Monthly Archives: May 2014
THE QUALITY OF MERCY
The other day I heard an interview with Cardinal Walter Kasper, currently on tour for the English edition of his book Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life (Pope Francis has himself just published a book called The Church of Mercy, mercy apparently being the theological flavor of the season). But I suspect the real reason the cardinal rated an interview on my local public radio station is because he’s known as “the pope’s theologian,” much as Cardinal Ratzinger (later Benedict XVI) was known as “the pope’s [recently sainted Pope John Paul’s] Rottweiler.” Having Kasper in studio must have seemed like the next best thing to having the pope himself there and a golden opportunity to pick the cardinal’s brains about the course of Roman Catholicism under Francis’s papacy.
But first the host Brian Lehrer, a gentle but intelligent interviewer, questioned Kasper about the meaning of the word mercy and the reason for its being so high up on the new pope’s agenda. The cardinal happily distinguished mercy from compassion (active versus passive), mercy from justice (complementary), the biblical origins of the virtue (Sermon on the Mount, among others). After several minutes of Q&A, though, little light had been shed on the subject either for the host (who is Jewish) or for me or, presumably, for other listeners to the program. But Lehrer had not denied Kasper his ten minutes for flogging the book, which was after all his immediate reason for appearing on the show or, for that matter, his being in the US in the first place.
Lehrer then moved on to the questions he, and much of his audience Catholic and non-Catholic alike, wanted answers to: Did the pope’s emphasis on mercy and understanding mean there would be any change to the church’s position on birth control or homosexuality or divorced and/or remarried Catholics receiving the Eucharist, etc.? To all of which Kasper replied in diplomatic and noncommittal terms. He said Catholics are already making up their own minds about birth control, though he reminded us the church is not against all kinds (presumably he was referring to the “rhythm” method). And in the case of Catholics who have divorced and remarried, that choice is their own responsibility.
If you’re one of those Catholics, ex-Catholics or non-Catholics who have been hoping for something truly different from this pope compared with his predecessors, if in other words you have been hoping for a reassertion of the kind of liberal attitude with which John XXIII shook up the church fifty years ago, I’d say the prospects are dim. John XXIII was an anomaly, a tragic mistake in the view of the church itself or at least that part of it that has put into power all popes since John XXIII and before.
The cardinal didn’t indicate anything had changed doctrinally for Catholics with the ascension of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio to the papal throne. In case you missed it, just a couple months back Pope Francis threatened the Mafiosi of southern Italy with eternal hellfire if they don’t mend their ways. As long as the church continues to keep hell (and heaven) in the picture, no amount of mercy-talk will change the fundamental use of fear and reward with which the church has always kept the faithful in line. Justice requires a hell by this logic, but it’s the sinner who condemns her/himself to eternal torment, not God, as the church sees it.
Kasper and the pope are simply staking out the themes of the new papacy, much as candidate Obama put forth the themes of his candidacy during the 2008 presidential campaign. Remember “Hope and Change”? The traditional John Paul/Benedict XVI authoritarianism (attended by the revelation of a church-wide, decades-long cover-up of priests’ sexual abuse of children) got nowhere in the developed world, however much the church’s continued harping on homosexuality, the use of condoms and an insistence on a males-only clergy appealed to the conservative mentality of the hierarchy and the faithful in Africa and Latin America where the church is doing quite well, thank you.
John XXIII’s papacy was an attempt to return the church to a more collegial governance combined with a “preferential preference for the poor” that spawned a Liberation Theology movement which the church itself, with the help of like-minded friends in the US government and its armed forces, has since been doing its best to suppress, sometimes with murder.
Two hundred years ago the papacy was a feeble office to which the rest of the church paid little attention. The Kings of France, not the pope, appointed that nation’s bishops, a shocking example of papal impotence by today’s standards. The revival of the papacy as a “unitary power,” to use the phrase favored by those who want the same kind of extreme authority for the president of the United States — a preeminent, unassailable last word in matters doctrinal and ecclesiastical — started, as best I can tell, with Napoleon’s agreement to put the pope back in the driver’s seat if he, the pope, sided with the Little Corporal in his Italian wars. The consolidation and expansion of papal power has continued under subsequent popes until today it is all but forgotten that ultimate power in the church used to reside in councils of bishops with the pope acting as first among equals. Today we assume the pope is not only the ultimate authority in matters of faith and morals but is the sole initiator of policy in those areas. No synod of bishops can do more than humbly offer advice. The pope is dictator, elected by a body of cardinals themselves appointed by, yes, previous popes. And, the last I heard, no ordinary Catholic or even ordinary priest or bishop gets to cast a ballot for anyone. The church is no more democratic than was the politburo, which also “elected” the head of the Soviet Union.
There are many good people who serve humanity in the name of Jesus — nuns who look after the most destitute cast-offs, who literally each day moping up the waste of people who have no chance of recovering from AIDS and other degenerative diseases. I know someone who has held babies who would not live out the night, would die untouched and unloved by anyone but those nuns. Those women don’t make the nightly news broadcasts.
There are others too, some of them clergy, who lead lives of dedication to the poor and who sometimes lose their lives because they do. The popes and bishops rarely represent these Catholics. The hierarchy’s preoccupation is with the institution of the church, just as it was a thousand years ago when they had the power to execute anyone who deviated from the doctrine they laid down. Berdoglio/Pope Francis did not get elected pope to upset a two-thousand-year-old organization that is still recovering from the changes attempted by his predecessor half a century ago.
We get the leaders we are willing to settle for, whether it’s in Rome or Washington. We will get different ones when we demand them. But I have yet to hear anyone call for a democratization of the Roman Catholic Church (admitting that I don’t get around much in Catholic or any other religious circles). The idea, I suspect, is not even up for discussion, just as the idea of ordinary people taking over their own political and economic destinies is not up for discussion, the failure or Bolshevik communism having apparently proven the inevitability of corporate feudalism and top-down, money-driven politics.
At the risk of sounding like yet another pie-in-the-sky/pinko idealist living in La La Land, I suggest reading Rudolph Rocker’s Anarchosyndicalism, written (elegantly) in 1938 and as fresh and full of good, practical ideas as anything you’ll come across. All it proposes is what has already been demonstrated in other parts of the world as well as right now in many places in the US: that ordinary people are quite capable of ordering their own lives and of cooperating with their neighbors to their mutual benefit.
Meanwhile, if you’re still a Catholic, I suggest you start asking for the basic right of any human being to elect the people who claim to have the right to lay down laws by which they, the faithful, will get to spend that part of their existence called eternity. Democracy was good enough for the earliest version of Christianity. Why not now?
IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE. RIGHT?
The Israeli historian Shlomo Sand in a recent interview said he was “becoming more and more convinced that the Nazi reaction, the antisemitic, Nazi reaction was not against the marginalized, it was the revolt of the marginalized against the center.”
This idea runs counter, of course, to the generally accepted version of the reason why the Nazis came to power. It also contradicts the still popular notion, however discredited, that there was something in the German character that was all but innately anti-Semitic. “Jews were at the center,” Shlomo goes on, “in terms of their way of life, they were citizens. They were Germans. They spoke German better than Hitler.” Unlike the Jews of eastern Europe, the Jews of Germany or France had no other, Yiddish culture. They were Germans and French whose religion, not ethnic identity, was Jewish, and that’s what they had been for more than a hundred years.
They were also urban and hence relatively well-educated. The people of the countryside in any nation feel a loyalty, even a primary loyalty, to their village or province that is impossible for a city-dweller. The word civilization derives from the Latin word “civitas,” meaning “city.” It may be a bit chauvinistic to say so, but civilization and hence national identity is primarily an urban phenomenon. Being urban, Jewish Germans like other city dwellers constituted the “real Germans,” as the diarist Victor Klemperer described people like himself, Germans who stood for the high culture and progressive thought that Klemperer himself represented.
Nazism for Sand, then, was a takeover by those outside the mainstream of national culture against those who represented the mainstream, not just Jews but anyone who stood for any point of view that was not in accord with National Socialist orthodoxy.
I wonder if we aren’t experiencing something similar today in the United States — not a Nazi or neo-Nazi revolution but a takeover of our government by our own marginalized minority against the mainstream. How else can we account for the dissonance between what pollsters tell us and how the government acts? Even before Obama came into office polled showed a 70% approval for single-payer national insurance — Medicare for all, i.e. But Hillary Clinton when confronted with this fact by the Harvard physician who headed up the single-payer movement at the time, told him to “Get real.” And Barack Obama took the single-payer option off the table before negotiations for the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) even began.
A similar percentage of Americans in 2003 opposed attacking Iraq. It was the first time in US history a significant anti-war movement formed and took to the streets before a war began. Bush-Cheney bombed and invaded Iraq anyway.
Today we have a Republican House of Representatives that’s controlled by its most radical members who want to undo Social Security and Medicare and severely limit or abolish the social safety net that protects the least advantaged, especially those underemployed or unemployed. They hold to a doctrine that state assistance leads to chronic “dependency,” the same argument, indeed the same word, used by British parliamentarians in the 1840s to justify their allowing a million Irish to starve to death in a land that continued to export food to England.
The Democratic party, in thrall like the Republicans to large corporate backers, is under the influence of an equally marginal ideology.
Meanwhile, the American people, despite tens of millions of born-again Christians and others who espouse a radical conservative agenda, still back social programs and foreign policy that is at odds with what the government gives them. This looks to me like what Professor Sand proposes was the situation in Germany when the Nazis came to power.
How long will we tolerate our elected officials acting against what the American people want? Will we, like the German people, come to a point where our votes no longer count but are just plebiscites staged to provide cover for the Leader’s latest abridgment of our freedoms?
As it is, we can barely claim to be a democracy any more, according to a recent study out of Princeton University — hardly a bastion of progressivism. The system only works for those who oil it with big bucks. And if we think our salvation will come at the hands of a political messiah, the disappointments of Barack Obama’s two administrations should make us think again.
In our case the margin that is taking over our nation, or has already largely done so, are the financial and corporate elites, not an ideological cadre of malcontents. Those elites don’t have an ideology beyond a belief in what makes them even more wealthy. If useful idiots like Paul Ryan espouse a political theory that suits the one percent that control the wealth of the nation and through that wealth its politics, fine. But the one-percenters could not care less about Paul Ryan’s ideology fantasies. As long as he and his cohort support the practical business of money-making, he could spout Marxism or devil worship for all they care.
And the latest bad news is that the rich aren’t just earning a greater and greater proportion of the national wealth as earned income. The present generation of super-rich and their progeny are now raking in a greater and greater percent of the annual GDP as income from investment, as Thomas Picketty’s very popular new book Capital in the Twenty-first Century documents. This development is putting us in more or less the same position as those South American nations which for centuries were owned and run by a handful of families. The rest of us become reduced to the status of serfs and vassals. There’s a kind of runaway global financial warming going on that will soon become too powerful to effectively challenge. But, if we think the super-rich run America now, we ain’t seen nothin’ yet, if Monsieur Picketty is right.
And, lest those among us with professional or other advanced degrees and/or six-figure incomes think this is only bad news for the laboring masses, assuming they can find jobs, we should consider if material security purchased at the price of personal freedom and democratic governance is worth it. As things stand now the intellectual classes already labor in the vineyards of the status quo. Is there some offal we will not eat, or is a ticket to a prestigious university and a life of middle-class privilege all we aspire to for our children and grandchildren?
America has perfected the art of controlling its population without the crude tactics of the Nazis or their mirror image the Bolsheviks. Our media self-censors as effectively as either of those fascist dictatorships muzzled their own press. Almost nothing gets onto the airwaves or into print that the ruling class does not want, and when anything unfriendly to it is allowed to appear it is spun as radically as anything in Pravda or Das Reich.
When the ruling class of the South lost the Civil War and their legal right to own other human beings, it didn’t take long before they — having themselves become the marginalized — found they could produce a similar labor force by simply arresting freed slaves and putting them on chain gangs. The practice continues today in our increasingly corporate-run prisons. Again, the margin — in this case the staff that make up the jailors and, in the case of privately run facilities, the owners and stockholders — has taken control.
We have already slipped into a semi-police state without most of us even noticing it. American citizens can no longer count on the protection of the Constitution to safeguard us against unwarranted searches, detention or even extra-judicial execution. The takeover which the Nazis of Klemperer’s time had to effect discretely until they had achieved absolute power has been realized in America by open acts of Congress and by acts of the president taken on his own initiative, beginning in earnest under the Clinton administration, as was documented and decried at the time by Nat Hentoff, and continuing under the Bush and, even more so, Obama administrations.
It may be springtime in America for the super-rich and their political enablers, but it’s going to be a long, hard winter for the rest of us and our progeny. Fascism may look more benign here than it did in the land of the Brown Shirts and the SS, but the results for our freedom and our republic may not be much different.