Thursday, August 1, 2013

Vatican bait and switch

My buzzers being what my buzzers are, I spent some of this morning writing the following for the local newspaper. I didn't quite have the nerve to entitle it "Another Vatican Bait And Switch."

Given the track record of the Roman Catholic Church when it comes to gays, women and others who have been traditionally marginalized, it is hard not to seek out reassurance in Pope Francis' recent assertions of non-judgmental love and forgiveness.  Benevolence feels better than small-mindedness.

The pope's rock-'em-in-the-aisles visit to Brazil and subsequent remarks to reporters on the trip back to Italy allowed Northampton Pride spokeswoman J.M. Sorrell to express the hope (Gazette, page 1, Aug 1) for "a potentially huge shift from a very top-down mentality toward a movement for more inclusivity." Sorrell, like a lot of other people, was impressed with the pope's humility when he asked, "Who am I to judge?"

Priests and others close to Catholic tradition were quick to point out that what the pope said was really nothing new, that the church has always stood for a loving kindness, but the longing for a factual expression of that kindness overwhelmed the reasonable observation of insiders. Hope springs eternal. Pope Francis seemed to hold out hope to those who have for too long felt the lash of an imperious and punishing doctrine.

Benevolence, kindness, decency, inclusivity, honesty, humility, transparency: Top these hopes with Pope Francis' winning smile and congenial demeanor and it is easy to understand why the hearts of the faithful might dance.

And yet too, it is hard to ignore George Bernard Shaw's observation that "when a stupid man is doing something he is ashamed of, he always declares it to be his duty."

The duty of the Roman Catholic Church is found in a centuries-old tradition. That tradition expressed itself last month when the Vatican criminalized the leaking of confidential information that might harm the church -- including details relating to pedophile priests.

Fabrizio Perona of Italy's La Repubblica (cq) newspaper viewed the legal revisions with skepticism: “They just thought nobody would notice. The Church wants to impress the world by getting tough on sex crimes, but they criminalized leaks, which is the only way anybody would ever discover their crimes. It’s genius, if you stop and think about it.”

Citing the church's approach to sex crimes may seem inflammatory, but even leaving aside the inflammatory nature of the incidents, it seems reasonable to ask what sort of a tradition -- what sort of duty -- is it that encourages/demands confession and transparency on the part of its flock and yet goes to considerable lengths not to confess the particulars of its own missteps? Is this an institution whose blessed bona fides and concerns for its constituency are in trust-worthy order?

Yes, Pope Francis has a wonderful smile and a down-home demeanor that are attractive. It is hard not to like so likeable a man. But is likeability a good measure of the underlying and overriding facts?

During the French Revolution, the guillotine was put to extensive use chopping off the heads of an offending aristocracy. And at that time, the late 1700's, the guillotine was seen as a more humane way to inflict the death penalty. No longer would a painful death be accepted. The guillotine was quick and comparatively painless. The presumption that the death penalty would be meted out remained intact. Only the manner -- the relative kindness -- of its application was revised.

Benevolence, kindness, decency, inclusivity, honesty, humility, transparency are worthwhile aspirations. But on what basis does anyone pin those hopes?

Lately, Pfc. Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden have created an enormous stir by releasing secret documents. Politicians and others who might smile and speak humbly about transparency in government are hell-bent-for-leather to pillory the very people who have acted on the principle they claim to espouse. It is our duty to keep things secret, the argument goes.

Even as a non-Catholic, I hope Pope Francis brings a new day and a new kindness to his church. Being unkind strikes me as a pastime for stupid people. But I have my doubts that the systemic duties of that church, whatever clothes they wear, will ever allow for a new dawn.

In the back of my mind, like it or not, lurks the image of a greyhound race track. The dogs are fleet and full of a palpable hope and excitement. But no greyhound ever caught the mechanical rabbit that runs before them.

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