Saturday, May 09, 2009

Papal fallibility

Occam would agree

Robert Moynihan is the editor-in-chief of Inside the Vatican. He waxes wroth in the pages of the April 2009 issue. It seems that people are saying bad things about the pope and Robert is at a complete and utter loss to understand why. Unless, of course, it's simply the resentment of the earthly powers who feel threatened by the old man in the white dress. That's Moynihan's theory, anyway. I think, however, that I can offer a slightly more parsimonious alternative or two. Here is Moynihan in full spate:
Any objective observer of earthly affairs—someone, for example, like the emotionless, totally rational Vulcan Dr. Spock from Star Trek—would have to be puzzled by the intensity of the attacks on the Pope in recent weeks from world leaders. Why, such an extraterrestrial might wonder, do the heathen rage?
First of all, Robert, that's “Mr. Spock” to you. You're not off to a very good start.
During the “Williamson affair” in January and into February, the Pope was reprimanded publicly by the chancellor of Germany, his native country, and by other leaders.
Okay, I was actually paying attention during my Catholic upbringing. I know papal infallibility applies only to the pope's teaching authority. It does not shield the pontiff from the everyday mistakes that flesh is heir to.

Even when he does something as boneheaded as lift the ban of excommunication from a brain-dead Holocaust denier.

Benedict's spokesman says the pope didn't know that Bishop Williamson is wont to explain away the Nazi extermination campaign against the Jews.

The excuse is almost certainly true. Benedict is not looking to offer gratuitous insults to the Jewish community. The pope is a victim of spectacularly bad staff work. Perhaps he should excommunicate a few clerks or monsignors who said that Williamson was worthy of a papal dispensation. It's incompetence that sparked the “Williamson affair,” as Moynihan calls it, but it doesn't speak directly to the pope's insight or acumen. This, however, does:
During his trip to Africa in March, after he said that condoms were ineffective as a strategy to contain the spread of AIDS, he was attacked and even ridiculed by the health ministers of almost every single Western European government.
Oh, bad move, Your Holiness! Condoms are not effective against AIDS? Well, they're not perfect, but they're certainly more effectiveness than abstinence education! Please note: I did not say that condoms are more effective against sexually transmitted diseases than abstinence. Abstinence is amazingly effective—when you get people to do it! (Or should I say “not to do it”?) The problem, of course, is that most people don't want to give up sex. Perhaps a few of us are naturally unattached, but don't confuse that with the norm. Just look, for example, at members of the clergy. If you have priests contracting AIDS, there just may be a weak link in your chain of reasoning.
What was the fundamental message of these attacks? Essentially, that this Pope should not be listened to. That this Pope is old, badly informed, confused, out of touch with reality, lacking in common sense. In short, that what he says should be discounted.
Yes, Robert, I'll give you that one. That is precisely the message. Out of touch with reality is exactly what the pope is. Perhaps it's his job to preach the ideal as he sees it (abstinence before marriage, perfect fidelity after marriage, etc.), but as a public health program it's absurd. We already know it doesn't work. We could just as well say that we won't need police if people adhered strictly to the Ten Commandments. It's true, isn't it? It's just not a sensible public policy.

Moynihan isn't thinking about practicality. He's sniffing out motives.
Why would the powerful of this world be so bent on making sure that the people of this world regard this Pope as irrelevant?

The fundamental reason, of course, is one: because the Pope, the Vicar of Christ, is preaching Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is always a stumbling block to the “powers” of this world, because he is the transcendent, the holy, incarnate—incarnate still today, in his Church and in his saints.
And imagine how much more powerful Jesus would be if he existed!
But there is a second reason I would like to propose, and that is the special historical moment we are in. The world's economy is passing through a massive transition, from boom to bust. Trillions of notional wealth are being simply vaporized, and the great challenge now is to assure that a transition to a more sound economy may occur with as much justice as possible, and with as little cruelty as possible toward the “little people” who face destitution, and even death, if the system spins out of control.

Benedict knows his history. Once before when the world's economy passed from a “boom” to a “bust,” at the end of the “Roaring Twenties,” an economic collapse was the context for the rise to power of a very radical and cruel political regime: the Nazis.
The Roaring Twenties gave rise to Hitler and the Big Fat Zeros of the Bush era will give rise to—what, exactly? More stormtroopers and death camps? Is Moynihan correct that this is what Benedict is thinking and that's why the world is upset with him? They fear he will interfere with their competing plans for cruel new political regimes and world domination?

I think Moynihan is silly. The pope is reportedly working on an encyclical on the meaning of a just economy. Will the “powers” of the world recoil in horror at the pope's enunciation of principles of social justice? The Church has a long history of charitable work that has receded into the background amidst recent sex scandals and Rome's alliance with right-wing forces to promote its anti-abortion agenda. It will actually be something of a relief if the pope turns away from the Church's obsession with (and involvement in) sexual sin and promotes Christian charity and economic justice. The only ones likely to object are his erstwhile allies on the right wing of American politics, the Social Darwinists (and, ironically, often creationists) who still hunger for the unregulated law of the economic jungle. They'll accuse the pope of being anti-capitalist.

The powers of the world, on the other hand, will cheer the pope on and happily give lip service to his plea for charity. If they even bother to listen, that is. Benedict has already squandered quite a lot of his credibility.

1 comment:

Karen said...

I didn't realize they wore miniskirts in the '20s. I suspect the flapper photo is "retro"-'20s.

As to the substance of the post... isn't it just breathtakingly easy to say "if you don't agree with my pope, it's because he's preaching Jesus Christ!" (Stomping foot optional.) Not much left in the way of conversation, is there?