Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Chapel Hil

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.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Culture of Life, "Yes but"

In the midst of the Terri Schiavo docudrama, Scott McClellan reminded reporters that his boss the President believed in a "Culture of Life", so much so that he was committed to changing the culture (that would be of anyone who disagrees with him).  The Republican rightists and their social conservative-in-chief have bandied about that culture of life rhetoric for a while now no more so than during their disgraceful exploitation of Mrs. Schiavo.  It seems only fitting than that the death of John Paul II (which sucked the air out of that Mediathon) reminds us of who invented the culture of life concept in the first place.

To be sure, Bush and company have been quite selective in their application of it.  For the Pope it translated into his long term opposition to the death penalty and more recently to the Iraq war which he knew would involve wanton "collateral damage".  Beyond opposing the pulling of feeding tubes from people whose lives have been reduced to breathing nothingness, the in-power conservatives oppose abortion and any legitimate semblance of stem cell research.  But they aren't alone in this "yes but" approach.  The fact is that the late Pope did much the same.  Unquestionably he was a remarkable man who inspired love and respect among people of many faiths and who decisively broke away from historic antagonisms toward Jews and Moslems.  But when it came to the culture of life, he shut his eyes to one of its most lethal consequences, and with it the real world in which we find ourselves.  Interestingly, it is a breach that is shared by our present administration.

The Catholic Church and many fundamentalists (Ultra-Orthodox Jews among them), oppose "artificial" birth control.  I don't agree with them, but respect their right to hold those views for themselves. They do so with the utmost conviction.  Imposing their view on others is quite another thing, especially so in the face of the AIDS pandemic.  Here both the Pope's opposition to the use of condoms and the Bush Administration's refusal to fund them (one of his first acts as President) is perhaps the most scandalous example of "yes but" -- one that cannot be overlooked.  If someone with AIDS knowingly infects others by having unprotected sex with them we consider it murder and subject to prosecution.  The hard question we have to ask is whether pursuing a doctrine that denies condoms in Africa and other underdeveloped lands in these times – something that inevitably leads to infecting heretofore healthy human beings – isn't also murder?  Is that consistent with a culture of life?

People on the Right love to talk about values and morality.  To some, the fact that these same people along with the Catholic Church are denying the reality of our times may be considered a simple, if cruel, head-in-the-sand mentality, with honestly unintended consequences.  But that would be letting them off the hook.  What this dogmatic culture of life amounts to is no less than moral blindness in the guise of religiosity.  That is hard to respect.  In these moments of chest pounding in Washington and mostly well deserved public adoration of the late Pope, we should pause to demand that the pious stop saying "yes but" to their culture of life.