Saturday, April 16, 2005

Notes on the papabili

Alas, I'm not yet prepared to post my prediction for the papacy, nor even to list my own favourites (though I have a few in mind, mostly decentralizers and reformers). There are less than three days to go before the start of the conclave, which begins on Monday, and -- stay tuned -- I'll post a substantial piece sometime over the weekend.

Despite all the "expert" opinion out there, no one really knows anything, of course, not least because the unpredictable Holy Spirit may have something to do with it. But Ratzinger does seem to be the favourite, and I'm not sure if I can disagree at this point. A good case can be made for any of 15-20 of the cardinals, including the two leading Canadians, but Ratzinger seems to have the most going for him: advanced age (in case the cardinals choose to go with a transitional figure whose papacy won't last too long); conservative, John-Pauline credentials (in case the cardinals choose to stay the course set by John Paul II); towering stature as head of the all-important Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (in case the Cardinals choose to go with continued centralization, doctrinal rigidity, and enforced conformity); and a strong public performance at John Paul II's funeral (in case the Cardinals choose to go with a prominent and visible figure to follow the most prominent and visible pope in history). Plus, for what it's worth, he already seems to have locked up a number of votes. The National Catholic Reporter reviews Ratzinger's chances here.

But who knows? If you want good, short bios of the leading papabili, or if you just want to put faces to names, here is another valuable NCR piece.

I've resisted linking to this site, but I find it quite irresistible: Paddy Power, a leading Irish online betting site. If you want the odds, here you go. Ratzinger continues to lead, but the rest is unclear. A personal note: I'm something of an agnostic, but I'm not sure that betting on the papacy is a good idea. Think Pascal's wager. If there is no God, fine, you might win some money, but more likely not. But if there is a God, you might be in big, big trouble (and, what's more, for all eternity). Take your pick. I'll make some predictions, but that's about all my risk-aversion will allow!

One final note: It is being reported that John Paul II mentioned three cardinals as his possible successor: Ivan Dias (India), Angelo Scola (Italy), and Claudio Hummes (Brazil). Is this rumour or fact? Who knows? Hummes is likely a top-5 candidate, Scola is a distinct possibility, and Dias, to me, is a legitimate dark horse. If the race (sorry to put it that way, but I do think of this as fundamentally political, even at the risk of being in big, big trouble for all eternity) is close, and if even just a few voting cardinals take this rumoured fact seriously, we might just end up with Hummes. What's interesting, though, is that these three aren't nearly as conservative as some of the other leading papabili, and Hummes, relatively speaking, is even something of a moderate.

More on this soon...

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Thursday, April 14, 2005

Capitalism and the Church: A liberal misconception?

A column by William Rees-Mogg in Monday's (London) Times, available online, caught my attention. Rees-Mogg, former Times editor and altogether cranky aristocrat (or is it aristocratic crank?), argues that the only certainty in terms of the outcome of the upcoming papal conclave is that the next pope "will be a socialist". He continues: "Almost every cardinal and bishop in the Roman Catholic Church, and probably every bishop in the Anglican Church, is a socialist. They are socialists in the same sense as Tony Blair, or Gerhard Schroeder, or Jacques Chirac, or Bill Clinton. They are all socialists because they have never studied the liberal argument." Which is why the next pope, whomever he may be, should read Adam Smith. Which is to say, the next pope should learn to be a good liberal democratic capitalist.

Now, these statements barely dignify comment. Rees-Mogg is a fairly intelligent man, and his genealogy of liberalism, which is what his column becomes, is generally on the mark. So, too, is his general conclusion that "[f]ree economic competition is not a zero-sum game. Free competition creates complex mutual benefits, by what Adam Smith called 'the hidden hand'. Liberalism has changed the world because it works and socialism does not". I realize that many of my recent posts place me on the "liberal" side of things, for the most part, but I am enough of a capitalist to be what could be called a classical liberal, or an economic conservative in contemporary parlance. But Rees-Mogg is mistaken in setting such a simple divide between capitalism on one side and socialism on the other. Capitalist economies, after all, have all adopted various aspects of socialism, such as universal, publicly-funded health care, unemployment insurance, and social security -- so much so that it might be more accurate to call them mixed capitalist economies. And how, exactly, are Tony (economic stability and sustained growth) Blair and Bill (the era of big government is over) Clinton socialists?

That's another problem. What I mean to focus on here is Rees-Mogg's ridiculous suggestion that the next pope draw inspiration from hardcore capitalists from Smith to Hayek. To begin with, Pope John Paul II nobly stressed economic progressivism, especially in the developing world, not the virtues of capitalism. Rees-Mogg mentions Locke, but he should know that the liberal project of which Locke was very much a founder was decidedly anti-religious -- Machiavelli's new modes and orders, the foundations of modernity (and hence Lockean liberalism), involved the rejection of subservience to some imaginary God/gods and the liberation/deification of Man. For the next pope to embrace capitalism and the liberal project of which it is an essential part would be to renounce his very purpose and place in the world, not to mention the very Church he leads, the very Church that was the object of liberal scorn in the first place. Rees-Mogg seems to want the papacy to be a bully pulpit of liberalism, to provide some sort of moral backing for capitalism. Forget the inherent, God-given dignity of all human beings. Forget the "culture of life". Forget a life lived according to the teachings of Jesus (who was not, alas, a good capitalist). It's all about the benevolent free market. So why not just give the job to Alan Greenspan? Surely the Vatican Curia -- or perhaps Cardinal Ratzinger, head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith -- must have a solid theological argument for where interest rates should be in relation to the current rate of inflation?

The Church does not exist for the sake of liberalism and capitalism. It is not a giant religious mouthpiece for the cult of the free market. I do not always agree with the positions that the Church takes on a variety of social and economic issues, but, even as a non-Catholic, I see the Church as a powerful bulwark against the worst excesses of modernity. Yes, there are problems with the Church's positions on homosexuality, abortion, and contraception, as well as on women's issues generally, and there are problems with the male-only celibate priesthood and even with the Church's so-called "socialism" in the developing world. I would like to see some serious reform in these areas -- though a non-Catholic, I recognize that the Church is powerful beyond itself and is therefore of concern to non-Catholics -- but I do not want the Church to become, say, a United Nations with fancy costumes and archaic speech. I want it to be what it is, which is a strong counterbalance to the all-too-powerful forces of modernity -- liberalism, capitalism, materialism, technology, etc. -- that already govern our lives. And this applies to the Roman Catholic Church as well as to other religious institutions, to Christianity and to other religions. Simply put, I am a secularist, but I do not object to the presence of organized religion or other forms of spirituality within the context and parameters of liberal democracy.

In the end, Rees-Mogg will not get what he wants (not that he could possibly mean it seriously). The next pope will be very much like Pope John Paul II: a social and doctrinal conservative, an economic progressive, a spokesman for traditional values generally, and a force for hope in the developing world. After all, the left-right divisions that define our political discourse do not apply here. There won't be liberal and conservative camps in the conclave. There will be differences -- centralization vs. decentralization, Italy/Europe vs. the developing world, liturgical/doctrinal reform vs. traditionalism, free inquiry and open debate vs. authoritarianism, etc. -- but it is a liberal misconception to think that the Church will ever embrace Adam Smith and accelerate full-steam into the delights of the free market. That's not what it's about, nor what it should be about. Period.

In my next post, or at least before the conclave starts next Monday, I'll pick my favourite from among the papabili and also give my prediction as to who the next pope will be and what name he'll take. Not that my opinion/prediction matters, but it seems to be the thing to do, and, as I've mentioned, I'm endlessly fascinated by it all.

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Wednesday, April 13, 2005

The end of conservatism?

After last night's rather long post, I've decided to take a breather today. Besides, I'm sure I offended my conservative -- or, rather, my conservative Republican -- friends and readers with my lengthy critique of the new absolutism of the right, and I'd rather stress what I have in common with them, not what separates us. But that, after all, was precisely the point. The Republican Party is no longer the party of conservatism, it's the party of radicalism. In fact, American "conservatism" is no longer "conservative" in any meaningful way. Look at what the party now pushes on the American people: absolutist, evangelical social policies (anti-gay, anti-choice, etc.), radical free market neoliberalism, and neoconservative idealism that rejects traditional realism and liberal internationalism (multilateralism) in favour of American global hegemony and the imposition of American values on parts of the world that are fundamentally opposed to those values. Is that conservative? No. But it's the Republican Party and it's what passes for "conservatism" in today's bipolar political climate.

And I say this with some regret. My own political thought has very much been shaped by Edmund Burke and Matthew Arnold, two whigs (liberals, more or less) who nonetheless shared a certain conservative outlook. Furthermore, I came of age politically during the mid- to late-'80s and was inspired by Ronald Reagan. I turned to Clinton in '92, but I supported Dole in '96, not least because I thought that The Greatest Generation deserved one last turn, especially after four disappointing years of Clinton. But I have been a Democrat since at least '98, when it became obvious that the Gingrich Republicans had taken the party firmly down a different road, when I had become sick of the persecution of Clinton, a man whom I admire more now, in retrospect, than I did then, and when I finally realized that the combination of social evangelism, neoliberal economics, and neoconservative hawkishness had swept the moderate and temperamentally conservative elements out of the party (remember what Bush did to McCain in South Carolina during the 2000 primary season?). Now we have a party of Tom DeLay, Bill Frist, Rick Santorum, and the like... and I want no part of it. If the moderates reassert themselves in 2008 -- say, behind McCain -- then I'll listen. But I doubt they'll be allowed to. We would have been better off with Gore and better off with Kerry. I suspect that we'll also be better off with the Democratic candidate in 2008. (For a more left-leaning take on all this, see Olivia Finley's passionate reply to my previous post.)

Anyway, more on this another time. For now, I recommend having a look at Michael Finley's thoughtful reply to one of my recent posts, "Our existential crisis, addendum". He poses three questions, along with comments, in response to my take on the existential crisis of late-modernity (or postmodernism, if you will), and I intend to get to them in the coming days. They deserve thoughtful replies, and I'm taking time to give them their due. I can only recommend that you all give them similar consideration on your own.

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Liberty for some, democracy for none: The "culture of life" and right-wing absolutism

It didn't take long to come across yet another example of absolutism masquerading as political commentary, this time from Fred Barnes -- never one known for non-partisan independence or nuanced argumentation -- in The Weekly Standard. In an editorial in the current issue, and now available online, Barnes contends that liberals have abandoned the moral high ground in American politics they once held to be the Democratic Party's "exclusive heritage". Specifically, Barnes claims that liberals -- according to his facile and sweepingly partisan bipolarization characterization of American politics -- have rejected the "motto of American liberalism" first presented by Hubert Humphrey in a 1977 Senate speech: "The moral test of a government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life -- the children; the twilight of life -- the elderly; and the shadows of life -- the sick, the needy, and the handicapped." In a recent post about Pope John Paul II, I more or less said the same thing: "I have long thought that a society can be judged by how it treats its weakest members: the young, the old, the infirm, the mentally and physically handicapped, the poor, the helpless. A civilized society cares about -- and for -- its weakest members and dignifies their lives." (I guess that makes me a liberal. If so, I'm proud to be one.)

What Barnes is saying is that liberals, and hence most Democrats (since right-wing hacks use those labels interchangeably these days), no longer care for children, the elderly, and the sick, needy, and handicapped. Proof of this reversal, the self-rejection of liberals, is to be found in the Democratic Party's positions on a number of key moral issues of our time. Barnes cites "[t]he indifference of liberalism to the fate of Terri Schiavo," which "by itself" demonstrates that "those in the shadows of life do not have advocates in liberalism and the Democratic party [sic], at least not many". In other words, "liberalism washed its hands of Schiavo," and, in so doing, showed what now lies at its core. (He neglects to mention that in 1999, while governor of Texas, Bush supported a bill that empowered medical practitioners to remove life-support from patients with irreversible conditions, even against the wishes of their families. The bill, needless to say, was biased against poorer families that couldn't afford continued medical treatment, another case of Bush's class warfare conveniently trumping morality.) To back up his claim, he argues that liberals support unlimited and unregulated abortion rights, including the full right to partial-birth abortion, and oppose, or at least question, both "the spread of liberty" and "the advance of democracy".

In short, "the weak and the innocent are targets. Democrats and liberals have fled the moral high ground, and they've done so voluntarily". In Barnes's bipolar world of drunk extremism and the absence of sober moderation, there are moral conservatives (Republicans) and immoral liberals (Democrats); the former stand up passionately and courageously for the so-called "culture of life," while the latter are homicidal monsters committed to some sort of culture of death. It's that simple.

Now, I hesitate to quote so extensively from Barnes's editorial, but I think it's important to let such astonishingly idiotic assertions speak for themselves. I mean, does he really believe this? Does anyone really believe this? Barnes may or may not believe what he wrote, and I cannot help but wonder if his absolutism -- his drunken partisan zeal with no goal other than winning the political game -- has blinded him to reality, but it's obviously the case that many out there do, and not just at The Weekly Standard. Absolutism is hardly limited to the right -- there is far too much of it on the left, too -- but it is being given increasing aid and comfort by conservatives who in the past, by temperament, must have abhorred it. Otherwise, they were never true conservatives. For isn't the rejection of absolutism precisely what conservatism, conservatism rooted in Burke, is all about? (Oh, right, this is neoconservatism, so the old rules don't apply.)

To begin, I have a simple question: What kind of massive self-delusion is at work here?

First, liberals were not indifferent to "the fate of Terri Schiavo". It is true that many liberals focused their attention on the legal aspect of her case and were rightly troubled by the intrusion of Congress, President Bush, and, through their last-ditch ad hoc legislation, the federal judiciary into what was essentially a private matter. This was a valid concern. While rabid conservatives like Bill Bennett, Alan Keyes, and even Barnes's boss, Bill Kristol, conveniently dismissed central aspects of American federalism like the separation of powers and states' rights, and in effect trampled all over the Constitution they claim to love with strict constructionist ardour, and even went so far as to call upon the two Bushes, George and Jeb, to circumvent the Constitution entirely and to engage executive authority to save Terri's "life," liberals stood by the law and by the reasoned decisions of the courts at all levels. But what liberals also understood -- and what conservatives, in their madness, hypocritically failed to see -- was that there is more to life than mere life. Decisions of life and death may be private matters in these cases, but liberals do not fetishize life the way "culture of life" conservatives do. Barnes says that Terri was "[s]ick, needy, and handicapped," but the fact is, that wasn't Terri anymore. Terri had died 15 years earlier, and what was left was a shell of a human being with a brain that had deteriorated to the point where it surely wasn't even human anymore. (See also Barnes's absurd take on the "facts" of the Schiavo case, facts refuted by serious neurologists, here.) Surely a genuine "culture of life" means more than keeping anyone and everyone alive at all costs and through extraordinary means. Surely it means valuing life enough to consider how life is lived. Terri's case was difficult because she wasn't in any pain -- really, because she was incapable of feeling. But is it a "culture of life" to keep alive, say, a person suffering through some horribly painful degenerative disease? Isn't a "culture of life" one that allows human beings to live -- and to die -- with the dignity that is their right?

Second, not all liberals are unrepentant abortionists who disregard any and all concern for the unborn. Like the Clintons, many thoughtful (and moral) liberals believe that abortion should be rare -- safe and legal, yes, but above all rare. This is very much my position. Allow me to speak anecdotally: Back during my high school days in New Jersey, I spent a weekend in Washington with a friend and his family. Coincidentally, one of those massive pro-choice marches was scheduled for that weekend, culminating in a rally at the Lincoln Memorial. My friend and I were out walking the night before the march, and we ended up spending much of the night among the 4,400 crosses and stars of David on the Ellipse in front of the White House, protecting what is an awe-inspiring memorial in its own right against drunken, marauding goons who were trying to topple them and destroy the memorial. I was not then pro-life, and I do not claim to have an answer to the question of just when life, a human life rather than a microscopic amalgam of cells, begins. But I knew then, as I know now, that abortion is nothing to be happy about. Barnes claims that liberals "lack... sympathy for the unborn," but, honestly, is that the right way to put it? Are liberals happy about abortion? Surely not. Once again, pro-life conservatives like Barnes are living in a fantasy world, while pro-choice liberals acknowledge, and work within, the reality of the problem. Abortion is going to happen. It cannot be legislated or prosecuted out of existence. The questions really is, do we want abortion to be legal and safe or illegal and unsafe? In the former case, the liberal case, at least we can talk openly about it and seek to reduce it. In the latter case, it becomes an underground horror. You want to be pro-life? Then support proper sex education (and not merely abstinence counselling) and contraception to reduce abortion. Empower girls to take control of their bodies and to make informed decisions about their sex lives. Support social welfare programs that would allow younger mothers and poor families to take care of their children, rather than to seek abortion as the only way out. And so on. Liberals understand all this, which is why, to me, it is pro-choice liberals who make the honest "pro-life" case, while pro-life conservatives embrace an absolutist solution to one of our most complex and challenging problems.

Third, liberals do not oppose "the spread of liberty" or "the advance of democracy". This is simply ludicrous. Yet predictable. What liberals oppose is Bush's foreign policy, or at least certain aspects of it, including the actual conduct of that policy. Let's not forget, after all, that most liberals -- notwithstanding -- rallied around Bush after 9/11 and supported his initial military intervention in Afghanistan, leading to the fall of the Taliban. Moreover, many liberals supported the invasion, and subsequent occupation, of Iraq, at least based on what was known, or thought to be known, at the time. I opposed Bush in 2000 and never quite accepted his legitimacy, but I believed that Iraq posed a threat in terms both of the proliferation of WMDs and of stability in the Middle East; moreover, I accepted the humanitarian argument, made most compellingly by Tony Blair, that Saddam Hussein's regime needed to be taken down for the sake of Iraqis themselves. At the time, I found opponents of the war (i.e., the proponents of appeasement) cowardly, if not downright shameful. And I was hardly alone. Liberal "institutions" as influential as The New Republic supported the war -- and, like me, that publication has since undergone some serious soul-searching and regret. But here's a larger point: From FDR to Clinton, Democrats, propelled by liberalism, were consistently on the right side of history. LBJ may have been the exception, given the fantastic failure that was American military involvement in Vietnam, but, even there, it is hard to doubt that he stood for liberty and democracy. Indeed, Democrats and liberals have stood firm against both Fascism and Communism, while never losing sight of the need to cultivate democracy in the developing world. And what of conservatives and Republicans? For a long time, they were mostly isolationists who rejected American participation in the community of nations, or realists who promoted national self-interest above broad ideological concerns like democratization. And this often meant supporting undemocratic and illiberal regimes around the world. Do the Philippines, El Salvador, Panama, Iraq (propped up by Reagan, lest we forget), Pakistan (how many F-16s are you selling them, Mr. Bush?), and Saudi Arabia (long good friends of the Bushies) ring a bell? And do we remember that it was the hated Bill Clinton who finally took a stand against the bloodshed in the Balkans, while many conservatives, and much of the Republican establishment, objected to intervention of any kind? Liberals welcome positive developments in Afghanistan and Iraq, and throughout the Middle East, but they remain cautious -- as they should. There is still much left to do, and it's not clear that Bush has any idea what he's doing. Imminent threats like North Korea and Iran still need savvy diplomacy and long-term solutions, not the triumphalist, partisan rhetoric that characterizes Bush's foreign policy (and it's what destroyed bipartisan support for Bush after 9/11). Barnes's claim is typical of that rhetoric. Either you're with us or you're against us. And if you're against us, you're on the side of terrorists and dictators. Oh, really? Liberals continue to stand for liberty and democracy, not rhetoric.

Fred Barnes is a partisan. He's wrong on these three issues, but he's also wrong on so much else. And he's wrong on so much else because Bush is wrong on so much else. It takes extraordinary gall to write what he wrote in a magazine that, in my view, has simply lost perspective and is now just another right-wing attack rag. Conservatives -- and, in many ways, I myself am I conservative who's been abandoned by these ideologues, so much so that I am now proud to call myself a liberal -- deserve better. And so does America. For all the blather about the so-called "culture of life" -- and conservatives have been falling all over themselves in recent days to portray Pope John Paul II as one of their own, despite his opposition to the death penalty and to the war in Iraq (at least the pope was consistent) -- conservatives continue to advocate policies that make a mockery of any such culture. After all, the G.O.P., a select few (and persecuted) moderates aside, is a party that supports the death penalty (even for minors and the mentally retarded) and that pursues a facile, militaristic foreign "policy" that promotes shock-and-awe bombing campaigns (and hence countless innocent deaths) over diplomacy, multilateralism, and full-scale engagement with the rest of the world. It's a party that is ruled by hypocritical, absolutist social conservatives who seek to impose their biblical worldview on America (and the world) without any regard for the Constitution or, more broadly, for liberty and democracy, and almost equally absolutist free marketeers who seek to impose their unsustainable brand of deregulated capitalism, a culture of profit, on America (and the world) without any regard for social justice (or for the "culture of life" -- witness the recent bankruptcy bill that the G.O.P.-controlled Congress passed (and Bush gleefully signed) at the instigation of the insurance industry: has there been a more obvious, noxious example of class warfare in recent memory? oh, right, those billions in tax cuts for the rich, not to mention those massive budget deficits, with debt piled on future generations of Americans). It's a truly unfunny joke to have someone like Barnes argue, by analogy, that Republicans continue to be the anti-slavery party, implying that the Democrats' "culture of death" is akin to slavery. He argues that Republicans have assumed the moral high ground in American politics. It's just that kind of self-righteous self-delusion that is now a staple of American conservatism. Barnes's editorial shows just how transparent it is.

Liberals know better, and the Democratic Party, after two difficult presidential losses, needs to find its voice again. Liberals are under assault from a powerful Republican machine that knows how to win and a conservative movement that somehow finds common ground despite glaring internal inconsistencies, but they remain the true champions of the "culture of life".

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Tuesday, April 12, 2005

The dark side of moral absolutism

Needless to say, my comments on Pope John Paul II have been overwhelmingly positive, even going so far as to describe his faith and good works as extraordinary. I do not retract what I have written. I do think that he was an extraordinary man who countered the 20th century's culture of death with a culture of life that dignified human beings qua human beings. That culture of life, in terms of its social conservatism, did go too far, and I do not hesitate to refer to the pope's -- and hence the Church's -- moral absolutism. It is one thing to oppose Fascism and Communism and to speak for the destitute poor throughout the developing world, quite another to take absolutist stands on abortion, contraception, euthanasia, and homosexuality. (I will not comment on the pope's opposition to the ordination of women and his continued support for the male-only celibate priesthood, even in the wake of the sex-abuse scandals in the U.S. -- I find these doctrines quite repellent, but, as a non-Catholic, it's really none of my business.) These are, of course, delicate political issues, especially in the U.S., but, for my part, I am pro-choice (agreeing with the Clintons that abortion should be rare -- safe and legal, yes, but above all rare), pro-contraception (this is obvious to me: more contraception means fewer abortions, less sexually-transmitted disease, and less poverty, among other social and political goods), pro-euthanasia (for the sake of the dignity of life, rather than mere life, as long as there is strict regulation and oversight), and... well, yes, I'm pro-homosexual insofar as I support equal rights, including the right to marry as equals to heterosexuals, and, more so, as I value the inherent dignity, akin to my own, of gays, lesbians, and others who do not fall into the category of strict heterosexuality.

It will take time for any sort of detached perspective on John Paul II's papacy to take hold, but, already, there is good reason to question its absolutism. Plus, we're not looking at any real change in the near future, as his successor will most likely be similarly absolutist. Cardinal Danneels of Belgium would be a welcome exception, and I suppose that he's my favourite of the top cardinals, the one who could lead the Church in the direction of serious reform and greater social progressivism, but we're more likely to get a pope who stays the course.

I have repeatedly stressed that this blog will steer the moderate course between the extremes. But this means balance, and I have not, I think, adequately addressed this darker side of John Paul II's papacy. For this, let me at least allow one of the pope's -- and, generally, organized religion's -- most vocal opponents to have a say: Christopher Hitchens. I do not always agree with him, but his case against John Paul II, and the papacy generally, is a powerful one -- one with which I do not entirely disagree. From Hitchens's recent piece at Slate, "On Not Mourning the Pope":
  • Without, it seems, quite noticing what they are saying, the partisans of the late pope have been praising him for his many apologies. He apologized to the Jewish people for the Vatican's glacial coldness during the Final Solution, and for historic filiations between the church and anti-Semitism. He apologized to the Eastern Orthodox Christians, and to the Muslims, for the appalling damage done to civilization by papal advocacy of the Crusades, and by forced conversion and massacre in the Balkans during the church's open alliance with fascism during World War II. He apologized to the world of science and reason by admitting that Galileo should not have been condemned by the Inquisition. These are not small climb-downs, and they do not apply just to the past. They are and were admissions that the Roman Catholic Church has been responsible for the retarding of human development on a colossal scale.
  • However, "be not afraid." The God-given right of the papacy to make and enforce absolute judgments is not at all at stake. Popes may have been wrong on everything, but they were right in general. By the time the church apologizes for saying that condoms are worse than AIDS, or admits that it was complicit at best in the mass murder in Rwanda, another few generations will have died out.
  • Unbelievers are more merciful and understanding than believers, as well as more rational. We do not believe that the pope will face judgment or eternal punishment for the millions who will die needlessly from AIDS, or for his excusing and sheltering of those who committed the unpardonable sin of raping and torturing children, or for the countless people whose sex lives have been ruined by guilt and shame and who are taught to respect the body only when it is a lifeless cadaver like that of Terri Schiavo. For us, this day is only the interment of an elderly and querulous celibate, who came too late and who stayed too long, and whose primitive ideology did not permit him the true self-criticism that could have saved him, and others less innocent, from so many errors and crimes.

Well, fine. I don't entirely disagree, though Hitchens's characteristically pompous tone never fails to annoy... and to turn me off. And I certainly don't agree (see my last post), that John Paul II's funeral was only about "the interment of an elderly and querulous celibate..." And I'm not sure that standing up against totalitarianism and the brutalization of the poor throughout the developing world reflects a "primitive ideology". But Hitchens is an absolutist secularist with many, many axes to grind, and one shouldn't read him without expecting to be provoked. I may not share his absolutism, but, as a social liberal, I cannot help but agree with much of his assessment. In particular, I agree that "the Roman Catholic Church has been responsible for the retarding of human development on a colossal scale". But is that John Paul II's fault? Perhaps, to a point, insofar as he promoted the very absolutism against which Hitchens rails and may not adequately have guided the Church away from much of its repellent past. Perhaps not, insofar as his extraordinary faith and good works elevated him to a certain greatness that not even that absolutism can tarnish completely. Sober reflections on the life and legacy of Pope John Paul II -- and there have been many in recent days, including one by E.J. Dionne in The New Republic -- recognize that greatness while acknowledging that it has, in fact, been tarnished. Indeed, it is possible to refer to Pope John Paul II's flawed greatness.

What worries me, however, is that, to a certain extent, the retardation of human development continues precisely because the Church according to Pope John Paul II did not do enough to confront the challenges of the modern world with realistic, progressive positions on key moral issues. Perhaps it's too much to expect such progressivism from an institution that is so anachronistic and whose very identity involves renouncing much that can be called progress. Pope John Paul II did pursue his Vatican II leanings insofar as he pursued ecumenism, embraced science and technology (even accepting Darwin, which shows that the Roman Catholic Church is in many ways much more progressive than certain evangelical elements in the U.S.), and responded to the pressures of modern capitalism in the developing world. But there will always be that darker side, and advocating policies that endanger women's health on an extraordinary scale and that denounce homosexuality as a despicable perversion do nothing to reverse the retardation of human development that has been at least part of the Church's unfortunate legacy throughout its history.

Pope John Paul II taught us all, Catholic or not, to respect the dignity of all human beings. If that is what is truly important, and I think that it is, then we need to look beyond moral absolutism to a more progressive culture of life that respects women's health, values different sexual orientations, and otherwise acknowledges the complexity of human nature and the human condition.

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Sunday, April 10, 2005

Our existential crisis, addendum

For me, my last post prompted as many questions as answers. Sure, it may well be that the only thing I know with any real certainty is that I know nothing, but writing that post only left me more baffled by the incalculable uncertainties of existence than before. Perhaps I should stick to politics and pop culture in this space, if only for the sake of my own sanity, but, after all, I have stated publicly (see blog description, above) that The Reaction will address philosophy, if not itself allow me to attempt to philosophize. Anecdotally, I must mention that the closest I've ever come to collapsing into nervous breakdown came while reading, and attempting to grasp, Heidegger's Nietzsche for a course on postmodern political thought back during my undergraduate days at Tufts University.

I hope you're not put off. I will return to the world of the shadows soon enough, perhaps even later today. For now, here is a brief follow-up to my last post, as my thoughts continue to form:

Why were the deaths of Terri Schiavo and Pope John Paul II so significant, both to me and to so many others? It may be simply that their deaths -- or, more accurately, their respective stories of which their deaths were a culmination, prolonged aftermath notwithstanding -- temporarily lifted the veil of self-forgetting that allows human beings to live their lives without having to confront the fact of their mortality or the various questions that surround the possibility of immorality, the immortal individual soul and hence eternal life generally. On this, I defer to the German philosopher Karl Jaspers, contemporary and sometime friend of Heidegger, and one of the founders of what would become existentialist philosophy. Jaspers referred to everyday existence, existence lived under the veil of self-forgetting, as Dasein. But human beings truly confront their humanity, and the limits of their humanity, when they are confronted by what Jaspers called "limit situations," or Grenzsituationen, such as death, chance, suffering, and other such eternal truths of the human condition, or what he called Existenz. To live an authentic human life, and hence to be truly free, means removing the veil of self-forgetting and confronting these limits. (This is the basis of Gestalt therapy, which aims to liberate human beings from ignorance and deception and thereby to allow them to live freely and authentically.) There is a certain Platonism to Jaspers's thought in this regard, and one need only think of the famous cave parable in Book VII of the Republic: Only the philosopher leads an authentic life, while the rest of humanity remains chained in the cave, away from the light, mistaking the shadows of objects on the wall in front of them for the objects themselves, that is, mistaking lies for the truth. This is the human condition, says Plato's Socrates, and Jaspers wouldn't much disagree.

What has happened here is that the two very public deaths of Terri and John Paul have lifted the veil of self-forgetting from the lives of people who, I suspect, would rather not have had it lifted. Most people are content to live in ignorance, if not downright (self-)delusion, at least concerning the most important things, because to live an authentic human life, a life of true freedom, isn't easy. Plato knew that the philosopher was the most courageous of human beings precisely because he, and only he, confronted the fact of mortality, the truth of human existence. Most people, including me, just aren't that courageous, and we don't want to lead our daily lives haunted by the fact of mortality and the existential truths of death, chance, suffering, and so on. We'd lose our minds if we did. And so the bombardment of 24/7 media coverage of those two stories, one right after the other, could not have gone on much longer. After a time, a saturation point is reached, where most people just can't take anymore and want simply to go back to the banal, trivial, and mundane realities of their "normal" lives, that is, to the self-forgetting of Jaspers's Dasein. But for a brief moment in the grand scheme of things, that veil of self-forgetting was lifted, and, if only temporarily, many of us caught a glimpse of, if not actually confronted in any philosophical way, the eternal truths of human existence, Jaspers's Existenz. It was painful, but enlightening and ennobling, and, in the end, we can only hope that something positive comes of it. Ignorance may be bliss, and most people may prefer to live in the shadows, unfree, but a little light every now and then isn't such a bad thing.

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