Thursday, March 14, 2013

Popery and arbitrary government

I was in my campus office grading papers, prepping for my night class, and periodically scanning the internet in the hopes of finding something to do other than grade papers or prep for class when someone tweeted "habemus papam #fumatabianca"--and I gladly abandoned my grading for what I thought would be twenty minutes but turned into more like ninety.

And, whatever. The end of a papal election is a cool enough thing to see "live," and with much the same pleasure as watching the Oscars or a royal wedding: there's lots of pageantry; other people are watching and chatting about it; there's a small chance that actual history might be made. In other words, it's 4 parts diversion to 1 part news. While waiting for the Big Reveal, I hung out on Facebook and Twitter trading jokes with friends about what was taking so long, about the goofy marching band, and about how well the next pontiff might or might not accessorize.

As a Catholic, I care who the next pope is, but a new pope is unlikely to impact me that much (at least compared with a new pastor or bishop or even a new U.S. president). Moreover, I'm not a deeply-informed Vatican-watcher. I'd followed the coverage of Benedict's resignation closely and had read up on some of the papabili, but I didn't know anything about Bergoglio; if I'd heard his name mentioned as the runner-up in 2005, I'd forgotten it as soon as I'd learned it.

All of this is to say that I'm not setting myself up as a vaticanista, nor as someone who takes the papal election unduly seriously. But I still found myself exasperated by all the morons on the internet who took the occasion to leave drive-by comments (often on otherwise funny, smart, irreverent threads) like, "don't you know Bergoglio's VERY AGAINST gay marriage??" or "The fact that a woman can't be pope is OUTRAGEOUS!!! When is the Catholic Church going to get with the program?!"

Uh, yeah. Everyone on planet earth knew that no woman was going to be elected, nor anyone who had ever said anything that might even be misconstrued as supporting gay marriage. Thanks for that trenchant and original critique, Mr. New-Age Hippy, Ms. Ex-Catholic, or Dr. Atheist.

Partly it's the tone-deafness and the bad manners that bug me. When someone you know is enthusiastic about something (even something you think is dumb or evil) you don't barge in and say "OMG THAT'S SO STUUUPID." No. You bite your tongue, you roll your eyes. . . and you talk smack about that person behind her back. Partly, it's the combination of ignorance and arrogance. Not all of those fascinated with the papal election are themselves religious: I have secularist friends who are historians or just political junkies who were posting updates on the conclave several times a day. But those of us who do care, for whatever reason, are probably more informed than those who just want to talk about how bad the Catholic Church (or organized religion, or religion) is.

Few practicing Catholics are unaware that problems exist in the church, and none of us, liberal or conservative, are really that interested in ignorant opining, even when it comes from those with whom we might otherwise make common political cause. As a progressive Catholic, I can assure my liberal, non-Catholic friends that I know the church's problems much better, and have thought about them much more deeply, than you have. I'm completely not interested in your opinion--unless you are, let's say, a religious historian, or otherwise have access to some immediately relevant body of knowledge or area of expertise that you're going to draw upon.

If you're genuinely interested in knowing what (and how) I think, I'll happily have that conversation with you one-on-one. But I'm not going to engage with someone whose own insight is minimal and who isn't interested in listening.


As for Francis, I'm reserving judgement. I joked on Facebook that the options were basically "huh! coulda been worse!" and "OH NO"--and we seem to have gotten the former. I'm prepared to be surprised by him, but won't be surprised if I'm not. Popes are like Supreme Court justices: there's stuff we sorta know about them, but it's not always predicative--especially since they serve for life and aren't directly answerable to anyone.

Change will come, sooner or later, either from inside or outside--and when it comes it's going to be dramatic. Increasingly, I think I might be alive to see it. Whether that's a good thing only time will tell.


Renaissance Girl said...

I relate so much to what you say here, albeit from my own corner of the faith world. The last few years have been a hot bubbling stew of opining about my religion (and, by extension, organized religion, and religion). Sometimes exhausting, sometimes demoralizing, and usually completely unnuanced on all sides. I'm gonna get this bit tattooed on my middle finger (in very small font), the one I feel like waving at the Four Horsemen of the Comments Section:

"I can assure my liberal, [...] friends that I know the church's problems much better, and have thought about them much more deeply, than you have. I'm completely not interested in your opinion--unless you are, let's say, a religious historian, or otherwise have access to some immediately relevant body of knowledge or area of expertise that you're going to draw upon."

Miss Self-Important said...

My question is, when people talk about the Pope's politics like he's running for some American political office and needs to satisfy his constituents, is that more or less like the 16th C., when people were also concerned about the Pope's politics, only instead of those politics consisting of positions on gay marriage and abortion, it was more like his position on Spanish hegemony in Italy?

Anonymous said...

This post is perfect. Thank you.

Unknown said...

another AMEN from over here. Mind if I share this post? -J-fav

hd said...

Can I respectfully dissent? I generally agree with you about religion and politeness on social media. And I'll out myself as Ms. ex-Catholic here, but I do think that some (not all) of the critiques of the Catholic church have less to do with questions of faith and more to do with fatigue and frustration about this particular church's very recent history of systemic abuse of power in tandem with its hypocrisy about the rights of sexual minorities. That fact, plus the amount of absolutely insensitive pro-Catholic memes minimizing the sexabuse scandal that I saw on my facebook feed means that I can understand (but not condone) the vitriolic tone playing out across those mediums... yours is a balanced, careful approach but many are not.

Withywindle said...

If hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue, then attention, however caustic the form, is the tribute irreligion pays to religion. Oracion de un ateo, as Borges put it in a slightly different context. Or, anti-Catholicism is just as much twisted love as anti-Semitism--not that it's much comfort to know the approaching knife is labeled MESSAGE: I CARE.

But it should be a small comfort that hardly anyone cares about Methodists or Presbyterians, or even Lubavichers, and so many people do care about Catholicism, and the Pope. Whatever your own precise theology, I think it counts as a stone of hope.

Anonymous said...

I'm Catholic and my Facebook experiences throughout the Conclave were polarizing. It was either the loopy Opus Dei Catholics crying and gasping about our next Pontiff, or the atheists and haters posting things like, "Well, YOU KNOW it won't be a woman!!!" -- he seems like a good choice. But he is just as strict as Benedict! You said "change is going to come, maybe in my lifetime" ... really? The Church hasn't changed a whole heck of a lot in 2000 years, so why would the cave in now? Very simliar to the dilemmas faced by the Republican Party..........

hd said...

Also, as a p.s., I just wanted to say how much I value reading your perspective and the guts it takes to put it out there. Thanks, Flavia.

Doctor Cleveland said...

@RG: I think I spent much of 2012 publicly abusing one of your co-religionists. But I tried pretty hard to make it about, you know, HIM. (There was a lot of material there.)

Anonymous said...

What hd said. I was an ex-Catholic (Episcopal) before I had a son, but now that I have one, I feel like it would be criminally negligent to rejoin. Transubstantiation (etc) seems like a much smaller priority than not implicitly condoning abuse of children. These day-to-day structural issues, these administrative (and criminal) concerns, are far more important to me than philosophical differences, or even social differences (though social differences are what drove teenage me from the RCC).

Spanish prof said...

I'm an agnostic Jew from Argentina working at a Catholic University. As an Argentinean, I know Bergoglio very well, and I could say a lot about his politics because he was very involved in politics in Argentina. That has always upset me from the Catholic Church in my country, and Bergoglio's positions have usually been on the opposite side of what I believe

However, the past two days, I have found myself defending him against the "OMG he is against gay marriage" My answer: "They were electing the pope, not the next president of Venezuela". I also think that in the bigger context of Vatican politics, he is a mildly "progressive" choice. My biggest problem with him is his role in the Argentine dictatorship. While I don't believe he actually turn people into the military, there is a moral argument to be made about having stayed silent, considering he is now the Pope. On the other hand, if he had spoken, we would be probably be speaking about a martyr, not about the Pope.

Contingent Cassandra said...

As a non-Catholic practicing Christian, I was glad to see the cardinals elect someone who apparently has a genuine commitment to advocating for the poor. That's one thing I think the Catholic church does better, or at least more consistently, than my own (Presbyterian) denomination, and I'm glad when there's a pope who uses his bully pulpit to call our attention to such issues on a regular basis.

As you say, I wasn't expecting someone who supports same-sex marriage (Presbyterians are still working on that one, and making progress, and I've remained in the denomination since the policies on GLBT participation were much more restrictive, even though I disagree with them. There's a bit more theological room for such disagreement in a church where decision-making is democratic, but still, one agrees to abide by the will of the majority, and I could have lit out for the UCC if I chose, and I didn't). Nor was I expecting someone who supports the ordination of women.

Speaking of that, have you noticed these folks: ? A friend invited me to a showing of "Pink Smoke over the Vatican," followed by a discussion which included several women priests and Father Roy Bourgeois (since removed from his order and laicized for his participation in the movement), and I was very much impressed. They seem to be genuinely trying to build not just a protest movement, but an alternative to the present church that is still distinctively Catholic.

EngLitProf said...

Flavia, I’m sympathetic on the primary issue you raise. I mean, people consider it news that the new pope opposes adoption by gays? While I often reflected that Pope Benedict might be the intelligent living human being whose beliefs differed most perfectly from my own, I never found that fact surprising. I mean, he was the Pope. Yet people like me are sometimes provoked by the way the media present the election (etc.) as if the cardinals were choosing “our” pope, as though this man were the leader of people outside one particular religious group. The Church gets oddly secularized or universalized.

EngLitProf said...

P.S. The thing about Francis I still find fascinating is the fact that he is a Jesuit, or even the fact that he is a member of any religious order. I was surprised to discover just how many regular clergy have been pope: 34, including Cistercians, Benedictines, and Franciscans. I went to an Augustinian university, and I never knew (or had forgotten) that Augustinians have been pope.

Renaissance Girl said...

No worries, Doc. You and I were in complete agreement there, and your work was persuasive and responsible because it was about HIM.

Flavia said...

Wowza. I oversleep and then have to run to several meetings and all this happens in my absence!

I'll try to address a few things right now, but will probably come back when I've had time to think more about the other stuff.

First, RG:

I know you hear me on this one! I will say, though, that the past year and a half of coverage of your faith tradition (despite all the nonsense and the fear-mongering and the rest) actually did teach ME some new things, that really impressed and interested me. Maybe it's true (as JM says in Areopagitica) that the public discussion of religion can ultimately allow a discerning person to sort out the truth.


Yes of course! I'd be honored.

HD & nicoleandmaggie:

To be clear, I'm not saying that there's no place for critique from ex-Catholics (or other smart, thoughtful people). And I have no objection to you or anyone else saying things to that effect on social media or elsewhere. I completely understand why people would leave the church over any one of a number of issues, and indeed I'm interested in hearing those stories; I'm particularly interested in the ways that people of strong faith have made tough decisions--and if they've found a spiritual home in some other community I'm interested in hearing that, too.

What I object to is when non- or ex-Catholics do one or more of the following:

1) take the attitude that theirs is the only reasonable, right-thinking response to a particular problem or crisis in the church, and that anyone who doesn't agree is a moron, or deluded, or will eventually see the light;

2) crash other people's parties: many of the threads that I saw on Facebook were not taking the papal election all the seriously; the threads were funny, gossipy, and rather wonky, and it wasn't always possible to tell which commenters were Catholic and which weren't, or where any individual's interest in the election was coming from. So to have someone barge in and say OMG PEEPS! THE RCC SO TOTALLY SUCKS! was tone-deaf as much as it was rude.

3) act as if some stale, by-the-numbers critique is somehow new and interesting.

Flavia said...

I should add that the non-Catholics and the ex-Catholics are really rather different groups. I lumped them together, but I take the critiques of ex-Catholics much more seriously--except when they're just based on nebulous disaffection disguised a right-thinking liberal politics.

That, I guess, is what I really object to: the self-congratulatory assertion of one's liberal bona fides.

But those who have made hard choices, or feel a real sense of loss or betrayal--I've got nothing but sympathy there.

Anonymous said...

" take the attitude that theirs is the only reasonable, right-thinking response to a particular problem or crisis in the church, and that anyone who doesn't agree is a moron, or deluded, or will eventually see the light"

What about when that attitude is that sexual abuse against children should a. not happen, b. not be condoned and c. not be covered up when it does happen? I don't think that's so much a liberal bona fide as the deep belief that no organization (religious or otherwise) should condone a criminal act that affects our most vulnerable. I would hope that the institution of the RCC, whose Good Works I deeply believe in, could clear itself of the corruption that allows children to be victimized. Just because the children are Catholic doesn't make it ok for the Catholic church to victimize them.

I agree that folks can sort into the religions that best fit their beliefs, just like they can sort into political parties. On the topic of Social Issues, of course, the Episcopal church accepts Catholic baptism, has married and female priests, and allows gay marriage. (That's a fair advertisement given that the Catholic church recently made a play for conservative Episcopalians to rejoin the Catholic church, right?) As the signs say, The Episcopal Church Welcomes You. And there's always Unitarian Universalists.

But any organizational leader should take a hard-line on criminal activity within the organization. Especially when it affects children.

Flavia said...


I don't think we're talking about the same thing.

I agree with you 100% on points a, b, and c. I completely understand why some people feel they can't be a part of an institution that has failed so badly to protect the most vulnerable.

However, I take it rather personally when someone says or implies that that is the only possible response for all decent people--which is to say, that because I haven't left the church, I must not think the church has failed--or that I'm somehow complicit in or indifferent to the resulting suffering.

(But really, what I'm complaining about in the original post isn't anything as substantive as the sex-abuse crisis. I'm describing people who are just talking in banal ways about how retrograde organized religion is.)

Anonymous said...

great post. the rudeness and the "shock" are what get me. people talking and critiquing and wondering and questioning when they know what they are talking about, that's nice. that's dialogue.

Comrade Physioprof said...

Well, if remaining a member of the catholic church means that you do things that reinforce their power to cause suffering, misery, and death--such as give them money--then you *are* complicit in the vile shitte they do. Of course, we are all complicit in all kinds of vile shitte that larger societal and national entities we are members of do, but to claim some kind of magical immunity from complicity based on nothing more than statements that you don't like that vile shitte is nonsensical gibberish.

Flavia said...


I don't expect you to agree with anything that endorses any form of organized religion--or indeed any form of theism. However, for me, the question "why remain?" is equivalent to asking how a liberal could possibly vote for Obama despite his failure to close Guantanamo or his continuing use of drone warfare.

We all make judgments about the net good that people and institutions and political parties do. Some will come to the conclusion that it's worth staying and working within the system. Others will decide that the system is irredeemably corrupt. But I don't accept that one is automatically the right or the obvious choice, except for the person making the decision.


On another note, it's occurred to me that this post reads differently depending on one's experience of Catholicism. Anon 11.03 mentioned the reaction of Opus Dei friends on his/her feed, and I realized that I don't have that experience of Catholicism at all. My conservative Catholic friends are pretty much all academics, so still irreverent (and probably still "liberal" by Vatican standards). Nor did I grow up in a Catholic community that told me to just trust authority or just believe that everyone was well-intentioned, or doing the best they could, or that those in power must know better or be smarter than me. The Catholicism I grew up in was not about tradition for tradition's sake, or about respecting hierarchy--but about an intellectual tradition that valued the use of one's own reason and following one's own conscience, even when those things contradicted what someone in authority said.

All this is a long-winded way of saying that I recognize that some parts of this post might trigger more negative reactions in those whose experience of Catholicism is about being told to shut up and listen to those who know more than they do.

That's not what I'm saying at all. My self-righteousness is against the self-righteous (religious or non- ) who think that the answers are easy, and that they have them.

Doctor Cleveland said...


I'm complicit, I suppose. I give every month to my local Catholic parish's supper program for the homeless.

I also make an annual donation to the Catholic school I graduated from, and have since they went co-ed and expanded their outreach to Latino students.

So that's some vile shit I contribute to, right there.

EngLitProf said...

Comrade Physioprof, I think that your critique applies less well to the Roman Catholic Church than it does to (for example) the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. In the case of Catholicism, one can speak of staying in order to work within the system. In the case of the LDS Church, one cannot, and I think less of any adult who fails to break free from that organization. American Catholicism is, in practice, a very, very big tent; even the tent of the priesthood can be decent-sized. So you can perhaps find a corner of the tent (your parish, perhaps), where the good predominates over the harm enough that you would not get a better good-to-harm ratio down the street at the Episcopal Church. So I think that people can be progressive and still be able to answer responsibly the question “Why be Catholic?” (apologies to Hans Küng).

Doctor Cleveland said...

I think that our sense of how big a tent any denomination provides depends on how familiar we are with that denomination: the more we know, the more variety we see.

Growing up I would have agreed with ELP's contrast of Catholicism and LDS, simply because I knew so many Catholics and so few Mormons. It was obvious from my surroundings that the Catholic Church contained multitudes, and my knowledge of LDS was basically confined to the Osmond family. Every group seems ideologically narrow when you don't know much about them.

Of course, as an adult, I've been privileged to know more than one decidedly liberal Mormon. One retired colleague, very committed to the LDS Church, returned to Ohio this fall to campaign hard for Obama. And other examples come quickly to mind. So, the more I see of any neighbor's tent, the bigger that tent looks.

EngLitProf said...

We can agree that “Every group seems ideologically narrow when you don’t know much about them,” and I’m disappointed to learn that I don’t know very much about LDS culture, even though I used to live and teach in a community that was over 95% LDS. I feel better about my ignorance, however, when I hear that you were once as prejudiced and naïve as I am, back when you were “growing up” and liked to watch Donny and Marie. May I take it you will grant me a little bit of insight into American Catholicism, as long as I don’t side with Comrade Physioprof?

OK, Doctor Cleveland, let’s concede that you have known lots of Mormons, including liberal or even progressive Mormons (as I have). What is your point? How does having certain basic “liberal” views (campaigning for a Democratic candidate, treating women as equals) counterbalance remaining a member of that church? Actually, having progressive views may be the best reason to leave. An LDS colleague, someone I generally like and respect, once told me that he had remained in the church because he thought that without people like him (Obama-supporter, gay-comfortable) the culture could not be changed from within. But what could he really change? And weren’t his children being exposed to the patriarchalism, homophobia, etc., of their culture in ways that no parents would be able to counteract? Moreover, I question how progressive one can be while remaining LDS, and how open one can be about it, but I will leave that matter to the experts. My point about Catholicism was that there may be compelling reasons not to depart to join the Episcopalians down the road; my point about the LDS Church is that the good-to-bad ratio must be better elsewhere.

Flavia said...


I value your comments on my blog. But if this post is about anything, it's about my frustration with outsiders presuming to know something about my faith tradition and my own religiosity.

So I'll have to ask you not to trash other people's religions here, or presume to know how they reconcile their politics (or anything else) with their church's teachings--or your impression of their church's teachings.


QueSera said...

Wonderful post and follow-up comments, Flavia. I'm not one to write potentially contentious posts, but I'm so glad you (and others) are. I had a similar Catholic upbringing as you and feel that Roger Ebert's blog post on what he learned by being raised Catholic a few weeks ago was describing a lot of what I learned (social justice, worker rights, compassion for the poor, etc,). Go check it out and thanks again.

Anonymous said...

It's me, "11:03 anon" again. Flavia I am glad you never experienced the "Opus Dei" Catholics. But it sounds like you have spent much of your life in blue states. I have lived in a very RED part of a Southern Red State for over 20 years. The *1* Catholic church in town is very, very conservative. Their message and approach are quite similar to the local Southern Baptists. To me this is the new face of the Catholic church. Social justice and concern for the poor has given way to debates mainly concerning women and sex (abortion, birth control). I will continue to be a proud Catholic but it's tough when I disagree with the church on pretty much every social issue.

Anonymous said...

Nice post. One reason why non-Catholics keep bringing up the RCC's stances on e.g. gay marriage and women's reproductive choices is that the Church's lobbying on these issues affects everyone, Catholic or not.

Cheers, TG