The Doc, the President
& the Quitting Pontiff
Readers of this blog know that we like to pick threes, to group things, to dig for meaning often to unexpected results. Numbers do get our attention, and so due dates, and the time of the day. We also love cats, ice cream, blues, and cryptic clues. Double talk, though, not so much.
Today is the 204th anniversaries of Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln, which makes Feb. 12 a fortunate day for all of us indeed. We were running with that until out of the dark blue came the startling news that Joseph Ratzinger, a.k.a. Pope Benedict XVI, called it quits.
While we were glad to mark the birth of two exceptional minds who inspired billions of lives, the pope’s resignation seems unsettling, since the last time it happened, America wasn’t even around. It couldn’t be a spare of the moment decision, either, but it’s bound to dominate the news.
Darwin, the deeply religious Englishman whose research challenged the very core of Church’s doctrine, has also managed a stunt of his own, recently: he scored 4,000 votes in the last U.S. presidential elections. Despite a still fierce antagonism to his findings, he remains vital by mostly what hasn’t been possible so far: to prove him wrong.
On the other hand, a movie in theaters, and no lack of opportunities for the current White House occupier to emulate his bold decisions, have revitalized Lincoln, the brilliant but doomed American president. In some ways, he’s become a yardstick by which we measure progress in at least matters of race and personal freedom.
The present ruler of a billion-plus Catholics, though, is not only not in the same league, but may be destined to be known as one of the most disappointing popes to have ever worn the white skullcap, the choir dress and, of course, the red shoes. Which makes one wonder about the timing of his decision.
WHO DID YOU VOTE FOR?
There’s no serious study about why so many Americans decided to cast a vote for the man whose On the Origin of the Species became the stepping stone for understanding the evolution and diversity of life on this planet. Then again, voting can be used for many purposes, since it’s a personal exercise of citizenship.
Darwin’s scientific methodology has allowed his theory to constantly evolve, with each new finding complementing its basic principles. Abstracting any search for meaning or absolute truths, which are not science’s purpose anyway, there’s currently no other comparable theory to help us learn about and explain the natural phenomena.
He’s so ingrained in popular culture, that even misconceptions about his research, or attempts to reduce its relevance, wind up reaffirming the irreducibly random character of evolution, which his theory champions. Even though many credited him for their atheism, Darwin himself, a medical doctor, died a pious and god-fearing man.
Which only proves that, along with keen observational skills and willingness to document his findings, he’d also a highly developed sense of ethics. That prevented personal convictions from getting in the way of the rigor of his experiments. His integrity and courage are integral components of his scholarly legacy. Happy Birthday, Doc.
LINCOLN’S LINKS & LIMITS
Way before Steven Spielberg’s movie was produced, the myth of Abraham Lincoln was already undergoing a cultural refresher, through books and public discussions. But to the same degree that such updates are intrinsically flawed but necessary, so is the movie, and whatever else anyone decides to throw at such a larger than life figure.
It’s unfair, for instance, to omit the slaves’ struggle and their defenders, and the brutal hardship they all endured while fighting for Abolitionism. But before you say, each generation has the Hollywood Lincoln it deserves, the feature does flesh out a crucial figure of U.S. history, whose life’s so often reduced to a summary of highlights.
And then there’s Daniel Day-Lewis, who as expected, completely inherits Lincoln’s physicality. Even his high-pitched voice, which arguably went against what many Americans thought how the president should’ve sounded like, may become as indistinguishable an imprint of him as the tall figure both he and the actor cut.
He may not have been so decisively visionary or determined then, as the movie portrays him being. He may not have been as warm and sympathetic, amid the carnage and many doubts brought about by the Civil War. But the power of his actions and historical role are almost a match to the oversize legend that grew out of the national grief over his assassination.
Unlike the romanticizing of his legacy, there have been instances when U.S. leaders had the courage to emulate Lincoln‘s sense of justice. We’d love to include here President Obama, too, but that will have to wait till the end of his term. He’ll be then a year younger than Lincoln, who at 56, had his own term, and life, cut short. Happy Birthday, Abe.
SUNSET FOR A GUNSLINGER POPE
When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was chosen as successor of Pope John Paul II, many who follow Vatican politics knew what was going on. Hundreds of millions of Catholics, however, did not. Karol Wojtyla, a former playwright from Poland with an oversize personality, left some large (red?) shoes to fill, with his great showmanship and political skills.
But behind the curtains, his performance always masked an iron-hand approach to doctrine and what he deemed the church’s priorities. So, whereas his predecessors John XXIII and Paul VI were eminently ecumenical and sought closer ties with other denominations, Wojtyla was concerned the most about the hegemony of Catholicism.
Ratzinger was his behind-the-scenes enforcer, then, as head of the feared Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which replaced the Inquisition. So for insiders, it made perfectly sense that he’d be chosen the next pope, after Wojtyla died. But the biggest flaw (sin?) of both men was their handling of the shameful scandal of sexual abuse of children by priests.
John Paul II most likely knew all about it and never once mentioned it publicly. And Ratzinger became the fiercely secretive protector of the church’s policies about it. Which we now know, were about covering it all up, reassigning accused priests to new unwitting congregations throughout the world, and to deny it, deny it, deny it.
Thousands of now grownup, and damaged, men, and also a few women, have been coming forward with staggeringly perverse stories about their abuse by prelates, and the church’s consistent efforts to discredit them. And up to this day, despite criminal cases in many countries, and court orders, it remains doing just that, whenever it can.
POOR HEALTH OR EXIT STAGE LEFT?
In a public statement, the Vatican justifies Ratzinger’s surprising resignation as caused by his deteriorating health and old age. However, one can’t help it but at least question the timing of such decision, since the crisis, which could’ve been solved years ago had the church taken the steps it promised it would, is still raging all over the world.
By the way, we should have said this before, but if you have religious friends, specially Catholics, reading this with you, we’ll give you some time to invite them out of the room. We understand that they may be uncomfortable with what’s been said here, even though we have no clue how come anyone can accept this reality and still remain loyal to the church.
We don’t blame or shelter any ill intent towards them, and sincerely, we have no business about what or how anyone believes what they believe or don’t, or otherwise, or either way. We just don’t want you to have them walk out on you on our account, and please transmit our sympathies, for they may be hurting with all that as well.
Clear now? Good. For none of us could even begin to describe what hurt means for these hordes of people, profoundly betrayed by those in charge of protecting them as adults and as representatives of their invisible super being on earth too. Even though sexual abuse seems to pervade specially male organizations (you know who you are), it’s much worse if it happened in sacristies.
It’s really Dantesque, to use a term derived from Dante Aliguieri, the author of The Divine Comedy. Who by the way, is said to have been so angry at the last resignation of a pope, Celestine V in 1294, that he put him into the antechamber of his Inferno. That’s why there hasn’t been another Celestine in the seven centuries.
THE THEOLOGY OF REPRESSION
Catholic trivia apart, though, Ratzinger has at least two other dubious distinctions in his biography, both completely at odds with the image of a spiritual leader, and not entirely transparent, wouldn’t you know, by countless, and oftentimes, conflicting, versions of the events. One is, of course, his past a member of the Hitler’s elite youth group, the SS.
He’s explained many times, without much conviction according to many, that in 1939, to join in was obligatory for every German boy his age, and also a few years later, when he joined the Luftwaffenhelfer. There’s no record of any atrocities committed by him or anyone he knew then, though.
The other distinction, of which Ratzinger’s been hardly pressured about, was his role in the demise of one of Latin America’s most important resistance movements against the wave of military dictatorships that took over the continent in the 1960s and 1970s. Again, both he and Wojtyla acted in tandem to withdraw any support from the church to the movement.
The Theology of Liberation was an ideological approach by a group of priests and bishops, who sought to restore to the church the role of defender of the oppressed and the politically persecuted. At the time, the military forces were conducting a relentless war against political opponents of the authoritarian juntas, who were obviously on the losing side.
The progressive prelates offered comfort and often shelter to fugitives and their families, at times openly challenging the generals in charge. In consequence, many became targets themselves and part of a growing contingent of desaparecidos, the missing ones, victims of clandestine death squads.
AN UNCHARISMATIC OPERATOR
Ratzinger was one of the ideologues of a rising opposition from conservative forces within the church, and devised doctrinaire tools to disavow the Latin American priests, threatening with excommunication those who’d side up with leftist guerrillas, who were also increasingly resorting to armed resistance and combat tactics.
While withdrawing its support to the resistance movement, the Vatican under Ratzinger and Wojtyla began openly endorsing the military rule throughout South and Central America. Although the Theology of Liberation survives as a humanistic concept of redefinition of spiritual values as a down-to-earth approach to the gospel, is no longer relevant as a political force for change.
In the U.S. mostly, but in great part of Europe too, it was never even a factor, being relegated to mere ideological substrata of a second-class Socialism, but still perceived with suspicion. For the Catholic Church, it became more important to enforce a strictly religious doctrine, with a simpler and safer message.
In other words, fight women’s right to choose, and support homophobia, as well as lifelong contributions to the material wealth of the Church, are all in. Protecting children from sexual predators, and the poor from harsh income disparities, not so much. There’s no question about what Jesus would have done in his time. But for Catholicism, he’d be a different man these days.
So for a pope who through the years, have controlled all church records on child abuse, dating back to the 1920s, according to experts, and who went out of his way during ‘Jesus’s birthday week,’ a.k.a. Christmas, to reach out to other religious leaders against gays, unless you’re a really devout (hadn’t you left the room?), there’s just one thing most people would say:
Take your pretty red shoes, bye bye and good riddance, Mr. Ratzinger.