Monday, March 16, 2009

Who’s Standing on Whose Foot, Cardinal Pell?

Homo sapiens – knowing creatures, we are called. Sometimes, though, we should go by that other descriptor, homo ludens – creatures that play games.

Take the Catholic Church, for example. (And I can’t say that without morphing into Henny Youngman – “Take my wife – please!”)

For years, the Church played “King of the Mountain.” But that was a competitive game and all kings of the mountain are eventually pulled down by younger more energetic forces. The Enlightenment. Democracy, for example.

Today, they seem to be into playing victim. Got that from their Protestant friends, now that their stature has shrunk to a level where it pays to join forces with former enemies. I’m talking about the Protestant Evangelicals who line their walls with American flags and talk to Friend Jesus the way my niece Olivia used to talk to her imaginary friend Blueberry. They have discovered they can get some mileage out of declaring their religion is under attack. Seize the initiative, it’s called in business and politics. A kind of co-optation. Make yourself the wronged party so when you go a-stompin’ maybe nobody will notice who’s wearing the boots.

Read any gay publication and you will hear stories about how hate crimes against gays are skyrocketing since Prop. 8. The bullies have come out of their ratholes and are having a field day. During the Prop. 8 campaign, the Yes folks published who was supporting the No side and urged boycotts. If you blinked, you missed the fact that the No folks turned the tables and began doing the same in reverse. Without a familiarity with the chronology, you’d think all the aggressiveness was coming solely from the No side.

That’s politics, folks. Each side singing its own praises and rubbing forefinger over forefinger to shame shame shame the other side.

People do it all the time. Especially young people who lack maturity. Bullying comes naturally to the human race.

We shouldn’t be surprised when the church does it, too. They are, after all, despite all their claims to divine maintenance, a very human institution. Just look at Cardinal Pell, the man who runs the church for Rome in Australia. Just because he’s routinely referred to as His Eminence doesn’t mean he can’t act like a 9-year old.

Will get back to him in a minute. First a little illustration of how the conservative church works when it's not playing victim.

You may have read about that recent horror story in Recife, Brazil. A stepfather molests his 9-year old step-daughter and she becomes pregnant. The girl weighs all of 80 pounds and doctors determine that letting the pregnancy go to term – it’s twins - could be life-threatening. Accordingly, they abort the fetuses, in line with Brazilian law which allows abortion in rape cases before the 20th week of pregnancy. The worst of a bad event avoided, right?

Wrong. Excommunication! Excommunication! Archbishop José Cardoso Sobrinho of Olinda and Recife cuts off the offending limbs that are the doctors and the girl’s mother, and consigns them to eternal damnation. His decision is backed up by Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re in Rome.

Fortunately, the church is not monolithic. Archbishop Rino Fisichella, who heads up the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life, let it be known an innocent child’s life was at stake and the doctors might not be monsters. Rome has not come down on Fisichella yet, but it will have to, to be consistent.

True, the church’s stand on abortion is the right one, he suggests, but, in a double-talk that has come to be known as “jesuitical,” Fisichella also opined that the girl “should have been above all defended, embraced, treated with sweetness to make her feel that we were all on her side…” Nice to see evidence there not all clergy have surrendered their souls for silks and satins and a place in the Vatican bureaucracy. But which is it? Do we let her die so that the church’s thinking can be upheld? Or do we attack the heartless rigidity of conservative catholicism and stress Christ’s mercy as a greater good than allowing a child to die to maintain papal authority? If you are clever enough to have your church run from Rome, you know there is a third way. In Calvinist or Lutheran nations you have only truth to guide you. The Italians know life works much better if you just say one thing and do another.

All of which simply shows the Catholic Church, no surprise, as a human institution, man-made, man-regulated, man-dominated and with very human weaknesses. And only if you have just opened your first newspaper or history book should it surprise you that this human institution’s main game is politics, not religion. If it were divine, perhaps it could be big, rich and powerful and not be political.

But there is politics, and there is dirty politics, and the church’s latest dalliance with the latter seems to be the Johnny-did-it-not-me victim game. Australia’s Cardinal Pell is also in the news lately for his claims that the church is under attack by secularists and homosexuals. Nothing new there. The standard conservative voice of the church can be heard well beyond Rome and Latin America.

Tom Delay, that paragon of American virtue, was shilling for the religious right back in 2006 and linking arms with the likes of Tony Perkins to insist gays were out to destroy Christianity when this game was first played in America in earnest. Now it’s the head of the Catholic Church in Australia who has picked up the refrain, and demonstrated the church can jolly well murder itself, thank you very much, by eating away at its own credibility.

Sometimes, in the lofty philosophical discussion of “culture wars” and “paradigm shifts” the specific issues driving this rhetorical shift to playing the victim itself gets lost. We should not forget what it is. On one level it is a clash of civilizations. But it’s also about individual people’s lives with very local consequences.

If you are my age you probably remember the time when those chair-desks with the fold-up writing surfaces were all made for right-handed people only. It went with the mind-set that left-handed people should be forced to write with their right hands. At some point versions for left-handed people began showing up, just as elevator buttons and curb-ramps at intersection crossings began to appear for the benefit of folks in wheelchairs as we began to stop seeing human beings as produced by cookie-cutters.

We are coming around to an awareness that the church is wrong in its cookie cutter view of gender and sexuality as well and more and more people understand the idiocy and unfairness of declaring “gays have the same rights we do; they have a right to marry someone of the opposite sex just like everybody else.”

Many want to attribute the recent rise in gay bashings to the leadership of the church, even though the leadership is quick to point out they do not support violence against gay people. Responsible gay leaders don’t make a direct connection (although many make an indirect one), but all the talk about a “gay agenda” notwithstanding, there is no Gay Central Office dictating what gay people should say and do. It’s chaos out there.

The Church, which does have a Central Office by the way, wants to have its cake and eat it too. It won't accept responsibity for the gay bashings but at the same time insists the bashers of church property somehow represent the entire gay community. You've got to admire their skill in playing dirty.

Cardinal Pell has learned to play the American game, like all political lambs in religious sheep’s clothing and charge that gays are not honoring the right of the church to be Christian. Never mind that being Christian, in this instance, is demanding gays lose their rights to live as free and equal citizens in a democracy. We’ve got a right to discriminate, say the churches. We’ve got a right to stand on your foot without your shouting we are standing on your foot!

The Sydney Herald has suggested this guy is the voice of “corporate catholicism.” Quite possible. Still, you gotta admit he’s got cojones. "We should note the strange way in which some of the most permissive groups and communities, for example, Californian liberals in the case of Proposition 8, easily become repressive, despite all their high rhetoric about diversity and tolerance," he said.

He’s referring to, in his words, “how churches and temples were subjected to violence, vandalism and intimidation, and how some supporters of the amendment were forced from their jobs and blacklisted.”

Anybody following the news knows that the number of gays stepping over the line and frightening worshipers at church or defacing church property is miniscule. To tarnish the civil rights movement of millions of people by the few who get out of hand is no different from laying blame on the gay bashers directly on the Archbishop. He knows he did not instigate the violence; are we to believe this fellow is too dense to see the parallel?

Misrepresentation is the currency with which the Cardinal operates. Taking on the culture war battle between traditional Roman Catholic authority and modern public life, the fighting back against religion, he claims, stems mainly from a “misplaced belief in ‘absolute sexual freedom.’” Absolute sexual freedom? You mean like the freedom to have sex without fear of pregnancy and with the person of one’s choice without regard to gender? What’s next? A demand for clean water and fresh air? Misplaced belief in freedom? Eminence, listen to yourself!

You say to-may-to, I say to-mah-to, but let’s not lose sight of the fact nobody is telling you, your Eminence, how you should behave. You are the one dictating how we should behave and we are simply not having it. We are not fighting your right to be Christian according to your dictates, just your right to be dictator.

And I think you know that. I think this attempt to muddy the waters by claiming we are out to get religion when we are only out to get religion off our backs, is dishonest. Political.

You enter the political arena and take your political shots.

You can even fight dirty, if you want. But stop feigning surprise when we call you on it.

It’s not that we don’t expect it.

After all, you’re only a human institution.

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