Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Smoke From the Chimney

So we have a new pope. The white smoke from the chimney, signalling a selection, is a neat bit of stagecraft, blending an ancient tradition with a very modern camera-ready moment. But let's be honest: only a dying institution chooses a 78-year-old as its leader. And Cardinal Ratzinger is no mere doddering priest. As the church's official doctrinal watchdog, he has served the same role as the infamous "theoretician" Mikhail Suslov once served in the old Soviet Union, blowing the whistle on apostates and others who dare to deviate from the official policy set down by a group of ultra-conservative old fools. As for the idea of a German being named pope, I must admit that feels odd, a feeling not unlike that of an elderly Jew who refuses on principal to buy a BMW or Mercedes, even 60 years after the Holocaust.

This new pope once wrote a famous official document, in which he concluded that there is salvation only in Christ. The Catholic hierarchy's real problem, the central issue that dogs them and which will not go away, is that too many intelligent Catholics already understood that all by themselves. They understood that they don't need any intermediaries between them and their god, but merely a Bible and a quiet place to pray. They don't need dissembling bishops, like ours in Cleveland, who must hire a slick p.r. firm (Dix & Eaton) to help explain away their own clerical deeds and misdeeds. And so these people, millions of them and growing all the time, remain cultural Catholics, people who are often steeped in the comforting rituals of their earlier years, but who are still moving in their hearts toward a more simple, less authoritarian form of...Christianity.

The extraordinary spectacle of endless coverage of a dead pope is in some senses a ridiculous one, a product more of our modern cult of personality than our capacity for authentic faith. John Paul II was of course in many senses a unique world-historical figure, a brave and good man who used his voice for good causes. Who among us couldn't be moved by that historic photo of the pope alone in the prison cell with his would-be assassin, issuing his quiet forgiveness. It's the very embodiment of the heart-felt pastoral touch. JP2 was a miracle worker one-on-one. But when he moved to the macro, he was a different person. Like much of the hierarchy he represented, he was a bitter reactionary, seemingly just as intent on stamping out loving dissent as any Soviet oligarch ever was. More importantly, he was merely a man, a fact which all the official proclamations about "papal infallibility" could not change.

The tottering edifice of this Catholic hierarchy certainly has deeper and wider roots than Communism ever did. But sooner or later, it too will suffer the ravages of a simple dynamic, the human heart's insistence on being free and seeking its own answers, with whatever divine intervention it chooses to seek. Neither Dix & Eaton, the bishop nor the entire majesty of the Roman Curia can change that.


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