just leaves me feeling a little queasy.

Berwick refers to four specific “bloopers” made by this pope that have caused an uproar: a speech associating Islam with violence, the repeal of excommunication for Holocaust-denying bishops, the suggestion (made en route to Brazil) that pro-choice legislators be excommunicated, and his recent assertion that condoms are actually exacerbating the AIDS epidemic. “Bloopers,” seriously? I’m sorry, but dripping ketchup on your papal regalia, mistakenly addressing a bishop by the wrong name, stumbling as you climb out of the popemobile: these are the sorts of things I would consider bloopers. Using your position as leader and figurehead of a major world religion to make an apparent endorsement of those who dismiss as myth one of the greatest atrocities of the twentieth century is, at best, a faux pas.

Going beyond downplaying these statements as mere whoopsies, Berwick argues that the net result of such inflammatory statements has been a net positive. Pope B-16’s offending of Muslims, for instance, ultimately resulted in the formation an unprecedented Catholic-Muslim interfaith forum. I’ll grant you, that’s pretty impressive. And all it took in the interim was huge Islamic outcry, the razing of some Catholic churches, and a nun murdered in retaliation! Berwick’s right, who needs all that “prudent diplomacy” after all?

Furthermore, are we to believe B-16 has been playing reverse psychology in all these instances, just to get people talking? To what extent should we credit the Pope with the benefits of the backlash against him? Maybe this Independence Day I’ll raise a standard in honour of King George III, true author of the US Constitution!

But most of all, I’m troubled by the inclusion of Benedict’s statements regarding AIDS and condoms. Berwick mentions it only once; he doesn’t bother to rationalize that one away, nor do I think he’d be able to if he tried. Berwick insinuates in his editorial that the pope’s critics are no more than “arbiters of political correctness.” But Benedict’s statements about condoms were not politically incorrect, they were factually incorrect. They were a blatant, deliberate falsehood that threaten to undermine humanitarian and medical efforts. That Berwick would have us turn our heads from that so the pope can save face is deplorable.