Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Against the Potato

Our great-grandfather, a missionary in Mexico, once preached a long sermon in which he meant to criticize the Roman church and its leadership. He couldn't figure out why the people in the room were smiling, snickering, and finally laughing. After the service, somebody took him aside and explained, we hope gently, that El Papa is the Pope. Great-grandpa, unfortunately, had preached a blistering sermon against La Papa, which means the Potato.

Which brings us to Madrid's World Youth Day, and the people who took to the street in protest. Is it possible that they, like an old-timey Protestant missionary, didn't really know what they were talking about?

Out of the gate, let us say that the protests have an ugly anti-Catholic tone to them, and that while in theory they may be directed against the Pope, in practice they are directed against young Christians. Here's a first-hand account.

But at the level of theory, so far as we can tell, the protests have had two distinct hypotheses: (1) that Pope Benedict XVI is personally evil (a Nazi, a pederast, that sort of thing), and (2) that, in the midst of an economic crisis, the government had shelled out a vast amount of money to pay for his presence. Neither contention is especially original; one recalls that angry Britons said almost the same thing a few months ago.

As for the first point, we can only throw up our hands in despair. Yes, he's an elderly German, and from the age of 14 was pressured into association with the Bad Guys. On the other hand, he refused to attend Hitler Youth rallies, and when they drafted him into the Army, he deserted. For that matter, one of his cousins -- with Down Syndrome -- was murdered by the Nazis in the name of their eugenics program.

As for pederasty, or rather making life easy on sexually abusive priests, well -- it has certainly been a problem throughout the Roman Catholic Church, and we don't doubt that as a diocesan bishop Ratzinger may have been been part of the problem. But he is also the one who convinced John Paul II to put the CDF in charge of discipline, rather than leaving it to the whim of individual bishops, and the one who went after some of the seemingly untouchable malefactors, like Legionaries founder Marcial Maciel Degollado.

Yes, we wish that he had spent as much of his life fighting criminal priests as heterodox ones. But he has put more energy into discipline and justice for victims than most Vatican figures, and certainly more than his predecessor. On balance, Benedict looks pretty good here.

So what about the second point? Is economically-challenged Spain wasting money on the visit of a foreign religious leader that might better have been spent caring for poor people? It's not impossible -- Spain is still among the most faithfully Catholic nations in the world, and a politician might do worse than offering circuses to people who have no bread. On the other hand, PM Zapatero is a Socialist and prominent supporter of gay marriage. His education reforms have offended religious groups, notably the Roman Catholic Church. And Spain is a far more secular today than it was a generation ago. So if this is pandering, it seems neither characteristic nor likely to succeed.

The Christian Science Monitor provides some interesting ideas:
The pope's visit will cost an estimated 50 million euros ($72 million), according to organizers, and involves closing off much of downtown Madrid. Private companies will contribute a large portion of the money for the event, but Spain will also have to cover many of the expenses. An exact breakdown of the overall economic effect is still unknown. ...

Officials in Madrid say the pope's visit, which was planned long before the current economic crisis, could generate as much as 150 million euros ($215 million) in revenues from tourists.
Ah! So it is pandering, but of a different sort -- pandering to the business community. This is the same sort of logic that drives cities to bankrupt themselves pursuing the Olympic Games, or to spend public money on a stadium in which wealthy owners can pay wealthy athletes to chase balls like school children.

Mind you, we have grave doubts about this strategy. Why? Because it doesn't work:

Owners of teams in the "big four" sports leagues — the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL — have reaped nearly $20 billion in taxpayer subsidies for new homes since 1990. And for just as long, fans, urban planners and economists have argued that building facilities for private sports teams is a massive waste of public money. As University of Chicago economist Allen Sanderson memorably put it, "If you want to inject money into the local economy, it would be better to drop it from a helicopter than invest it in a new ballpark."

Of particular interest to Madrilenos may be this part:
In one study of six Super Bowls, University of South Florida economist Phil Porter found "no measurable impact on spending," which he attributed to the "crowding out" effect of nonfootball tourists steering clear of town during game week.
Perhaps they shouldn't have invited him during tourist season.

On the other hand, WYD is reported to have drawn something like 1.5 million people, most of whom must have stayed in hotels, eaten in restaurants, shopped in stores. That is vastly more than the number of people who attend most sporting events. So maybe, this once, the theory will work.

In any case, it isn't the Pope's fault if it doesn't. He is just doing his job, and it is a job which we are ever-more convinced he does quite well. Despite our confessional position that the claims of the papacy to ius divino are inherently opposed to the Gospel -- ahem, the Pope is Antichrist -- we have to say that the protesters are giving the poor guy a an unnecessarily hard time. Worse, they are giving a hard time to the million-plus young people who turned out to sing, pray and look for meaning in their lives.

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