'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Saturday, April 09, 2005

How Does a Secular Leftist Respond to the Pope's Death? 

[This post is by frequent commenter Richard Estes, who will be periodically guest blogging]

As someone who is not Catholic, and believes strongly in the necessity of promoting secular values instead of religious ones as the foundation of a diverse, equitable and non-violent society, the Pope's death, and the tremendous outpouring of sincere affection for him, presents a quandary. For a scholarly, yet emotional account of the Pope's strengths and weakness, it is hard to do better than Hans Kung, a well known dissenting German Catholic theologian who locked horns with this Pope on numerous occasions. His frustation boils over during a meticulous dissection of the Pope's record:

Contrary to all intentions conveyed in the Second Vatican Council, the medieval Roman system, a power apparatus with totalitarian features, was restored through clever and ruthless personnel and academic policies. Bishops were brought into line, pastors overloaded, theologians muzzled, the laity deprived of their rights, women discriminated against, national synods and churchgoers' requests ignored, along with sex scandals, prohibitions on discussion, liturgical spoon-feeding, a ban on sermons by lay theologians, incitement to denunciation, prevention of Holy Communion -- "the world" can hardly be blamed for all of this!!

Alternatively, for a more personal, scatological and forgiving expression of the same sentiment, there is this statement from Matt Foreman, Executive Director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. His conflicted conclusion:

The campy gay sides of me just want to imitate Bette Davis' famous statement about Joan Crawford on the Tonight Show, a few weeks after the death of her long-time nemesis. But the rejected-altar boy side insists, correctly, that that retort must be reserved for those with no redeeming qualities and John Paul II had many.

For a left, secular non-Catholic such as myself, however, these responses are inadequate. A clue to the inadequacy can be found in the course of the Frontline documentary aired about the Pope the night before his funeral. Beyond the many political failings of this Pope, failings, that, in the instance of the spiritual condemnation of the use of condoms to prevent AIDS, resulted in death and suffering on a scale normally associated with the perverse utopianism of fascism and communism in the 20th Century, there is the fundamental question of the Pope's vision of the world. As described on Frontline, the Pope, for many understandable reasons related to his personal experiences with Nazism, the Holocaust and Communism in Poland, developed a very dark, pessimistic view of human nature.

It is here that this Pope and this Church have gone grievously wrong, abandoning, as noted by Kung, the optimism of the mid-20th Century, substituting a bleak despair about people and their capacity for compassion, self-reflection and independent action. Based upon a serious misreading of the 20th Century as uniquely violent and depraved, a misreading that is readily revealed by the most cursory study of the consequences of Western imperialism for four centuries, with episodes such as the near extermination of Native Americans in the Americas, and the millions of deaths that resulted from the great famines near the end of the 19th Century, the Pope has lead the Church into a cul-de-sac whereby an antiquated patriarchal priesthood finds itself perpetually hectoring people to repudiate their skillful integration of the doctrine of the Church with the needs of the heart. In the case of AIDS, people spontaneously acted based upon both, but the Pope tragically undermined them by replicating the intolerance of the fascists and communists that he had condemned for much of his life.

This is the terrain upon which the record of this Pope and this Church must be confronted. By rejecting the Church's insistence that people, if left to their own devices in their own communities, will invariably abuse and exploit one another, we can say that, on the contrary, people can intelligently use contraception, while expressing a profound respect for life as we show compassion for all around us. We can assert that our open acknowledgement of homosexuality and the civil marriage of gays and lesbians will not impair the Church's ministry. We can persuasively contend that a vibrant, diverse culture, and all of its artistic creations, even the most abrasive and confrontational, enrich our lives in every respect, even spiritually.

For the Church is trapped, like a chessplayer compelled to move a piece, with nothing but ruinous alternatives: zugzwang. It disbelieves in the ability of people to live and govern themselves without the rigid direction of the Vatican, yet lacks the power to recover the control over our lives that it possessed in many parts of the world for centuries. One need only attend mass periodically to know that there are many parishioners, and, yes, even priests and nuns, who would celebrate the end of the Church's intrusiveness into almost every aspect of our lives. Many attend, not because they identify with Catholic doctrine, or, even know much of it, but, rather, because they have faith. If the Church possessed the same passionate faith in them, all of us, Catholic and non-Catholic, would benefit immensely. After all, even a secular leftist like myself goes astray, and needs some moral guidance now and then.

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