Post-Enlightenment liberalism has long regarded the Catholic Church as the last obstacle to its final triumph. The Enlightenment-era French dilettante Denis Diderot spoke of strangling the last priest with the "guts of the last king."
The ceaseless attacks on Pope Benedict XVI over the last few weeks form the most recent scene in this historical drama. Unlike Napoleon, today's forces of secularization can't imprison a pope. Well, at least not yet; Christopher Hitchens is working on this, calling for the European Union to seize Benedict's traveling papers. But they can strangle him politically and culturally. That his popularity poll numbers have apparently dipped below those of the most inane and rancid celebrities testifies to this perverse power.
The children of Diderot at the New York Times understand the secularist Enlightenment project very well. Its executive editor, Bill Keller, telegraphed this in a 2002 column.
Since he wrote the column before he was promoted to editor, he didn't bother to hide his anti-Catholic bigotry with circumspect throat-clearing. He described himself as a "collapsed Catholic" -- "well beyond lapsed." He affected a false modesty about this, saying that for this reason he claims "no voice in whom the church ordains or how it prays or what it chooses to call a sin." But of course he does claim that voice -- and thinks all should obey it.
He made it clear that he was rooting for "reforms" that would reduce Catholicism to a captive of modern liberalism: "…the struggle within the church is interesting as part of a larger struggle within the human race, between the forces of tolerance and absolutism."
In that one sentence lies the whole subtext to the paper's campaign against Pope Benedict in the last few weeks. The Holy Father represents for Keller and Dowd and Goodstein the hated "forces of absolutism" that the tolerant and enlightened think themselves called by history to stop.
For an elite drunk on its own enlightenment, the ends will always justify the means against religion. So what, Keller figured, if my reporters could only come up with straining, half-baked pieces that cast fragments of information about Benedict in the worst possible light? Let's run them anyways, so that the forces of tolerance can triumph over the forces of absolutism!
And if it turns out that the forces of tolerance are largely responsible for mishandling these abuse cases (the ousted homosexual Archbishop Rembert Weakland, the subject of flattering profiles over the years in the New Yorker and New York Times, is the person most responsible for dereliction in the Milwaukee case the Times claims to find so outrageous), well, let's blame it on Benedict anyways. He could have done more!
In that 2002 column, Keller oozed contempt for the Church, speaking of the hierarchy as "aging celibates" (imagine Keller ever writing an equivalent sentence about imams) who refused to embrace the "equality of women, abortion on demand, and gay rights."
Keller had little use for Pope John Paul II, whom he likened to an authoritarian Communist:
One paradox of the Polish pope is that while he is rightly revered for helping bring down the godless Communists, he has replicated something very like the old Communist Party in his church. Karol Wojtyla has shaped a hierarchy that is intolerant of dissent, unaccountable to its members, secretive in the extreme and willfully clueless about how people live. The Communists mouthed pieties about ''social justice'' and the rule of the working class while creating a corrupt dictatorship of bureaucrats….
…like the Communists, John Paul has carefully constructed a Kremlin that will be inhospitable to a reformer. He has strengthened the Vatican equivalent of the party Central Committee, called the Curia, and populated it with reactionaries. He has put a stamp of papal infallibility on the issue of ordaining women, making it more difficult for a successor to come to terms with the issue. He has trained bishops that the path of advancement is obsequious obedience to himself. Alarmed by priests who showed too much populist sympathy for their parishioners, the pope, according to the Notre Dame historian R. Scott Appleby, has turned seminaries into factories of conformity, begetting a generation of inflexible young priests who have no idea how to talk to real-life Catholics.
Of course, if John Paul II had been a real Communist like Alger Hiss or Van Jones, Keller wouldn't have talked about him so scathingly. But any stick would do at the time and the Communist analogy appealed to his imagination at the moment. Notice that these days the opportunistic complaint from the Keller-led Times is not that the Church is too authoritarian but that it is too lax. Apparently, it is not autocratic after all. The paper can't decide if Benedict is a Rottweiler or lap dog.
Upon his election, the Times called him "hard line" and "divisive." Now he is soft and clubby. But imagine if Benedict did govern the Church like the autocrat of Keller's imagination, sweeping down to sack every derelict bishop and corrupt priest across the globe, the Times would be the first to engage in ACLU-style whining about the lack of due process, etc., etc. In fact, when he issued his renewal of the Church's ban on the ordination of homosexuals in the first year of his pontificate -- a ban which the "forces of tolerance" within the Church had suspended for decades, a factor contributing greatly to the abuse scandal -- the Times was the first to object.
"How many divisions does the Pope have?" secularists, inspired by Stalin, used to scoff. The Pope, as they know, enjoys no such power, yet in recent weeks they have acted as if he had a military and police at his disposal which he simply refused to use against abusers.
It is the "forces of tolerance" which command the divisions, and they will continue to march through history, displaying all the tolerance of French Revolutionaries as they look forward to that final moment when the last priest can be strangled with the guts of the last pope.