Tiger Woods and the Pope

March 31, 2010 at 8:50 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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So what do Tiger Woods and Pope Benedict XVI have in common? They’re both celebrities. And of course, recently they have both gotten some very bad publicity about sexual misbehavior, either for engaging in it, or, apparently, for covering up somebody else’s.

For a long time–from the liberal European revolutions of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries till the second half of the twentieth century, more or less–that the pope would be a celebrity was inconceivable. The “prisoner of the Vatican” was no star. Rather, he was pinched, hidden, and adamantly opposed to the world many of us lived in–the modern one.

I suppose the change started with Pope John XXIII announcing Vatican II and pointing the Church in the direction of the “modern world.” But the real credit for making the pope a celebrity goes to Pope John Paul II. John Paul, now called by some Catholics “John Paul the Great,” studied drama as a young person, and his acute stage presence, whether in his popemobile, the papal helicopter, his journeys around the world, his addresses to sports stadiums full of cheering followers, even, I’m tempted to say, his managing to survive an assassination–made him a global celebrity. Perhaps the global religious celebrity.

Besides JPII’s  gift for acting, another thing that has made the popes  celebrities is the amazing get-ups that they wear. I am reminded here of Mark Noll’s question, the title of one of his books, “Is the Reformation Over?” In thinking about the pope, I’m inclined to say: yes, and the Catholics won. For a long time this seemed not to be the case, of course. The Protestant ethic underpinned the emergence of capitalism. And the shift to the Word from the Image at the beginning of the modern era seemed a no-brainer, with the printing presses running, and only illiterate peasants peering at stained glass and statues anymore.

But since the invention of television, and even more, the internet, I’m not so sure. Think of my poor husband, the ordained American Baptist. He occasionally wears an academic gown, but mostly, he makes his way through the world in a suit and tie. Whereas the pope looks like a character in Avatar.  He’s the symbol of world Christianity,  just by virtue of his vestments, even if half the Evangelicals in the world still don’t believe  Catholics are Christians.

Now I have to admit that the current pope, Benedict XVI, doesn’t have anything like the stage presence of the previous pope (though he does have those red shoes!) But the veneer of celebrity achieved by JPII does not wear off all that easily. 

Which brings us to the similarities between B-16 and Tiger Woods. In each case, nothing sells more newspapers, draws more viewers, gets googled more often than celebrities and sex. And so we have Benedict XVI in the news about as often as we had Tiger a few months ago.

Never mind that there are certain dissimilarities between them as well. That there was actual evidence against Tiger, who confessed his infidelities, and apologized to the world. Benedict XVI, on the other hand, has offered no such confession for failing to turn in priest sex abusers. Of course, it may be that he actually was not aware of these abusers, no matter how many times reporters announce that the scandal is “getting closer to the Vatican every day.” No text messages have been discovered in Benedict’s case. There were four hundred parishes in the archdiocese of Munich when Benedict was the archbishop there. Hard to tell what he knew and if he knew it.

In point of fact, in last Sunday’s New York Times, NCR’s John L. Allen, without minimizing the current crisis, argued that Benedict has done better than any pope in history at responding to clergy sex abuse. Better, it would seem, than John Paul II, about whom a documentary will run on PBS this weekend that proclaims him a saint. 

But the current pope is another matter. He’s not a saint; he’s a celebrity. And the beat goes on.

Nothing Changed at Vatican II Dontcha Know!!

March 2, 2010 at 1:21 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments
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Lately, there’s really a lot of talk about Vatican II. You know: the Council of the Catholic Church that took place between 1962 and 1965. Last week I went to hear Father Joseph Komonchak, the great historian of the Council, speak up at Corpus Christi Church in Manhattan. He gave a splendid talk about the Council as event, that is, something that happened that changed the direction of history. This is the argument that underpins the five-volume history of the Council that he edited with Giuseppe Alberigo. Komonchak is a tall, handsome, impressive man. He gave his talk as part of the vespers service at Corpus Christi for the first Sunday of Lent. He and the pastor, Father Raymond Rafferty, were fully vested, and there was a lot of singing and praying and incense. It was a great honor to hear him present an overview of his life’s work.

Now, today, there’s an article in the National Catholic Reporter on-line about the relationship between the Council and the future of the Roman liturgy. Here we learn that the great dispute is between those who say that the Council effected a rupture within Catholic tradition and those who say that it continued it. I note that the word “event” appears nowhere. When I went back to school twenty-five years ago I learned that “either-or” is a thought structure characteristic of the Enlightenment and that serious thinkers had moved on to “both-and” (at the very least). So it’s a little troubling that we are having this either-or fight in 2010.

But what’s really got me going is a talk given by Franc Cardinal Rode, the Vatican Prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CICLSAL) at a conference on religious life at Stonehill College in September of 2008. CICLSAL is the body that’s conducting the current visitation of US congregations of Catholic Sisters. I am reading Rode’s talk for a paper I”m writing about the visitations. It doesn’t overstate the case to describe it as an opening shot across the Sisters’  bow. And guess what? A lot of it is about the meaning of Vatican II.

I knew we were in trouble as soon as I read the title of the talk: “Reforming Religious Life with the Right Hermeneutic.” As the NCR article referenced above observes, “hermeneutic” is a scholarly term meaning “frame of interpretation.” It seems that the big fight over Vatican II is focused on which hermeneutic should be used to interpret it.

The thing is, it’s pretty rare in academic settings to hear discussions about the “right” hermeneutic and the “wrong” hermeneutic. (See my comment above about “either-or” / “both-and”.) “Hermeneutics” signals a shift in humanities scholarship from a quasi-scientific, quantitative, right-wrong emphasis to more complex and nuanced readings of whatever is in question. Documents. Events. Cultures. 

So a talk about the “Right” (not even the preferred or the more adequate or the more authoritative) hermeneutic is cause for concern just out of the gate. But then Rode goes on to lay out the very either/or interpretation of Vatican II that the NCR alerts us to. The cardinal claims, quoting Benedict XVI, that some people interpret the Council in terms of discontinuity, or rupture– a complete “Yes to the modern era” (p. 7).  Such a hermeneutics of rupture has dominated the renewal of religious life in recent years (hence the visitations). But the right hermeneutic for interpreting the Council is “continuity and reform,” especially in religious life. Continuity continuity continuity. 

Let’s note a few things about Rode’s argument here. First of all, he never once mentions who these people are who advance this hermeneutics of rupture. Nor, again, does Komonchak’s word, “event,” appear even once, though Komonchak, and the American Jesuit historian John O’Malley, are surely the primary targets of the Cardinal’s attack. Finally, Rode never even hints at the possibility that an event as massive and overdetermined as the Second Vatican Council might involve elements of continuity and elements of change. As when Pope John XXIII, in his opening address, used the famous phrase  a “New Pentecost” to describe the Council. Pentecost: continuity. New: change.

I have  a lot more to say about Cardinal Rode’s talk, but I must stop; I’m way over any reasonable word limit for a blog. Stay tuned.

Infallible Holiness

January 23, 2010 at 1:05 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments
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In his op-ed piece in the Times last Sunday, the religion journalist David Gibson highlighted something that had escaped my attention: all four of the previous popes –Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul II–are now in the canonization pipeline. Is every pontiff a saint, he asks? 

Gibson begins by reviewing the recent controversy over the beatification of Pius XII, especially the harm it has done to Jewish-Catholic relations. He  goes on to question whether any pope should be made a saint, suggesting that to do so dilutes the meaning of sainthood. Following Notre Dame theologian Richard McBrien, Gibson suggests that more saintly lay-people ought to be canonized, not popes.

I sympathize with Gibson’s position, as I intimate in a previous blog recommending the beatification of the Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri instead of Pius XII. But I have to tell you, David, that your proposal hasn’t got a prayer. The Vatican will go right on beatifying and canonizing previous heads of the Vatican as the sun is going to go on coming up in the morning.

So I offer an alternative proposal: why don’t we canonize all popes at the time of their election? The canonization process is lengthy and expensive and if the church is going to go ahead and proclaim the heroic virtue of all popes anyhow, why don’t we/they just do it right off and get it over with? All other considerations aside, such an approach would save the Vatican the embarrassment of announcing that the archives from the reign of a pope half a century ago aren’t yet in good enough order to be open to scholars.  

And would canonizing popes at the time of their election actually change very much? Bear in mind that the pope is already referred to as “Your Holiness.”  

Finally, automatic canonization would offer a new and thought-provoking experience for Catholics in the pew whose relationships with the saints up until now are limited or perhaps we could say diffused by the fact that those saints are dead.  Now we would know that the living breathing person we are speaking with or listening to actually is a saint. Consider the great certainty such an experience would afford us in this time of crisis and confusion.

Happy 50th Anniversary

November 16, 2009 at 11:04 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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2009 seems to be a big year for anniversaries. In January it was a half-century (a half century!!) since the calling of the Second Vatican Council by Pope John XXIII. I used to be embarrassed that when I was a teenager I considered the council the most important thing that ever had happened. How parochial of me, I thought.  But some author I read recently described contemporary Roman Catholicism, with its 1.2 billion members, as the largest religious body in the history of the world. So maybe my enthusiasm wasn’t all that parochial. Thank you, good Pope John. Please pray that your successors don’t manage to eradicate every trace of your legacy.

And then today on the radio comes the equally earth-shattering announcement (!!) that it’s the fiftieth anniversary of the first Broadway performance of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music. If I was embarrassed at being wild about Vatican II, what is there to say  about my girlhood enthusiasm for what was surely the most sappy and sentimental of all R&H’s productions? Indeed, Hammerstein himself died less than a year later. But I still get chills when someone intones “The hilllllls are alive…”

The NPR commentator tried to give the S of M some gravitas by observing that it was one of the first productions to address the Holocaust, and I suppose that’s true. So did the film production of the Dairy of Anne Frank,  whose fiftieth anniversary is also this year. But they could hardly have made The Diary of Anne Frank into a musical, or at least, we can be grateful they didn’t. So The Sound of Music  continued to fill my heart with joy for quite a while. In truth, I am seriously tempted to order the 50th anniversary cd right now…

In what I think of as the culmination of my years in grade school , in 1960 or 61, my mother took me to see The Sound of Music on Broadway, while Mary Martin was still playing Maria. I was ecstatic. I stood at the stage door afterward and got Martin’s autograph; she wrote on her picture, “To Marian, with every best wish. Mary Martin.” I still have it, in my pink teenage memory box.

On the way to Penn Station to get the train back to Philly I said to my mother, “I wonder what parish Mary Martin belongs to?” To which my  mother replied, “Marian, Mary Martin is Jewish, so I don’t think she belongs to a parish.

Sometimes I wonder who that girl was who thought you had to be a Catholic to play a Catholic on Broadway. Happy anniversary to her, too.

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