Is the Pope a success? Doesn’t it depend on how you look at him? By Ratsinger’s point of view, meaning conventional, historic standards -- rigid, seeking irreproachability without any attention to results? By Abraham Lincoln’s or Martin Luther King’s standards, both responding to the original American trafficking sin -- that of bringing captured people to America to serve as slaves? (Sex was the least of it.) By the standards of the indigenous people of both Americas whose lands were simply seized with the help of disease?
In terms of popularity he IS a success, movie star adulation with the added dimension of Heaven. In terms of his own, which rest very much on the family, he is a paradox, a man sworn to celibacy who reaches out to the biological family, nuclear or extended. But he is also sensitive to the idea of the created family in relationship so long as its center is mutual protection for the survival of itself and others, including their dogs. (If you’re going to imagine something, why not include both dogs and giraffes? Or as another famous theologian put it, “We don’t know whether there are dogs in heaven, but there ought to be.”)
In terms of impact on civilization in our times, it’s mixed. Ask a nun. In terms of impact on his own people, it’s mixed. The problem again is that for some people he’s a rousing success, but those are not people who were included before, so pulling them in changes everything. Is change a success? At one time being Catholic meant NOT being President of the USA in the same way that being Muslim means inelectability in our times -- so far. Now it’s a big asset to be Catholic, but there are not enough priests to serve the parishes. Everyone loves the Pope, few trust their priest.
In our times image is all. So if the Pope and Peter Dinklage ran against each other for President of the USA, which one would win? At one time it would have been unthinkable for a genetically short person to have been shown on television having hot sex and winning wars. Of course, before JFK the same went for US presidents. It’s easier to think of Benedict up to no good. The screenwriters have already shown us that a female president wouldn’t be that different from dubious characters -- being female is not a guarantee of being good and being good is not a guarantee of being effective.
Anyway we can’t decide whether we want an effective president -- many would rather the power rested with Congress. Not many think of the Supreme Court as trustworthy these days, not after throwing election of the president into the laps of the secretly powerful, the quiet international corporations that really run the world. At least the Pope knows that.
He is a man sensitive to structures in society that make all the monetary values in capitalism serve only the few, while Jesus’ radical idea of empowering “the least of these” -- shared by other great leaders -- is only used to argue for obedience. Francis I must throw his prestige and popularity against the same sort of values that built the Roman Empire which was the pattern for the Roman Catholic Church. We forget that there were branches that are not Roman and they still exist.
Being Pope became a powerful force when Europe was in turmoil. The nations were forming and even the system of attaching entitlement to genetic linear descent -- inheritance -- was not enough to keep order. The Pope rose as a way of claiming God was willing and able to determine which occupant of which throne was valid. Can Francis I do that? Someone needs to. In history it was war and finally the dread of experienced war that decided which way things went. In a time of polarized dissension, as intense as the Thirty Years War or the World Wars, we badly need a rallying point.
But the Pope was merely speaking to the US Congress, asking THEM to be the rallying point -- not the United Nations. This is good strategy for dealing with people who think they are more important than everyone else -- give them responsibility commensurate with their power. There’s no crown or throne.
But there are dragons -- predator drones -- and there is a body of thought that’s based on those deadly and brutal European wars. I’m talking about “Game of Thrones,” of course. I would argue that the popularity of this program is based on its ability to explore contemporary politics, under-culture, criminal culture, sequestered culture, and all the rest. It’s not that one can assign White Walkers to one group and slave keepers to another, but that it gets us to think about the patterns, the obsessive recurrence of things we abhor and KNOW don’t work. So far I see no signs of a Pope.
When I was actually “preaching,” I used to return to the trope of “after.” After Christmas worked pretty well, because Boxing Day -- typically British -- was about restoring order to goods, totting up accounts, and eating leftovers. The day after you get what you want, is often a powerful space for thinking, esp. if change is involved. Often the intense focus on preparation turns out to have been the best part of the event.
We need to think about what we will do after the Pope goes back home. In fact, it is inevitable that Francis I will die -- he knows that. Then who gets elected? Beyond that, some day the Holy Roman Church will collapse and no longer exist. What will take its place? Will there even be a United States by then? Now those investor folks are busy pretending they own parts of the Moon, trying to figure out how to make money from that. So far the best bet has been throwing the ash remains of important people at it by using very expensive rockets. Our mix of ancient rites with contemporary hopes is proving to be lethal, especially to good ideas.
One of the most dangerous ideas still new but disintegrating, is the double-headed invention of record-keeping as money, and the devising of the internet which was almost immediately pressed into the same template. We forget that the combination is entirely controlled by the supply of electricity, which is still limited, guided through constantly decaying infrastructure, and vulnerable to secret but remarkably broad attacks. The OFF switch exists.
So many of us are feeling the urgency of finding more security. Paradoxically, the most effective strategy appears to be communicating through the Internet. So this morning I sit here in my nightgown with a shawl over my shoulders listening to an old Argentine man dressed all in white, including his short cape, and agreeing with him. Meanwhile in Sacred Pilgrimage, more than 800 Muslims press each other to death in their desperate attempt to find supernatural confirmation of their success. Kenner would say, “What does it mean?” The Pope would advise us not to withhold pity and help from them. What would Peter Dinklage say? What bitterly compassionate summary?