Wednesday, February 13, 2013

On Beyond Benedict

Oscar Wilde remarked that "Beauty, real beauty, ends where an intellectual expression begins. Intellect is in itself a mode of exaggeration, and destroys the harmony of any face. The moment one sits down to think, one becomes all nose, or all forehead, or something horrid. Look at the successful men in any of the learned professions. How perfectly hideous they are! Except, of course, in the Church. But then in the Church they don't think. A bishop keeps on saying at the age of eighty what he was told to say when he was a boy of eighteen, and as a natural consequence he always looks absolutely delightful." 
With the exception of momentary detours in the direction of radicalism, Pope Benedict does tend to fit Wilde's description.   The Roman Catholic Church, he has stated, became his bulwark against the Nazi regime, "a citadel of truth and righteousness against the realm of atheism and deceit."
The trouble with citadels is their inflexibility. They are solid.  As a rock.  Inflexible.  Shields, not dynamic forces.  Any faith worth its salt stays dynamic--a force, on the Star Wars model.  Not a citadel, on the Remember the Alamo model.    Besides, can one really consider atheism and deceit to be the same thing?  The Nazis weren't about atheism.  Atheism was their excuse.  The Nazis were about Nihilism, which is entirely different.  To be an atheist is not the same as to see life as meaningless.  Deceit is not a quality I'd attach to modern atheists--they tend on the whole to be bracingly forthright, as a short dip into Richard Dawkins will show.
Since the last pope to quit back in the 1200s got sent to hell for all eternity, according to Dante, people are asking questions.  Is Benedict now just a man, now that he's stepped down--minus the infallibility?  Is it the pedophilia scandals?  Are radical American nuns getting him down?  Is he really not powerful enough to overwhelm his more conservative cardinals?  How come he let that holocaust-denier back into the church after ex-communicating him?  Along with three other excommunicados who happen to be ultra-conservative?  Or is the guy really just tired? 
The ideas Benedict perpetuates--that the Roman Catholic Church is the only faith offering salvation (spoiler:  you want salvation, you're on your own) that women should not be priests (that would lead to matriarchy) that gays are agents of the devil (when they are really only agents in the service of clean living and high thinking) do not fall well on contemporary ears.  The love of ministering to the people that, to be fair, Benedict amply displayed--going so far as to eat french fries in public with teenagers--reveals as much about the desperate longing for a father figure as it does about his essentially friendly nature.  I can imagine his love of young people and I can imagine his shock at discovering the percentage of his young flock that has been molested, and his desire to alleviate their pain.  I can imagine his urge to protect the priests involved too--so much so that he bowed to the need to cover up, since some statistics place 99% of Irish priests in the guilty category. 
Benedict is a warmhearted man from a warmhearted area of the world, but one that remains insular.  Bavaria is not known for embracing many faiths and many colors.  I sometimes wonder what kind of man he would have become growing up in an immigrant neighborhood in New York City, surrounded by Italian and Russian Jewish and Irish kids.
Would he have become open-minded?  A man who could imagine many ways, many salvations?
And what's next?  Since they won't go for a woman, how about an African?  How about a Chicano?  How about an Asian?  How about any old non-European Catholic who manages to pave the way for a woman without mysteriously dying 33 days into his papacy?

There are things beyond Benedict people don’t know.
I took him past "Citadel." As far as I could.
And I think, perhaps, maybe I did him some good…

*with apologies to Dr. Seuss

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