Back in the quiet of Chapel Hill for one of my retreats, though never escapes, from this wild world. It’s so peaceful in this enclave, so conducive to thought and writing. To be sure there are plenty of Cardinals in these parts though the only conclaves are those around the bird feeder. The red coats are just as bright and striking as those seen in Rome during the last two weeks but there are some significant differences. For one thing the Cardinal before me at this moment as I sit (computer on my lap) on the back deck of my kid’s house, like all the others seems both young and vigorous – and of course there are all those females. Perhaps their dress is more on the brownish-red side, but they are here, doing their Cardinal thing right along with their male counterparts.
The selection of a pope is really none of my business. He doesn’t lead my “church” or set my religious agenda. We should celebrate that Roman Catholics, like every other religious group is free to select a leader of their liking and to follow their chosen path and religious agenda, and I do. Does it bother me, as the son of German Jews who if not lucky enough to escape were slaughtered by a country which they called home (in our case since at least the 17th century), that Benedict XVI spent even a day in the Hitler youth or in a Nazi uniform? I’d be lying in saying that it didn’t. I’ve just heard those “we were forced to do it” stories too often and, prejudice or not, white haired Germans always give me a bit of the willies. I can’t help thinking, “where were you, what did you know and what did you do about it?” But that’s me and I admit it is somewhat irrational. I know that a pending Security Council seat is probably behind the current anti-Japanese demonstrations in China, but I can relate to their discomfort, especially among those old enough to remember.
The selection of a pope is none of my business, but I do see it as a significant choice in today’s wider religious context. It’s been suggested that the new pontiff may play a greater role in supporting the social conservatism that is trying so desperately to impose its will on all of us, as exemplified by their fight against choice and the recent Terri Schiavo debacle that, were it not for the goings on in Rome, might still be on our front pages. But I don’t think even that is germane; certainly it isn’t news. To me the choice of Benedict represents just another example of religion turning inward (and in doing so backward) in what I can describe only as a defensive posture guided by a kind of fortress mentality. In turning a deaf ear to progressive forces within and most especially to the ordinary faithful who have no choice but to adopt that disdained “cafeteria Catholicism,” as the essential life raft of their religious lives, the Church is taking a big risk. I ask myself how long not only Roman Catholics but a broad spectrum of religious groups (especially those in the mainstream) can overlook all those empty pews in their great Cathedrals, “pretending (as Bob Dylan sings) that they just don’t see.”
Parking at Whole Foods in Chapel Hill one can’t help but be struck by the large number of Kerry stickers still affixed to the cars. This in the heart of a “red” state. I saw others as I drove down through New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. It’s a reminder of a nation still bitterly divided. Watching the news here or checking the Times online, I wondered if Tom DeLay has taken notice of what happened to the President of Ecuador when he tried pushing aside a sitting Supreme Court? And intermittently watching the events in Rome where two million passed by John Paul’s body but only 25% of Italian Catholics attend Mass with any regularity, I wondered about the unreality of it. It is said that the great conflict of our time is between religions, especially between Christianity and Islam. I wonder. From where I sit the really great conflict is within religious groups between those who have turned increasingly inward and are trying to relive the past and those who are struggling to find some legitimate and consistent place for religion in their lives. I wonder how that one will come out.