Friday, March 23, 2012

The Gauck Mania Continues

I don’t know how much longer I’m going to be a Gauck-maniac.   Thought my enthusiasm might ebb by now, but I just watched his first speech before the Bundestag, and my admiration has only risen.  I have a weakness for rhetoric and great speakers, but still…
I’m also an internet-maniac – no news there.  I knew when I got up this morning that, since it was afternoon in Germany, Gauck had probably given his first Bundestag address by now, so I went to YouTube, typed in “Gauck Rede” (Gauck speech) and there it was, right at the top – “Erste Rede” (first speech).  Just checked.  It’s now down to position #15.  Apparently this speech has gotten people interested in other speeches of his. 

In reading the commentary on his speech it took no time at all to find his detractors.  Just more moral “Kanzelgesülze” (pulpit  drivel), snarks one reader.  Others complained that he was making money off his speech tours.  Many take exception to having a clergyman as president.  Still others (my people, I have to admit) squirm over the prospect of having not one, but two, conservatives as head of state and head of government.  “The revenge of the German Democratic Republic” rails one idiot, entirely missing the point that neither Merkel nor Gauck “represent” the former DDR.  They are two of its most notable misfits.

One person complained about the way a president is elected.  He or she is selected by a special commission of notables, including all the members of the Bundestag.  “It’s not democratic,” the person complained.  It’s comforting, I suppose, to note that it’s not only in the U.S. where people do not understand how representative democracies work and that turning all decisions over to everybody town meeting style is not the only way to go – and not even a good way to go, necessarily.

That stuff says so much more about the deliverer of the criticism than it does of Gauck himself, of course.  I’m chuckling to myself regularly these days that I’m waxing so enthusiastic about a Lutheran preacher.  What happened to my proclivity to fling doodoo first and ask questions later at organized religion?   Being preached at is nothing new for  Americans, of course.  We are cursed by mindless evangelicalism and the arrogance of the Roman Catholic hierarchy.  Preaching morality spills out of the churches and into the common space as the stuff of public policy.  “Values voters” we call them.  Reminds me of that line falsely attributed to Goebbels – “When I hear the word culture I reach for my gun.”  (It comes from a play, and it was “I reach for my Browning.” – for you trivia fans).  Anyway, I don’t go for guns, so when I hear “values voters” I reach for an airsickness bag.

But listen to this guy when he talks of values.  “I’ll never miss voting in an election as long as I live.”  These are not values a preacher shouts down on you from on high – shame on you homosexuals, shame on you women who enjoy sex….  They are values you know came from living under a totalitarian regime, values from bitter personal experience.  Urging fellow citizens to participate in democracy, rather than surrender to cynicism and despair.  Pulpit drivel?  Could you possibly get it more wrong?

Others are afraid he’s going to be too conservative.  I understand that, too.  Lots of East European immigrants came to America and went straight into the Republican Party because they were persuaded only the militaristic confrontational stance of the Republicans would do the trick – so agonizing was their time under the communists.
One notes in passing that the other contender in the presidential race was a Nazi hunter.  You might fear, if she had been elected, that there would be too great a swing to the left.  Critics of these candidates do a terrible disservice to both of them with charges like these, and overlook the fact that their real goals are to prevent a return of totalitarianism of whatever stripe.

I have started into Gauck’s memoires, Winter im Sommer, Frühling im Herbst (Winter in Summer, Spring in Fall),  (another technical wonder – I heard the title, went to Amazon and found it on Kindle - from hearing the title to reading the book took about five minutes.)  After his father was “abgeholt” (taken away) – he makes a point of saying they always used abgeholt, and never verhaftet (arrested) – his sister came home one day with Christmas presents she had gotten from the youth group, the Pioneers.  His Aunt Hilde took them, threw them on the floor and stepped on them.  “If somebody asks you when you’re going to join the Pioneers,” his mother told him, “You tell them when we know where father is and when he’s coming home.”  Gauck’s hostility to communism may have an intellectual component, but this tells you, at least, that it was nurtured in bitter personal experience.  That he should spend his life telling his story should come as no surprise.

Gauck’s inaugural address to the Bundestag was the shortest on record, just over twenty minutes start to finish.  He touches all the bases – European unity, the radical right and terrorism, the responsibilities of citizens in a democracy.  But he clearly is into giving encouragement over warning, the important distinction being the focus on the future and a sense of optimism.

Hope he can keep it up.  The cynics will tell you he has no real power.  He’s just a figurehead.

Yes, of course.  At one point in the speech he faced Christian Wulff, the former president, who had just vacated the office in disgrace that Gauck was now taking over.  Gauck addressed him personally and thanked him for his work in assuring that minorities in Germany will feel as much at home as anybody else.  That’s not two, but three birds with one stone, as I see it.   He separates the modern German state from the two dictatorships the world associates with it, where minorities were persecuted.  He singles out this man Christian Wulff as having accomplishments worth recognizing.  And he calls attention to  the smoothness of the transition from one leader to the next in a democracy.   Despite the scandal, he does this in a way that lends a full measure of dignity to the process.

Not a bad start, I would say.

picture credit: Berliner Morgenpost:

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Business as Usual

Isn't forgiveness wonderful?

Germany’s newspapers are covering the story today (here, here, and here, for example) of the rehabilitation of Walter Mixa, the former bishop of Augsburg who was removed from office by the pope in May 2010 for having beaten orphan kids and for having been involved in some shady financial deals at the orphanage where he worked in Schrobenhausen, in Bavaria.  Since this was church business, no actual charges were filed, and Mixa was never tried for crimes.  It was all handled within the church.   

One has to note, however, that Mixa’s colleagues fell away from him as from a sinking ship when five former Schrobenhausen residents came forward with charges they had been abused.  Later a sixth came forward.  Then a seventh and an eighth.   That alone, without a fair trial, is no legal proof of guilt, of course, but then the Pope himself removed Mixa from office, rather than stand behind him, and prescribed a “period of silence” in which Mixa was presumedly expected to meditate on his failings.  The financial problems, using money designated for the orphanage for things in ways it was not intended to be used, including thousands of marks spent on wine, and thousands more on art objects, Mixa explained away as sloppy accounting on his part.  Oh, and to help the orphans appreciate fine art. 

Today it was announced that he would be assigned a new job.  The German papers have it as  “Mitglied (member of) des Päpstlichen Rates für die Seelsorge im Krankendienst.”   I believe the word should be “Pastoral,” not “Seelsorge,” although they both mean “caring for souls,” so we won’t quibble.  The Latin is the Pontificium Consilium pro Valetudinis Administris, and the infelicitous English version is (Member of) the Pontifical Council for Health Pastoral Care.  According to their web page, their task is to “spread, explain and defend the teachings of the Church on health issues and favor its involvement in health care practice.” 

What exactly Mixa’s duties will be is unclear.  The job involves flying from his home in Gunzenheim, where he lived before assuming his duties as bishop of Augsburg and returned to for the silent time, to Rome several times a year to sit in on committee meetings.   Among his expertise in the field of health and medicine are his many trips as official spiritual advisor to groups making pilgrimages to Lourdes.
When things got thick two years ago, Mixa submitted his resignation, took it back, and then submitted it again.  The pope assigned him to a “time of silence and a period of healing.”   Additionally, an investigating committee found the charges credible, although Mixa himself continues to contest them to this day.  Also, the German Bishops Conference confirmed there were reports of alcohol problems and problems of bullying younger clerics.

Although the official period of “silence and healing” was declared over in the fall of last year, this appointment is being viewed as a kind of official reinstatement.  One forgives, and Mixa is now back at work.   Like many clerics mixed up in scandals before him, Mixa now proceeds to a new job in Rome, where he can be close to the pope and do his bit to “defend the teachings of the Church on health issues.”  One notes in passing that not only has he not cottoned to wrongdoing in the past, he has also never, to my knowledge, retracted his comparison of abortion to the Holocaust.

The skeptic in me wants to give this guy a break.  In an age when priestly abusers are coming out of the woodwork left, right and center, and with a clear memory of the witchhunt that took place in California some years ago when childcare people were falsely accused of child abuse in a witchhunt reminiscent of the Salem witch trials, one wants to be extremely careful not to accuse this man falsely.

And that’s a real challenge for me, and I’ll tell you why.  When I was in the first grade, in 1946, the school principal came into class one day, laid a classmate of mine down on a desk (we were all of six years old at the time, remember) and beat her quite hard with a barber strap.  In public.  For the entire assembled first-grade class to see.  The principal’s name was Errico, and I will never forget her.  Nor will I forget my feelings at the time, which I have retained in vivid memory.  “Those kids from the orphanage are dirty.  No wonder they’re getting a beating.”

There was nobody to stand up to Mrs. Errico.  Not Miss DeMars, our teacher.  None of us six-year-olds, obviously.  And evidently no parent was going to come flying into the room as her protector.  Years later I began putting myself into the mind of that child, wondering what it was like not to have a mother and father to come to my rescue when a person in authority chose to beat me and humiliate me publicly, and left me to slink away in shame, back to my bunk in the orphanage.  The fear of coming to school the next day.  The bullying that would be added to the crime.

I remember vividly how the memory of that incident rushed into my mind when I read that it was orphans that Mixa, the local priest, was accused of beating.  Not regular kids with mothers and fathers.

I don’t want to accuse this man I have never met, whose comings and goings I know about mainly from reading the Süddeutsche Zeitung, a paper known for going after the child abusers in the church – the German equivalent of the Boston Globe.  But it’s hard for me to shake the memory of those beatings.  Which he admitted to, after all, sort of.  "I may have cuffed them about the ears."

Finger pointers did come out of the woodwork as well, and he was accused of sexual abuse at one point.  But that turned out to be without substance.    The district attorney of Ingolstadt said so.

It was the “zeitgeist,” a lot of people said.  Not at all unusual to beat children in those days.  People did it all the time.  Just ask Mrs. Errico.  And if they happened to be orphans with no adult protectors to speak of, well they still made good examples for keeping the rest of the kids in line.

The Roman Catholic Church reels with inner strife over its very definition.  One group, “We Are Church,” founded only fifteen years ago, has grown now and has adherents in 25 countries, and additional groups in over 50, according to its website:  They and others within the church have been working to further the goals of Vatican II of bringing the church into the modern world.   (Check out Bill Lindsey’s blog  if you want a good overview of groups and individuals working on this project.)

In Rome, however, it is apparently business as usual.  Women in the church?  Yes, in their proper place, not in any decision-making capacity of note.  Gays in the church?  Of course, if you admit you are fundamentally disordered and make a vow of celibacy (and thus be gay no more). 

Bishops with a drinking problem, a history of bullying and playing loose with finances?  What, you also said abortion was like the Holocaust?

Step his way, sir.  We have a job on a papal commission for you.  No experience necessary, although involvement with miracles will be considered helpful.

Business as usual.

picture credit: