Friday, October 01, 2010

Pire Qu'un Crime

Pope Benedict's state visit to Britain has given us much to think about, very little of which has made it onto the Egg. We mentioned the beatification of Cardinal Newman, but never said a thing about the astonishing hostility toward the pope (and Roman Catholicism in general) unleashed in the British press. And then last night, over a jolly supper with a pair of expat Brits, we found ourselves connecting the two data points.

Remember the background, here. Christianity in general is having a tough time of it in western Europe these days, and Roman Catholicism especially so. Rightly or wrongly, and often a bit of both, the Vatican and its leaders are being blamed for decades of child abuse, misogyny, homophobia, AIDS, and -- ludicrously, but often -- the Holocaust. Many complained about the cost of providing security, although, given the active assassination scheme broken up by the police, such complaints seem misguided. Still, Richard Dawkins (to whom we will get one of these days, promise) proposed that the Benedict should be arrested, as Pinochet was in Spain.

Our contention here at the Egg has been that the response from Benedict and his advisors has been tone-deaf. (Remember Regensburg, where he gave a clever and provocative lecture to graduate students, but seemed to forget that he was not a professor anymore, but the pope? Not wrong, never stupid -- but utterly tone deaf.) In response to the current public outcry, the team has circled its wagons and defended itself, admitting even partial responsibility only as an afterthought. This is a perfectly natural thing to do when falsely accused, and even when the accusations have some justice, it is the sort of defense one offers in court. But in the unreasoning arena of the media and publicity, something more is needed. The times call for big symbolic gestures.

And who was the master of the sweeping symbolic gesture, often accompanied by a rigid adherence to the administrative status quo? Or, in other words, what would John Paul II have done? We don't know for sure, but we imagine he would have (a) fallen to his knees before an abused child and begged forgiveness, making sure he was photographed doing so; (b) laicized one or two bishops, and sent them to monasteries; and (c) censured Hans Kung. (Kung has nothing to do with any of this, but it seems to us that JPII spent half his time censuring liberal theologians).

Now consider the state visit to Britain. Benedict was invited by the Queen, and we presume that Vatican intermediaries requested the invitation. He did indeed meet with a few abuse victims (four women and one man, a demographic which may miss the point a bit). He did indeed apologize, not personally but on behalf of 'the authority of the Church." And yet both events, coming late in the life of the scandal, seemed to have little effect upon an already enraged public opinion.

And then he performed what was, in many ways, the main order of business. Despite having previously declared that he would not preside over beatifications, but only canonizations, Benedict broke his own rule to beatify John Henry Newman. This, we believe, is the hinge upon which the whole story turns.

We at the Egg admire Newman tremendously. But we aren't Brits. This means that, in addition to having had reasonably good dental care as children, we lack a national memory of Papist plotting, a la Guy Fawkes, to overthrow our government. Neither are we Anglicans, which means that we haven't recently been slapped in the face by the pope's proposal of "Anglican" ordinariates as a refuge for our malcontents. In other words, we haven't had 400 years, right down to the present, in which to nurture the belief that the pope was our national enemy.

Newman, of course, was famous in his own lifetime for two things: (1) dramatically re-shaping the Church of England, and (2) subsequently abandoning it. Both of these things won him enemies, and those enmities still linger. He was called a liar and worse. He was in his time a symbol of Romish treachery, a treachery which might at any moment turn treasonous. Nor was his time all that long ago.

So do you see where this is going? Tone-deafness. In an historic visit to a country with a long history of nationalist anti-Catholicism, made at a delicate time in the history of western Christanity, he went out of the way to offend his hosts, both secular and religious. No wonder the crowd went a little nuts.

As they said when Napoleon executed the Duc d'Enghien on bogus charges, "It was worse than a crime; it was a blunder."

So, yes, we do think that much of the criticism aimed at Rome and at Benedict is mistaken or disproportionate. We do not for a moment believe that they are treated fairly in the press. But it becomes more clear to us with each passing screwup, both in public relations and internal administration, that they are their own worst enemies. They will either learn, quickly, how best to present themselves to a hostile but easily-swayed public, or they will lose what influence they still retain.

The problem, of course, is that whether anybody likes it or not, Roman Catholicism, especially as represented by its pope, is the public face of all Christianity, or at least all traditional Christianity in the western world. Our credibility, and hence our fates, are all connected. The idea of Peter's bark sinking wouldn't bother us half so much if we didn't believe that it could take the rest of us down with it.

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