Red Pope

G. K. Chesterton once said, “The problem with Christianity is not that it has been tried and found wanting. The problem with Christianity is that it has been found hard, and very rarely tried.” For me this neatly encapsulates the difference between theory (or theology) and practice in Christian politics. Andrew Sullivan [1] has a reaction to the first Papal resignation in some hundreds of years which is in many ways excellent:

“[this could have been] a transformative, prophetic papacy, one that responded with urgency and grace to the most pressing issues of our day. […] And yet when it came to his brutal enforcement of rigid theological orthodoxy, his callous treatment of women, his unstinting opposition to the aspirations of gay and lesbian Christians, and his weak, corrupt handling of the child rape scandal, Benedict squandered this opportunity. […] The slightest scintilla of heresy could be detected from Rome, publicized and disciplined. Thousands of cases of child rapes – all of which he saw from 2001 onwards? Not so much. He insisted on total and utter secrecy within the church and no cooperation with civil authorities. […] This is all the more tragic given Benedict’s prodigious learning and theological acumen – he could have been a messenger not just for the continued relevance of the love Jesus witnessed to on every page of the Gospels, but a sophisticated, erudite, intellectually credible messenger for that vision.”
        — Andrew Sullivan, The Daily Dish

No, Andrew, he couldn’t. Joseph Ratzinger behaved as White Pope in precisely the manner one would expect of him, given what we know about who he was, and what he did, before elevation to St. Peter’s Throne. I can understand why Sullivan, who is a devout and serious Catholic, finds it difficult to accept; he is one of those who really is trying Christiatnity, however hard that may be for him, and I think he understandably expects the senior figures in his Church to be counted with him among that number. But they’re not.

Sullivan recognises, with commendable honesty, that Pope Benedict XVI has been catastrophic leader for the modern Catholic faith. He even recognises how, but does not make the final connection from there to why. For someone who has no vested interest in the idea that Popes are good guys, the link is not hard to make. Joseph Ratzinger was raised in the most militantly orthodox and conformist society known to modern man; he was as a young man party to a savage, vastly destructive lesson in the fruits of cultural hubris, and then a couple of decades later he was appointed to head the Spanish Inquisition. [2]

What bugs me here is the surprise. Sullivan genuinely seems to think it is surprising that when you establish an youthful ascetic in the political ranks of quite possibly the single most top-down, authoritarian institution in the history of Europe, and then hand that ambitious man the specific duty of hunting down and burning heretics enforcing orthodoxy and doctrinaire philosophy, that this boy would grow into an arrogant, inflexible and predatory dictator.

Of course it’s not surprising. It is, in fact, bitterly predictable. Ratzinger was raised in Nazi Germany, saw his country bulldozed in a losing war and was then presented with the keys to to power in an institution which exists to crush dissent. He had constructed a rationalisation for authoritarian behaviour which, within his theology, read as a mission from God to roll back the Enlightenment. And then they handed him a big hat; they made him retroactively infallible. Do you think there’s much chance that he, himself, did not believe it? The Pope behaved exactly as one would expect him to behave, with one vast and signal exception; he resigned.

I didn’t see that coming. The closest thing to a possible political frame for the decision I can think of is the issue of the Papal peadophilia cover-up, and the extent to which Benedict has tanished not only his own reputation, but that of the Vatican and the Papacy themselves, in his handling. I can possibly see him having decided, or being persuaded, that he is permanently tagged with that scandal and that a new Vicar could lead the church away from it.

I didn’t see this coming and I don’t understand it: but I am very glad the college of Cardinals have a chance to correct the egregious failure of their last papal choice.

[1] If you’re interested in US politics or gay rights, and you’re not reading one of the few religious conservatives out there who is rigorously honest (and also a gay Catholic) then you should be!
[2] Well, close enough for the joke, anyway. The Catholic Popes come in Red, Black and White; Pope (white), Jesuit Pope (black), and the Red Pope who heads the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; quite literally, the modern bureaucractic designation for the institution known to history as the Inquisition.


February 2013
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Per Argument Ad Astra

Politics, history, economics and rampant speculation from a victim of the Great Recession, currently at large in the West Midlands.

"When the regulation, therefore, is in favour of the workmen, it is always just and equitable; but it is sometimes otherwise when in favour of the masters."
                -- Adam Smith


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