Sunday, March 17, 2013


A child, worried about his pet, asked a famous theologian whether dogs could go to heaven and whether they had souls.  The theologian thought for a moment and said there was really no way for us to know this, but we ought to act as though they DID have souls that went to heaven.  Then we would treat them with dignity and love.

There’s a second story.  The Hell’s Angels finally got to thinking about their image and resolved that they would improve it.  So they were roaring down the highway one day and came to a motorist stopped alongside, tinkering under the hood of his car, clearly broken down.  These guys were pretty good mechanics, so they stopped to help out.  The motorist, looking up and seeing these scary guys advancing on him, panicked, pulled out the oil dip stick and defended himself by slashing at them with it.  So they beat him to a pulp.

With those tales in mind, let’s think about the new Pope Francis presumably named for Saint Francis with all his associations, especially the Zefferelli movie “Brother Sun, Sister Moon,” which was the favorite movie of Mother Teresa’s nuns.  There are three movies about Saint Francis but they won’t stream.  I’ve ordered the discs.

But what if the new Pope was thinking of Sir Francis Drake, Vice Admiral (1540 – 27 January 1596) who was an English sea captain, privateer, navigator, slaver, and politician of the Elizabethan Era, knighted by his queen in 1581.  He was second-in-command of the English fleet against the Spanish Armada in 1588. He also carried out the second circumnavigation of the world, from 1577 to 1580. He died of dysentery in January 1596 after unsuccessfully attacking San Juan, Puerto Rico.  

Or how about Francis M. Drake, an Iowa governor and Civil War veteran.  (Union officer.)   Or what about Frances Drake (1912 - 2000), an American film actress best known for playing Eponine in Les Miserables (1935).  She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

“Pope” is one of those jobs that changes people because it reveals so much privileged knowledge to them that it transforms their understanding of the world.  “Dear Abby” became far more tolerant and human after reading her mail for a few years.  Something like the same has happened to most of the Supreme Court judges (not Scalia or Thomas who remains cloaked anyway.)  Everyone is looking for small clues: Francis said “Brother Cardinals” instead of “Lord Cardinals.”  What shoes are he wearing?  (I haven’t heard.)  At meals he looks for a space among the others instead of insisting on a reserved special place.  Suddenly everyone is reading up on Argentine history, which is very mixed.  How does this Francis fit into that?  Did he oppose cruelty and corruption?,0,166222.story  It sticks in my own mind that the worst of the Nazi torturers and genociders were finally found in Argentina.  (But also a major population of Jewish refugees.)  I don’t even know the specific story of their indigenous population.  Only 25% of the population is observant Catholic.  (45% in the USA.)  

 He strongly opposes gays but rides the bus.  He fights poverty and inequality, but he opposes Liberation Theology, a great source of reform.  He is friendly and cooperative with Jews (says he will open the Vatican archives to discover what really happened during WWII) but no one knows what he thinks about Buddhism or Islam or indigenous religions.  His “in-house” charge seems to be double:  get rid of the predators of children and get the money straightened out.  We’re not used to this face.  Does he remind you of Gomer Pyle or Jonathan Pryce

In seminary there used to be talk -- mostly when the denominational people were around -- about the way that congregations shape their ministers through their expectations and reactions.  This was why internships were so important: would the “teaching congregation” have enough patience to tolerate blunders, maybe fairly serious ones?  Would they expect or even insist upon the qualities that people want?  We know how our media invents and feeds on quarrels, exaggerates honest differences into deadly rivalries, does its part to create martyrs because that sells books.  (Even though no one seems to read the very books they vilify or exalt.)  But do reporters really dig deep for facts and dynamics?  Any more than congregations examine their ministers closely?  

In the major professions where people have great power (medicine, law), the practice in the past has been to depend upon peers to govern each other, but technically at least, the Pope has no peers.  Until now.  How much will Benedict interfere with Francis?  His assurances don’t mean any more than they did when he had no peers, but now he has an equal, too.  What if Francis finds out that Benedict’s dear attendant, nicknamed “Gorgeous George,” is more than a helper?  At some points in history such problems are dealt with quietly -- the offender disappears.  We don’t do that anymore -- except in Argentina in the recent past.

What a cliff-hanger.  Slightly mishandled, this papacy could be the end of the Roman-style Catholic Church.  We already have the Anglican, Lutheran and Episcopalian shards from past controversies.  But they say the real rival in the Southern Hemisphere is the Evangelical church -- going directly to God through the Bible, discarding the machinery of earthly institutions.  Everyone is his or her own Pope, Archbishop, Cardinal and Priest.

The wild card is poverty.  Whether one considers it a cause or a result, whether one thinks poverty is waxing or waning or just changing shape, it is the marker for the effectiveness of religion in guiding us to survival, whether individual or en masse.  And the even wilder card -- indeed, the whole deck -- is planetary climate change and the accumulating pollutions and erosions of the Anthropocene Era which will certainly require us to be fewer and possibly force the death of billions on us.  It does now -- except that the dying are mostly anonymously poor.  No one misses them -- not really.  Will the Pope lift them up?  With a blessing or a scourge?

It seems to me that the people who demand equality assume that it will mean lifting everyone up to a middle-class American standard of living and education.  This is impossible: there are not enough resources on the whole planet.  We assume that everyone everywhere will live the same, but this is also impossible.  Some will live where there is plenty and some will live on the desert.  The way we think about this, including the way our expectations affect our leaders, will deeply affect how we act.

NOTE:  The four ancient patriarchates (splinters of the original Christian catholic church) enjoy the highest prestige.  Patriarch means the same as Pope.  These men do not meet.  As Popes, they do not require celibacy but are otherwise quite conservative and ceremonial.

Two among the many sub-groups still have some power.  In the Greek Orthodox Church: Patriarch Theodore II is young for a Pope (b. 1954) and seems altogether honorable and progressive, devoting himself to art and charity.  He doesn’t seem particularly political, coming to power because his predecessor was killed in a helicopter crash, and unanimously chosen.

Head of the Russian Orthodox Church is Patriarch Kirill, who has extended friendship and suggested collaboration to Pope Francis.  He is in the midst of a scandal over a $30,000 wristwatch and other luxuries.  He and Putin are buddies.  Kirill is the man who had Pussy Riot, the female rock band, arrested for demonstrating against him in front of the church.  The women were imprisoned for five months.

No comments: