Rome Town 2008: Per Omnia Saecula Saeculorum

Progress in the Church of Pope Benedict is a moonwalk. That is what I have decided, anyway. For the pop-cultural non-cognoscenti, the moonwalk is a dance popularized by Michael Jackson in one of 1983’s most vibrant contributions to American civilization: “Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, and Forever.” I’m told the correct name for the dance is the “backslide”—an illusion creating the impression the dancer is moving forward when he’s actually moving backward. Imagine the Pope and the curia perfecting this in the papal chambers, cassocks raised mid-calf, to the sound of the Electronic Boogaloos. Now try not imagining it.

It didn’t get sillier than John Paul II’s October 1992 expression of regret for how Galileo had been treated by the Church, following a report issued by the Pontifical Council for Culture. Not that 1992 was the year the Church conceded the earth was not stationary and at the center of the universe. The Vatican ban on printing Galileo’s books was lifted in 1718, a tacit acceptance of the scientist’s findings. Rather, 1992 was the year in which the church found a way to acknowledge the premises of scientific investigation while retreating from their consequences. Whatever John Paul II’s contribution to the “concession” in favor of Galileo, the clarion voice was that of the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, who quoted, approvingly, philosopher Paul Feyerabend on the topic: “The Church at the time of Galileo kept much more closely to reason than did Galileo himself, and she took into consideration the ethical and social consequences of Galileo’s teaching too. Her verdict against Galileo was rational and just and the revision of this verdict can be justified only on the grounds of what is politically opportune.” That was 1990. In 1992, John Paul II said he was sorry. Galileo was right, but the Church was not wrong. Moonwalk.

Hands up all those who knew there were orthodox Christians in substantial numbers stretching in a band from Constantinople to Damascus and beyond in the year 1096, the year when Pope Urban II called the first Crusade for the “liberation” of the Holy Land. It was as much about papal authority over the east as about the predations of Islam, which had learned, over three hundred years, how to live with Christian minorities (tax them) in exasperated détente. No accident that the “Great Schism” between the western (Latin) and orthodox churches had happened only 50 years earlier (1054) in a slanging match between the eastern Patriarch Michael I and the western primate, Pope Leo IX. Always tactful, Rome sent a legation of soldiers to Constantinople, and they in turn placed the papal edict excommunicating the Patriarch on the high altar of the Church of the Hagia Sophia during the celebration of the Eucharist. But that’s history.

In September, 2006, Benedict XVI gave an address to the faculty of the University of Regensburg entitled, “Faith, Reason and the University.” In it he quoted the historically insignificant ruler of the Byzantine empire, Manuel II (circa 1396): “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” Following an uproar by interfaith police in every tradition, the Pope quickly declaimed he had intended to distinguish between the Koranic position—“There should be no compulsion in religion” (sura 2)—with the “brusqueness” of Manuel’s characterization (brusqueness not being error) and the Islamist view that the sword is as effective as reason in propagating religion. Now of course, the pope might have said that both the cross and the crescent have been used, as conditions warranted. But instead, he decided to go abstract and political: The Holy Father hates violence, said the official explanation (16 September 2006): “The position of the Pope concerning Islam is unequivocally that expressed by the conciliar document Nostra Aetate.” Beginning in September 2006, a rash of murders extending from Somalia to Iraq were blamed on the Pope’s remarks; the Iraqi militia Jaish al-Mujahedin (Holy Warriors’ Army) announced its intention to “destroy their cross in the heart of Rome… and to hit the Vatican.” (Der Spiegel, 16 September 2006). Nuns, priests, and random Christians–more recently the Archbishop of Baghdad–have been killed. What then is the effect of a sophisticated and nuanced speech about reason and religion delivered at a distinguished German university at the centre of the liberal West? Hysteria among the intellectual clientele the Pope had hoped to woo with his logic. The solution? Apologize repeatedly. Invite Muslim leaders to tea. Stress commitment to interfaith and intercultural dialogue a la Nostra Aetate. Moonwalk.

Then there was Limbo. Limbo is just about my favorite place. It’s one of the best attested doctrines of the patristic and medieval Catholic Church, which is why the protestant reformers targeted it for destruction 500 years ago. Dante makes it the first circle of hell—Horace and Ovid are there. The best of the ancients, as well as great medieval Islamic thinkers like Avicenna and Averroes, not to mention Saladin. And a million potentially Christian babies. What brings small and great together is a simple fact: they weren’t baptized—either because they lived before the Church made it convenient, or because, through no fault of their own, their quest for truth didn’t quite get them to the door of the baptistery. In its wisdom and generosity, and the sheer force of its theological consistency, the Church gave the world Limbo: so that unbaptized babies and infants, bearing the stain of original sin, as well as unbaptized prophets, patriarchs and philosophers, would have some place to go. After examining the history of the doctrine, a theological commission appointed by the beloved John Paul II concluded that there was little biblical foundation for the teaching called the “limbo of infants,” and a patchy record in doctrinal discussion. When Benedict assumed office, the question had become practical: If babies don’t need to be baptized to be saved, what’s the good of the sacrament? If the sacrament—especially the Catholic sacrament—doesn’t (in an older language) produce what it signifies, what’s the good of the Church? No wonder that the final document—far from “closing Limbo” as the media announced—did something far more subtle: It affirmed the necessity of baptism as the “normative” means of salvation, while stating that some things have “not been revealed to us” (the fate of unbaptized babies, for example), and that “we trust and hope in the mercy of God” (which presumably has been revealed to us). Yet twice in the document, the theologians, with a papal nod from the wings, declares, “Limbo remains a possible theological hypothesis.” Moonwalk.

We live in pedestrian times. The Philistines press in on every side. Nowhere is this more clear than when it comes to sin. The seven deadly sins were proclaimed by Gregory I in the 6th century, immortalized by Dante (yes, him again) and satirized (as their virtuous opposites) by Lerner and Loewe. They’ve had a good run, but they were looking a bit dated. 1500 years after their creation, the sins that used to require penance as a cure were going unconfessed, as Pope Benedict lamented in deploring “the decreasing sense of sin in today’s secular world.” 60% of Italian Catholics had stopped going to confession. Besides, lust, wrath, gluttony, sloth, greed, pride, and envy are really things you can deal with through anger management, cold showers, a good tax accountant, diet and amphetamines.

Clearly what was needed were globalized mortal sins for mortals living in a global economy. Sin had to be seen in a transnational, corporate light, restated in the language of social liberalism while keeping the theological matrix that offered the sacraments of the Church—Catholicism itself—as the solution. Besides, thought Archbishop Gianfranco Girotti, the bureaucrat in charge of penance and indulgences, if we link the global sin of pollution to the more parochially focused sin of “genetic manipulation,” we may be able to get some traction for the Church’s unfashionable view (even among Catholics) that stem cell research is contrary to God’s law. Or at least, that seemed to be the subtext. What the Archbishop actually said was, “You offend God not only by stealing, blaspheming or coveting your neighbor’s wife, but also by ruining the environment, carrying out morally debatable scientific experiments, or allowing genetic manipulations which alter DNA or compromise embryos.”

We will miss the old Deadlies. —If I do say so they were rooted in a consistent if depressing view of human nature. They were categorical, descriptive. Too much pride is a dangerous thing. Just ask Eliot Spitzer (who also wins the lust award). But the tendency reaches back to Agamemnon and Midas of Pessinus. The mistake was in turning the tragic flaws of Greek drama into the sorts of defects that could get you sent to hell. What Rome now offers is a cynical laundry list of human and social “evils”—not sins at all, really, at least not in any interesting sense. If the Pope’s objective was to create a list of deficiencies that were more in keeping with our time, why this list? How do you confess “consumerism,” or being “obscenely” rich, or being a “manipulative genetic scientist” or enemy of the environment? (Presumably the corresponding virtues are paying an unfair share of taxes, recycling and owning a Nissan Altima.) The Vatican did not consult me on this matter, but I would have kept the traditional seven and added dullness, stupidity, and Texas.

As with the other attempts coming out of Rome, the sin-update was itself a subtle attempt to squeeze relevance back into the historical tube, a crashing failure which was acknowledged to be such from the time the story hit the newspapers. Faster than you could say L’osservatore Romano, the Church back-peddled. It wasn’t really trying to unseat the classical sins, and anyway, it’s more important to practice the seven virtues than simply to avoid the potholes of vice. Moonwalk.

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