In his blog today, the Catholic scholar and public intellectual Garry Wills writes, "Pope Benedict XVI is the best-dressed liar in the world." This is quite a statement.
Wills, with whom I usually agree and who knows his history, may have gone overboard here. At issue is the beatification this weekend of Cardinal Newman, the 19th century English convert from Anglicanism who did so much to defend the right of the laity to dissent from infallible doctrines, based on a notion of conscience at variance with that of B-16, who tends to look at reality with what Hawthorne called one-eyed vision.
It seems from what I know that B-16 has, as cardinal and now pope, re-defined Newman's position to suit his own understanding of conscience; does this make him a liar?
Lying might be more aptly applied to the papal handling of the sexual abuse scandal--or at least dissimulation--and to various other papal pronouncements that Wills has analyzed in his book Papal Sin.
Benedict, who seems more and more to be the wrong man to have succeeded John Paul II, has ignored Newman's important treatise on listening to the laity and has distorted his record, emphasizing other aspects of his long and remarkable life. Benedict has long admired Newman, but he has misinterpreted or perhaps misrepresented his work in an effort to canonize a fellow intellectual.
Why the pope would personally beatify Newman on English soil is another of the maladroit mysteries of this pontiff. Does he want to turn back ecumenical relations with Anglicans the way he seems determined to set back the reforms of the second Vatican Council? To progressives like Wills, and myself, who watch with horror as the Vatican stumbles into the 21st century, I can only hope and pray, as Newman did with Pius IX, that the end of this pope's reign comes sooner than later.
But I still doubt if B-16, although over-dressed much of the time, is really a deliberate liar.
A more interesting issue for me is how informed Catholics can criticize the institutional church and its flawed leaders, as they have in the past, while remaining faithful to the core of beliefs that are authentically Catholic. Clearly, there are two Catholic churches: the hierarchical one seen most often in the media coverage from Rome, and the community of believers rarely seen in the media but present in countless parishes, monasteries, and other sites around the world.
The tension between these two ideas of church, like the dissension among theologians that Newman wisely defended, has kept Catholicism alive over the centuries.