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Alain Besançon on Benedict XVI

April 29, 2010

Alain Besançon

A renowned French historian and culture critic, Alain Besançon is an expert on Russian politics and intellectual history who serves as honorary director of studies at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris. He presides over the philosophy section of the Institut de France’s Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques. Educated at the Collège Stanislas and at the Lycée Louis le Grand in Paris, he went on to study at the Ecoles des Sciences Politiques and at the Sorbonne where he earned a diploma in history. He was awarded a doctorate in history in 1967 and a doctorate in letters and human sciences a decade later.

Dr. Besançon first taught at the Lycée de Montpellier and then at the Lycée Carnot in Tunis and the Lycée Pasteur in Neuilly. In 1960, he was appointed to the staff of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, and he was subsequently a research associate at the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg and at Columbia University. He joined the faculty of EHESS as a lecturer in 1965 and was named associate director of studies in 1969 and director six years later, a post he held until 1993. Dr. Besançon has been a visiting professor at the University of Rochester and at the Universidad del Norte Santo Tomás de Aquino in San Miguel de Tucumán, Argentina, a visiting scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and Princeton University, and a visiting fellow at All Souls College, Oxford.

He was an editorial writer for L’Express for five years and regularly contributes to Le Fiagaro. An officier of the Légion d’Honneur, an officier of the Palmes Académiques, and a member of the Académie Scientiarum et Artium Europaea and the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques, he is the recipient of the Prix de l’Essai of the Académie Française and of an honorary degree from the University of Moscow. Dr. Besançon is a member of the editorial boards of Cahiers du Monde Russe and of Commentaire. In addition to more than three hundred papers published in academic journals, he is the author or co-author of twenty books, including Une Génération (1987), winner of Prix d’Historie of the Académie Française, and L’Image Interdite: Une Historie Intellectuelle de l’Iconoclasme (1994), awarded both the Grand Prix d’Historie Chateaubriand-La Vallée aux Loups and the Médaille de Fondation Michel Perret. Published in English to wide acclaim as The Forbidden Image: An Intellectual History of Iconoclasm (2000), it traces the privileging and prohibition of religious images over a span of two and a half millennia in the West. His most recent book, La Malheur du Siècle: Communisme, Nazisme et l’Unicité de la Shoah (Fayard, 1998), was published in English earlier this year as A Century of Horrors: Communism, Nazism, and the Uniqueness of the Shoah, and in it, the historian turns to theology as the only resource that can shed even feeble illumination on how we remember ideologies responsible for incalculable destruction.  

Although we regularly pray for the Holy Father at Mass, I had always thought that was something provoked by the assassination attempt on John Paul II but recently with the media attacks on the Pope I have begun to see things in a different light. That “light” is the one that Alain Besançon starkly defines here:

In an article published yesterday by L’Osservatore Romano, historian and member of the Institute of France, Alain Besançon, offered an analysis of the first five years of Benedict XVI’s pontificate. He noted that the media campaign against the Holy Father and the Church reveals a hatred for Christianity, and that the Pope is confronting the “self-destruction” of society, nature and reason.

“Benedict XVI has fought untiringly for clarity and accuracy. For him there is nothing more dangerous than the relativism that is fused with modern democratic society: any organized group can legitimize an opinion merely because it is their opinion without the need to support it with reason,” Besançon said.

After praising the Holy Father for “restoring intelligence to the heart of the Church,” the French historian referred to two “accidents of this pontificate.” The first was the Pope’s discourse at Regensburg, Germany: “It was very scholarly, moderate, benevolent, but it caused very violent reactions.”

“The disproportionate reaction,” he explained, “revealed above all the dramatic ignorance of the clergy and the faithful about the message of Islam, and undoubtedly about their own (faith), because you can’t understand one without the other. Thus there is an absolute need for re-directing Christian knowledge.”

The second “accident,” Besançon said, has to do with the media attacks on the Pope and the Church, which aim to portray the Holy Father as covering up the abuse committed by some members of the clergy, when that has never been the case.

The French historian also made two observations, one about societal history and the other about the Church’s understanding of the relationship between sins and crimes.

In the last 50 years, he explained, the definition of sexual crimes has undergone a transformation, with many consensual acts that beforehand were punished severely now often being considered a right. All of the outrage over the sexual crimes of the past is now concentrated completely on the act of pedophilia, Besançon suggested.

Second, he said, is the fact that the Church sees a distinction in how it treats sins and crimes. “The Church does not forgive crime, it leaves to the judge the task of punishing it, but the assessment of sin falls to her and is under her jurisdiction. She has the keys to bind or to loose it.”

Besançon went on to say that the Church holds that man is a sinner and that reality is present in all of her prayers.

“There exists thus a strange prejudice that causes us to be surprised by the fact that some men, merely because they have embraced the clerical state, are not different or necessarily better than anyone else. Up to now no one has found out how to make men into something other than what they are: proud, greedy, lustful, angry, sinners always. They do not cease to be such just because they undergo a psychological or medical exam beforehand,” he said.

However, he argued, this does not “prevent the media campaign from dragging with it things that will never be accepted: marriage for priests, the ordination of married men, and other such things.”

These things “reveal hatred for the Christian name or a loss of authority and trust in the Catholic Church,” Besançon said. “In any case, the Pope must bear the brunt of this confusion. After five years, to me his pontificate is sorrowful.”

“John Paul II fought against a monstrous political regime: Communism, but he had society and all of humanity on his side. Benedict XVI has the whole of modern society, born out of the crisis of the 60s, with its new morality and new religiosity, against him.

Pope Benedict “finds himself in a situation similar to that of Paul VI after Vatican II, in confronting what he called ‘the self-destruction’ of the Church. This time the self-destruction is of all of society, nature and reason. The glory of his pontificate is not visible: it is that of martyrdom.”

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