Tuesday, March 26, 2013

"The Carnival is Over"

That is what Pope Francis is reported to have said when he declined to sport a mozzetta in his first public appearance.  "The carnival is over":  a nasty slap at Benedict XVI's use of historic papal attire, a rallying cry for those who never liked Benedict and have been longing for a dramatic change in the Chair of Peter, and a clear signal to the hard-core traddies that their time has past.

"The carnival is over."  In other words, no more making nice with the Society of Saint Pius X, no more poaching from Canterbury's forest, no more randomly insulting Muslims.  Hey, maybe Hans Kung even gets rehabilitated.

"The carnival is over."  A pivotal moment in the history of the Roman church, a moment of clarity that turns the ship in a new direction.  Aggiornamento in miniature.

It never happened.

Francis never said it.  At most, it appears, he said "I prefer not to," which is hardly the same thing.

Nor, according to John L. Allen, is Francis planning to smack the the already-disgraced Cardinal Law around by casting him out of the Lateran and off to a secluded monastery.  Nor is his use of the open-air popemobile somehow a dramatic change from Benedict's practice -- Benedict often used the very same vehicle for tooling around the piazza.

As we've said before, there are a lot of horse hockey pucks circulating in the papal infosphere these days, many of them generated by the fact-averse Italian press and picked up by a strange mixture of dreamy liberals, paranoid conservatives, and bloggers who just don't know any better.  They are hard to avoid stumbling over, but easy enough to avoid repeating.  Just stick to the big guns -- Allen, first and foremost; then John Thavis and Rocco Palmo.  These guys seem to have the best inside sources, not to mention the best hockey puck detectors.

However, blogger Meredith Gould makes another point about these urban legends, which is that they are "signifiers."  That is to say that, to somebody less interested in their factuality than in their cultural meaning, they can open a window on all sorts of hopes and fears abroad in the society which nurtures them.  Or, as sociologists Joel Best and Gerard Horiuchi put it,
Urban legends, like collective behavior and social problems construction, are responses to social strain,  shaped by the perception of the threat and social organization.
In this case, it's pretty simple.  Vatican II remains an apple of discord within Roman Catholicism, and indeed well beyond.  The argument over its "meaning" -- its intentions, its relationship to a nebulous Great Tradition and a host of very specific lesser traditions -- remains unresolved half a century later.  This argument, in turn, reflects in microcosm the far wider and deeper anxiety felt by the rapid restructuring of social consensus which began in the North Atlantic nations and has now spread worldwide.  Fifty years ago, it was hard enough to come to grips with the end of colonialism and the beginnings of Second Wave feminism.  It would have been impossible for all but the most extreme thinkers to talk about gay marriage, global jihad, or the Internet.  Never mind the brave new world promised by biotechnology, or the advance of what Ray Kurzweil calls "the Singularity."  The old order, established at the end of the 17th century and largely unchanged but for the replacement of British hegemony by American, has disappeared.  It is no longer clear to all viewers that there is a "West," culturally speaking, much less Western values, ideals or traditions.  And if those things do exist, then it seems to many people that they are under siege.

And nobody -- nobody -- so clearly bears the standard of western cultural tradition (however that term is understood) as the Bishop of Rome.

No wonder then, that many people, and by no means only the obvious ones, focus their anxiety upon the person of the pope.  The militant atheist, the cynical reporter, the fundamentalist struggling in his own way against modernity -- each of them has a stake in the emerging idea of what it means to be Westerner living in a global village.  That is why they fantasize (as their predecessors did, too, and often no less creatively) about a person who might otherwise seem irrelevant to any of their own pursuits.

All that being said, it is best to stick to verifiable facts.  For the moment, Law lives in the Lateran, and the carnival appears to continue, even if in a more muted fashion.

No comments: