Andrew Brown tells us with confident prognostication that the choice of Bergoglio as the new pope shows a decisive shift from Europe, and, laying it on a little more thickly, suggests that the election of “Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio to take office as Pope Francis is an extraordinary leap away from the conservative and cautious nature of the last two papacies.” Not to allow that piece of non-information to stand by itself in lonely ignominy, the goes on to say that
[t]he election of a Latin American Jesuit would also have been unthinkable 30 years ago.
Electing a non-Italian was almost unthinkable little more than forty years ago, so this doesn’t add much of substance to the opening piece of padding. Others are a little more awake to the realities of the world. Some have called the 78-year-old a caretaker pope. What more can a 78-year-old man be expected to be? And in the Globe and Mail (which has done its best over the last while to mimic the most downmarket of local newspapers) Margaret Wente shows that she is at least alive to some of the problems facing the church, problems from which, from all accounts, the new pope won’t save it:
The Church embraces an ancient set of values that the modern world rejects. It’s hierarchical, rigid, top-down, secretive, centralized and authoritarian. It demands obedience at a time when more and more Catholics demand self-determination. It has largely been unable to appeal to a rising, urban, educated middle class.
The press, predictably, seems to have gone all gaga over the fanfare, the sumptuous vestments, the ritual, the colour, and the pretence of piety — falling hard for the holiness illusion — but seem not to have any idea at all about the reality behind the benign face of the new pope, or what his election really portends.
LATER ADDITION: For a clever, restrained and completely conclusive take-down of Catholic MORAL scare-mongering in action take a look at PZ Myers’ “Strident Catholics Hurt My Head“, where PZ simply takes apart the claim that chaos ensued after the US Supreme Court’s 1972 decision that non-married persons have a right to access to contraception, and how the whole funny farm of Catholic apologetics with respect to the purposes of sex and sexuality is simply — as it was bound to be — a kind of deus ex machina, introduced for no other reason than to preserve the church’s power to control the lives of others, and especially the sex lives of others. Although claiming that chaos ensued, PZ shows, by the numbers, that the result was the opposite of a vividly imagined chaos that never occurred.
This can be shown with respect to Roman Catholic scare-mongering over assisted dying as well. The chaos is not really social chaos; it is the chaos in the minds of Roman Catholics when things are taking place of which they disapprove, and which they believe should not take place because they are contrary to a supposed natural law regarding these things. The basic principle at work here is the location and possession of power. The church wants to retain control, but society functions more humanely when unaccountable wielders of power leave the scene.
Apparently, Huffington Post and TED have entered into an agreement. Huffington Post will publish essays based on TED talks. As Jerry Coyne points out,
HuffPo + Ted = nonsense
I misunderstood, however, and made this comment:
I understand, from your earlier complaint about Sheldrake, that you think TED is inextricably aligned with woo. But surely it is not altogether fair to TED to make the equation above just on the basis that Small has taken Zimbardo’s TED talk and transformed it into a bit of liberal Christian special pleading. As you point out yourself, Zimbardo’s talk is secular, so in what way does TED contribute to Small’s nonsense?
But, as someone pointed out, there is an agreement between HuffPo and TED, and if that is so, as it apparently is, then, given Jeffrey Small’s religiously “informed” response to Phil Zimbardo’s TED talk, this is undoubtedly an example of Jerry’s equation. There is nothing whatever in Zimbardo’s talk that leads to anything in Jeffrey Small’s spinoff HuffPo piece. That was a decision made by an editor at HuffPo, and this should concern us. No responsible editor should have allowed Small’s article to stand as it was. He should have been required to give a reasonable response to Zimbardo’s talk, and if his religious beliefs did not permit that, then it should have been scotched altogether in favour of posting Zimbardo’s talk without Small’s misleading introduction.
What’s wrong with Small? He completely misunderstands Zimbardo. Small misses the point altogether. He begins by considering the problem of evil, but Zimbardo’s talk has nothing whatever to do with the problem of evil. Small continues to mislead by talking about evolution in terms of freedom, but Zimbardo is not talking about evolution, though Small wants, for religious reasons, to push things in that direction (after all, freedom is one of the fundamental arguments for defending the goodness of God in the face of evil, and if he can include freedom in evolution, then the argument can be taken all the way back to the formation of life itself!):
Evolution only works because of freedom in the natural world: a freedom of genetic mutation, a freedom of natural selection, and a freedom of randomness. This freedom led to the existence of conscious humans, but by necessity the same freedom also causes cancer, disease, natural catastrophes, and even extinctions. The paradox of existence is that death and destruction bring forth new life. Spring follows winter.
This is just silly. Jeffrey also takes the wrong message from Zimbardo’s talk. He says this:
Psychologist Philip Zimbardo demonstrated in his Stanford Prison Experiment (which he discusses in his fascinating TEDTalk) that the potential for cruel behavior lies within the ordinary person and that the environment in which the person is placed can bring forth this potential.
That is not what Zimbardo said. He said the problem lies with power, which is contextual, not with the individual or with what lies within the individual:
This is the key, and it’s important to see this, because what Zimbardo calls the heroic response to evil depends upon seeing the contextual features that permits power to be exercised in unaccountable ways. Instead of seeing this Jeffrey wants to do the typical religious thing and place the problem in the individual’s use of freedom.
I distrust holiness, and believe that it is almost always a pose. There was a time, though, when I thought it was real, and even aspired to it myself. Indeed, some people thought I was holy, and I was secretly pleased when I overheard people saying that I was truly a “man of God.” But, pleased or not, I knew that I was far from holiness, if, indeed, holiness can be thought to be real thing. There may be people whose thoughts and feelings are, in the appropriate sense, “pure,” but if there are I have not met any, though I have met many who have pretended to be.
I’m not sure when I began to think of holiness as a sham, but it is probably related to two events, widely separated in time, when my father, a minister in the United Church of Canada, who spent twelve years as a missionary in India, and then several years in Bermuda, revealed the skull beneath the skin. I do not report this to disparage my father, who is not here to defend himself, though, truth to tell, he was always a distant and rather forbidding figure to me, though he mellowed a bit when Elizabeth and I were married, when both he and my mother made up — with some deliberateness, it seems to me now – for some of the misery they had visited upon me as a child.
For his op-ed this morning in the National Post Paul Russell has printed a selection of letters that came in answer to his question: “Can a new pope revitalize the Catholic Church?” Some of them give a scary glimpse into the minds of some Roman Catholics. Take this one, for instance:
“Revitalizing” the Catholic Church is a myth. A new pope will continue with the teaching of the Catholic Church carrying the torch handed down from Christ to Peter. Such teachings are not a compromise to please a few and displease a few others. No one can change Jesus’ teachings or the Bible. The Catholic Church is not a crowd pleaser. There is an old saying, “Those who believe in God, need no explanation. Those who don’t, no explanation will suffice.”
The idea that there is a “deposit of faith” and that the Roman Catholic Church has access to this mother-lode of all mother-lodes runs through these letters like a golden thread. One response, almost word-for-word quoting from Ratzinger’s parting remarks, says:
The Catholic Church isn’t some corporation that needs revitalizing; it is the body of Christ. Christ is the head, represented by the pope on Earth, and the body is made up of us, ordinary people who are sinners. We are the ones who need revitalizing. And we get that through the sacraments.
As Andrew Brown says, the pope’s final speeches show him hubristically fashioning a illusory vision of the church completely loyal to his teachings. He quotes this example of the pope’s self-delusion:
The church, he said this morning, is “not an organisation, not an association for religious or humanitarian goals, but a living body, a community of brothers and sisters in the body of Jesus Christ, who unites us all. We experience the church in this way and could almost be able to touch it with our hands, the very power of his truth and love is a source of joy, in a time when many people speak of it as in decline.”
One wonders whether Ratzinger, like Alice, has passed through the looking-glass. He’s spent his pontificate sacking bishops who disagree with him — two or three a month, according to the Tablet – which means that, for every bishop appointed there was at least one disgruntled, dissenting bishop who didn’t fit so nicely into that loving ”community of brothers and sisters in the body of Jesus Christ.” Who, really, did he think he was fooling? Well, obviously, some of those who responded to Paul Russell’s question. But did he really believe it himself?
The title words come from an article exploring the Roman Catholic Church’s campaign to change defeat at the polls (for its favoured idiocies), to success in imposing its will on people, no matter how unwilling, by buying up hospitals, and merging secular hospitals with Roman Catholic health care operations, particularly (in this instance) in Washington State. It’s a feature story in The Stranger entitled “Faith Healers,” and provides an alarming account of the way in which the Roman Catholic Church is actively buying up or merging its operations with hospitals run by secular organisations (such as local municipal authorities), or by other churches that do not have the draconian rules about women’s health issues that the Roman Catholic Ethical and Religious Directives (ERDs) impose on all Roman Catholic health care services, with the understanding that the annexed institutions will observe the Roman Catholic bishops’ ERDs. The title words themselves were spoken by a physician (who agreed to speak to the reporter on the condition that he/she could speak anonymously). Let’s put them in context:
The physcians who agreed to meet me for coffee talked about the mindfuck of being raised Catholic, turning to atheism, and excelling in medicine — only to wake up one day with the church as your boss. The first physician joked grimly about the religious directives being “medieval torture porn.” He talked about the struggle of trying to balance his duty to patients with the edicts of a Catholic hospital.
This would be frightening enough, if Roman Catholic hospitals were private institutions run with Roman Catholic resources for Roman Catholics, but this is not the case, apparently, in the United States. No. These are hospitals funded by government, for which individual tax payers are (through their taxes) partly responsible, whether or not they support Roman Catholic torture porn. They are taxed without the option, and the Roman Catholic Church is actively seeking to buy up or merge with even more hospitals in order to spread their torture porn as widely as possible. There are parts of Washington state, apparently, where people would have to drive hundreds of miles to find a non-Roman Catholic hospital to access abortion services even for an ectopic pregnancy. As for Washington’s right-to-die legislation, this is completely out of the question for people “served” by a Roman Catholic health (or “health”) centre. As one activist, opposing the church’s gobbling up of Washington state’s health facilities, Monica Henderson, says:
We’re essentially paying a Catholic institution to deny us care. … It isn’t right.
Indeed, it is not right, but then, why should we expect justice or right from an institution that, world-wide, has been trampling on children’s rights with an abandon that in any other circumstances would be called a rampage. And it is this rampageous organisation that presumes to teach others their duty.
I’ve been reading articles about the pope’s resignation (or abdication, if you take seriously the pope’s claims to be a monarch), and all together they form a pretty mixed bag. It cannot help but dawn on one that no one really knows what’s going on, and very few seem to have any idea at all how things are going to play out from this point. One commentator, according to the Globe and Mail, a distinguished Hungarian Jesuit, said sotto voce that it was “the end of the pontificate.” To many people Ratzinger’s resignation came as a complete surprise. Even high ranking members of the hierarchy seem to have been taken off guard; yet others say that there were signs that this has been rumoured for at least a year. But, surprise or no surprise, the thing that gets me the most is Ratzinger’s claim that he did this for the good of the church, which makes him look a bit saintly, humble and actually caring, something that was in scant evidence during the nearly 8 years of his pontificate. Peter Stanford, over at the London Telegraph, even went so far as to say this:
There is no mystery, or smoking gun, but rather just extraordinary courage and selflessness.
Can anything be so simple in that hotbed of intrigue and double-dealing known as the Vatican, where inmates feed on each other daily, and spend lifetimes jockeying for power? I doubt it. The papacy is set up in such a way as to generate infighting and disloyalty, and some of the most unsavoury characters are raised to high office. Where it is taken seriously, spiritual power is much more corrupting than mere worldly authority. It was not for nothing that Lord Acton said, with the doctrine of papal infallibility (which he opposed) immediately in mind, that, while power corrupts, “absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
And that, sadly, is precisely what it has done. Ratzinger was only the latest confirmation of that. When he was elected in 2005 it was like putting the fox to guard the chickens. The sex scandals had been picking up steam, and the one man who was at the centre of that particular whirlwind – since, as Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger had presided over the disposition of sexual abuse claims, and had mandated the silence of victims and perpetrators under threat of excommunication — was placed in a position where he could continue to hamper investigations into who knew what, when it was known, and what was done in consequence. The disdainful attitude of the papal representative to Ireland towards the commission to inquire into sexual abuse was a clear indication of the pope’s unwillingness to face the gravity of the offences and the part that he played in the cover up of those offences. It is hard to forget Vincent Nichols’ response (after the Ryan Report was issued in 2009) about the courage of the offenders to face up to their actions, with not a word about the suffering of the abused children involved in their crimes, and the church’s complicity in those crimes, by covering them up and shunting offending priests from parish to parish where they could offend again. Ratzinger could only have dealt with the crimes had he not been involved at a crucial level himself in their commission.
And then to have made a state visit to the United Kingdom during which he was at pains to condemn, by associating it with the Nazis, the growing activist movement towards unbelief, which has been one of Ratzinger’s constant refrains during his pontificate, condemning atheists as not altogether human, and characterising all unbelievers as a danger to morals and civilisation, puts the icing on the cake of his betrayal of reason. For this came from a man who was at the centre of a cover up of crimes against humanity that offend the very conscience of humanity. Are those now praising the pope for his humility and selflessness in giving up the papacy simply forgetting what is perhaps the defining event of his entire papacy? He spent eight years consolidating the power of the papacy and its hold over the hierarchy — and thus, of course, over the whole church — while fending off any real investigation of his role and the role of the CDF in the cover up of sexual abuse by priests and bishops. Can anything be more egotistical and self-serving than that?
I have said before, and have been called on the point by a number of people, that what has put the Vatican in this mess is the Vatican I declaration of the infallibility of the pope. This, I was smartly told by those who wish to defend this completely idiotic doctrine, is limited to those occasions when the pope speaks in a special way (speaking ex cathedra, as the official language has it) on matters of faith and morals. But no one has adequately defined when the pope is speaking in this special way. So, when Paul VI – who followed the genuinely caring John XXIII, who called the Second Vatican Council in part to undo the harm done by the First Vatican Council – was faced with the recommendation of his commission on birth control that the church change its stand, he demurred, because this would have immediately called his own authority and that of the papacy into question; for in order to change the church’s stand on this matter, he would have had to accuse of misleading the faithful, a previous pope, Pius XI, who, in his encyclical, Casti Conubii (Chaste Marriage), had condemned artificial birth control as contrary to the natural moral law. And so Paul VI (Montini) added his own contribution to the growing case for the infallibility of the church’s stand on contraception, the encyclical Humanae Vitae, which supplemented Pius XII’s Humanae Generis. It is interesting and perhaps significant to note, that this chain of papal pronouncements on contraception was precipitated, in the first place, by the Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops in 1930, which had decided in favour of artificial birth control in some circumstances. And so Paul VI added his voice to the growing chorus of papal voices condemning contraception, a decision which has painted the papacy into a corner from which it cannot escape.
The first pope since Gregory XII in 1415, Ratzinger will make it into the history books as a man who abandoned his post. He is, as Gijs van Dam suggests in an email on behalf of a brilliant friend, effectively committing suicide, and “[s]ince the pope is against euthanasia, we shouldn’t allow him to quit his job.” As God’s vicar on earth, after all, giving up the papacy is no minor misdemeanour, but a very large, historically resonant blunder. What the history books will say I do not know, but I think they will reckon his occupancy of the supposed “throne of St. Peter” (it isn’t, really) to be largely a failure. He was deeply invested in the Führerprinzip, and this was, I believe, his downfall. He had no “give” to him at all, no sense that others had songs to sing, and he simply did not understand the modern world. He will go, unlamented, into whatever shadowy wilderness retired popes occupy. I imagine it will be a bit like the Limbo that the Catholic Church has defined out of existence. Since it is so unprecedented, the church won’t know what to do with the man. But, surely, it is good that he is gone. Perhaps, even though two popes in succession have stacked the cardinalate and curia with conservative types – and the most populous Catholic areas in Africa and South America will want their kick at the papal can — just perhaps, the Conclave gathered to choose the next one will give more thought to the idea that what they need is someone who understands that we are no longer, and have not been for some time, existing in a strange medieval world ruled by tyrant popes. The days of Canossa are gone, and emperors will no longer come and stand in the snow, begging forgiveness.
Over at the Huffington Post there is a debate between Margaret Somerville, purported ethicist from McGill University in Montreal, and Wanda Morris, Executive Director of Dying with Dignity (Canada), the voice for choice at the end of life in Canada. Somerville, as is her wont, brings out all the usual suspects, none of which are really compelling, and all of which depend on two things, making you afraid of it, and claiming that it’s simply — it’s really that simple folks! — wrong to kill people. She forgets, of course, that people have been killing other people since the dawn of time, and will go on doing it. Certainly, many acts of killing are wrong and to be regretted and condemned, but merely saying that something is a matter of killing another human being is not enough all on its own to make it wrong.
Margaret’s biggest argument — the real big argument so far as Somerville is concerned — is that permitting the act of assisting someone in great suffering to die (she doesn’t like that euphemism, so we’ll come back to it) is changing something fundamental about the way in which we regard human life, and it will bring about untold changes in our society, and may — in fact she is sure that it will — change the way we regard killing others, so that legalising it in the case of those who choose to die in order to end their suffering will set society off on a slippery slope to disaster and depravity. She’s said this numerous times before, and she puts so much weight on it that it really constitutes her main argument against assisted dying (a ”sanitised” form of language that she deplores, but we will come back to that). Margaret’s problem, not to put too fine a point on it, is that she is left asking a vague question about the future: “What long term effects might result from that?” She doesn’t know, but she has this in common with the pope: she believes firmly that this will usher in a “culture of death,” if it hasn’t already arrived, and that there will be much weeping and gnashing of teeth because we didn’t listen to Jeremiahs like her.
Since the expert legal panel in Québec has now released its report recommending medically assisted dying under certain conditions (more on that in a later post — they are not so prohibitive as I was led yesterday to believe) which is accessible in French on the Dying with Dignity site here, the voices for and against are going through their warm-up exercises once again. In the National Post this morning, we are regaled with one article in favour of assisted dying, and one against. Predictably, Margaret Somerville is put back up on her soapbox so that she can say, over and over again, what she continues, without much foundation, to say, that it’s just wrong, though it’s hard to say why.
Let’s start there. Here’s what Margaret Somerville says, comparing the cases for and against:
The case for euthanasia is logical, direct and utilitarian, so it’s easy to make. That against it is much more intangible, indirect and ephemeral, so it is much harder to communicate effectively, especially in a predominantly visual culture. We need to set up “spaces” where all our human ways of knowing, especially our moral intuition, examined emotions and ethical imagination, can function in relation to all aspects of euthanasia, in making a decision whether to legalize it.
This is scarcely compelling. The argument for assisted dying is not simply “logical, direct and utilitarian.” For Somerville, this is tough talk, because she suggests that the argument against assisted dying (which she simply calls killing) is much more culturally thick than the argument in favour. The argument in favour, she is suggesting, simply doesn’t take into consideration the depth of the issue in relation to society, community, tradition, and all the complex emotions and rich imaginative scenarios that are necessary in order to understand our ethical intuitions. What she seems to be trying to do is to discredit the arguments in favour of assisted dying by suggesting that they are culturally shallow, that they fail to take cognisance of what Clifford Geertz called the “thick description” of a culture. Arguments for assisted dying are in some sense imports from a completely artificial conception of human relationships, and if we take the complexity of real human relationships into consideration, we will find, Somerville thinks, that not only is this so, but that it is in fact seen to be so by increasing numbers of young people, who find contemporary society unsatisfyingly peripheral.