The Pasty Little Putz considers “The Ratzinger Legacy” and tells us that the church is still here, despite the doubts, scandals and divisions. In “How Mary Feels About Being a Virgin” MoDo says a bold, brazen author looks at where the church has been, and where it goes now. The Moustache of Wisdom, in “The Scary Hidden Stressor,” says the brutal winter drought in China is connected to a global wheat shortage is connected to the Arab Spring is connected to … (And the foot bone’s connected to the ankle bone…) Here’s The Putz:
The helicopter that carried Pope Benedict XVI into retirement left behind a Catholicism in crisis. So say his critics, his admirers and everyone in between.
The church needs “shock therapy” from its next pontiff, writes one observer. Catholicism faces its worst crisis “since the French Revolution,” argues another. “Not since the Reformation,” writes a third, “has the Church been so shaken to its core.”
Up to a point, the language of crisis is justified. To the trends weakening institutional faiths across the Western world — the rise of spiritual individualism, the influence of the so-called new atheism, the gap between traditional Christian sexual ethics and present-day realities — the Roman Catholic Church has added scandals, sclerosis and a communications strategy apparently designed to win the news cycles of 1848. In both Europe and America, Catholicism’s public reputation has worsened since Benedict assumed the papacy, and his nearly unprecedented abdication is a sign that the pope emeritus knows it.
But in assessing Benedict’s legacy, it’s worth looking back on the situation in the church in the late 1970s, when the man who was then Joseph Ratzinger left his academic career to become first an archbishop, then a cardinal and eventually the pope.
In America, the ’70s were defined by not just a weakening in the institutional life of the church but a wholesale collapse. Thousands of priests and nuns left their holy orders each year. Mass attendance had fallen by a third in a generation. The church faced a rebellion from Latin Mass traditionalists, even as progressive theologians confidently planned for a third Vatican Council. Along with institutional instability there was moral laxity, and worse: revelations of sex abuse and cover-up were years away, but the rate of abuse was at its peak.
Beneath these trends was a pervasive sense that Catholic identity was entirely up for grabs — that having dispensed with Latin Mass and meatless Fridays, the church might be poised for further revolutions, a major schism, or both. When Walker Percy’s novel “Love in the Ruins” imagined Catholicism in the United States splitting in three — a progressive church modeled on liberal Protestantism, a right-wing “American Catholic Church” that plays the “Star-Spangled Banner” during Mass, and a tiny remnant loyal to Rome — it seemed more like prophecy than fiction.
It was the work of Ratzinger’s subsequent career, first as John Paul II’s doctrinal policeman and then as his successor, to re-establish where Catholicism actually stood. This was mostly a project of reassertion: yes, the church still believes in the Resurrection, the Trinity and the Virgin birth. Yes, the church still opposes abortion, divorce, sex outside of marriage. Yes, the church still considers itself the one true faith. And yes — this above all, for a man whose chief gifts were intellectual — the church believes that its doctrines are compatible with reason, scholarship and science.
It was understandable that this project made Ratzinger many enemies. It turned him into a traitor to his class, since it involved disciplining theologians who had been colleagues, peers and rivals. It disappointed or wounded the many Catholics who couldn’t reconcile the church’s teachings with their post-sexual-revolution lives. And it obviously did not solve the broad cultural challenges facing institutional Christianity in the West.
But it did stabilize Catholicism, especially in America, to an extent that was far from inevitable 40 years ago. The church’s civil wars continued, but without producing major schisms. Mass attendance stopped its plunge and gradually leveled off, holding up even during some of the worst sex abuse revelations. Vocations likewise stabilized, and both ordinations and interest in religious life have actually risen modestly over the last decade. Today’s American Catholics, while deeply divided, are more favorably disposed to both the pope emeritus and the current direction of the church than press coverage sometimes suggests.
This stabilization was not the kind of sweeping revival that some conservative Catholics claimed to see happening, and it did nothing to prevent the church’s reputation from suffering, deservedly, once the abuse epidemic came to light.
But for all of Catholicism’s problems, the Christian denominations that did not have a Ratzinger — those churches that persisted in the spirit of the 1970s and didn’t reassert a doctrinal core — have generally fared worse. There are millions of lapsed Catholics, but the church still has a higher retention rate by far than most mainline Protestant denominations. Indeed, it is difficult to pick out a major religious body where the progressive course urged by so many of Ratzinger’s critics has increased vitality and growth.
This doesn’t mean there isn’t some further version of reform, some unexpected synthesis of tradition and innovation, that would serve Catholicism well. And if such a path exists, Pope Benedict was probably not the leader to find it.
But he helped ensure that something recognizable as Catholic Christianity would survive into the third millennium. For one man, one lifetime, that was enough.
Putzy seems to think he knows all about what was going on in the Church in the 70s, despite having been born in 1979, and being a later convert. I wonder where he picked up all of that history… Here’s MoDo:
Colm Toibin has plenty of experience getting inside women’s heads.
The lyrical Irish author wrote “Brooklyn” about the aching loneliness of a young Irish woman who emigrates to New York in the ’50s to find work.
In a short story called “A Priest in the Family,” part of a collection called “Mothers and Sons,” Toibin conjures a proud, elderly Irish mother who learns that her son, a priest, is pleading guilty to sex abuse charges.
In a short story in the current New Yorker, his protagonist is an older Spanish woman who rejects a request to meet once more with an old lover who got her pregnant, one of Franco’s officers during the Spanish Civil War.
Still, I ask the writer, how did this former altar boy from County Wexford have the nerve to climb inside the head of the most revered woman in history?
“It took a lot out of me emotionally,” the 57-year-old Toibin conceded, calling from his apartment on Riverside Drive, where he stays when he is teaching English literature at Columbia University.
In “The Testament of Mary,” a one-woman show with Fiona Shaw previewing later this month on Broadway, Toibin imagines his own version of how the Virgin Mary felt about crucifixion — “the most foul and frightening image that had ever been conjured up by men” — and whether she really had not known Joseph in a biblical sense.
To borrow a phrase that nuns once applied to naughty children in my school, the play is a bold, brazen piece. Toibin wrote it first as a stage monologue, then turned it into a novel and has recast it again for Broadway. His illiterate but intelligent Mary, with echoes of Antigone and Electra, is no idealized, asexual, docile Madonna, tenderly cradling her son’s bleeding body, Pietà-style.
This Mary runs away from the crucifixion to save herself (“the pain was his and not mine”) leaving others to watch Jesus die, wash his body and bury him. This Mary misses sleeping with her husband. This Mary disdains the “misfits” who flocked around her son.
She resents his two disciples — “the men who come to oversee my final years” as protectors or guards — for pressuring her to help mythologize Jesus as the son of God. She notes wearily that one scowls at her “when the story I tell him does not stretch to whatever limits he has ordained.” The men patiently explain to her “what had happened to me at my son’s conception” and rewrite her story about fleeing the crucifixion to be more nurturing.
“All my life when I have seen more than two men together I have seen foolishness and I have seen cruelty,” she says of the disciples, “but it is foolishness that I have noticed first.”
She disdains their drive for power, which calls for hiding the truth to protect the institution they are building — a story line that echoes this week as the male enclave in the Vatican roils with old rituals, new scandals and the cascading shame of even more sulfurous sexual abuse revelations.
Toibin, who describes himself as a lapsed Catholic, said he was inspired when he went to Venice and saw Titian’s radiant “Assumption of the Virgin,” and then “up the road” saw Tintoretto’s chaotic crucifixion painting.
“The idea that we were somehow saved and redeemed by a crucifixion seems strange to me,” he said. “The idea of human sacrifice is something we really have to think about, even people who are practicing Catholics, the idea of taking a single individual for the sake of any cause.”
He has written about visiting Catholic shrines in Europe and about his shame growing up gay in a church where homosexuality could not be mentioned. He talks about how strange it is to see the church recede in Ireland to the point that Dubliners seem more obsessed with shopping than Mass on Sundays.
He was relieved when his play opened in Dublin and church leaders there reacted calmly.
I wonder what he thinks of the pageantry in Rome. He is dubious about the showy helicopter exit of Benedict to nearby Castel Gandolfo: “There’s absolutely no reason why he couldn’t have gone by car. The roads in Italy are really good.” But he expresses admiration for the easy affection between the 85-year-old former Holy Father and his 56-year-old private secretary, Msgr. Georg Gänswein, whom Toibin has described as “remarkably handsome, a cross between George Clooney and Hugh Grant, but in a way more beautiful than either.”
Benedict may have given up his flashy red loafers, downgrading to brown ones made for him in Mexico, but he is taking “Gorgeous Georg,” as the younger German is known, to live in his new home, a monastery in the Vatican. Some cardinals are worried about the arrangement of having Gänswein serve two pontiffs, by day as prefect of the new pope’s household and at night as secretary to the emeritus pope.
“An 85-year-old man having such a beautiful companion with him morning and night to talk to and walk with,” Toibin said. “It’s like the end of a novel. It’s what all of us want for ourselves, straight or gay. It’s better than sex.”
I ask him whether he thinks the church will evolve under a new pope.
“Everyone is hoping for some change,” he said. “If you could see nuns making sermons. Clerical celibacy has to be abolished and soon. And we must quickly begin the process of allowing women into the priesthood.
“They need to think very carefully about not recognizing that gay people, like all other people, are made in God’s image. It’s just possible that they have more gay priests than they know. I think most gay priests are very good people in the priesthood for very good reasons, and actually faithful to the vows of celibacy. On the issue of gays, Benedict made things even worse.”
As Cardinal Ratzinger, Benedict called homosexuality a “more or less strong tendency ordered towards an intrinsic moral evil.” As pope, he reiterated the church view that homosexuals were “objectively disordered” and that men who had such tendencies could not be allowed into seminaries. He called gay marriage a threat to “the future of humanity itself.”
Toibin says that the church must have tolerance, and that its leaders have lost any sense of how their sanctimonious denunciations clash with their scandals and imagery, causing nothing but pain.
“I remember being at the Vatican at Easter 1994,” he recalled, “and watching all the cardinals and bishops, wonderfully powerful old men with great chins, sitting nobly with a long row of extraordinarily beautiful young seminarians standing behind, shading them with different colored sun umbrellas, some of which were pink.
“It was remarkable that none of them seemed to know what it looked like, and I watched it thinking, somebody must tell them.”
And next up is The Moustache of Wisdom:
In her introduction to a compelling new study, “The Arab Spring and Climate Change,” released Thursday, the Princeton scholar Anne-Marie Slaughter notes that crime shows often rely on the concept of a “stressor.” A stressor, she explains, is a “sudden change in circumstances or environment that interacts with a complicated psychological profile in a way that leads a previously quiescent person to become violent.” The stressor is never the only explanation for the crime, but it is inevitably an important factor in a complex set of variables that lead to a disaster. “The Arab Spring and Climate Change” doesn’t claim that climate change caused the recent wave of Arab revolutions, but, taken together, the essays make a strong case that the interplay between climate change, food prices (particularly wheat) and politics is a hidden stressor that helped to fuel the revolutions and will continue to make consolidating them into stable democracies much more difficult.
Jointly produced by the Center for American Progress, the Stimson Center and the Center for Climate and Security, this collection of essays opens with the Oxford University geographer Troy Sternberg, who demonstrates how in 2010-11, in tandem with the Arab awakenings, “a once-in-a-century winter drought in China” — combined, at the same time, with record-breaking heat waves or floods in other key wheat-growing countries (Ukraine, Russia, Canada and Australia) — “contributed to global wheat shortages and skyrocketing bread prices” in wheat-importing states, most of which are in the Arab world.
Only a small fraction — 6 percent to 18 percent — of annual global wheat production is traded across borders, explained Sternberg, “so any decrease in world supply contributes to a sharp rise in wheat prices and has a serious economic impact in countries such as Egypt, the largest wheat importer in the world.”
The numbers tell the story: “Bread provides one-third of the caloric intake in Egypt, a country where 38 percent of income is spent on food,” notes Sternberg. “The doubling of global wheat prices — from $157/metric ton in June 2010 to $326/metric ton in February 2011 — thus significantly impacted the country’s food supply and availability.” Global food prices peaked at an all-time high in March 2011, shortly after President Hosni Mubarak was toppled in Egypt.
Consider this: The world’s top nine wheat-importers are in the Middle East: “Seven had political protests resulting in civilian deaths in 2011,” said Sternberg. “Households in the countries that experience political unrest spend, on average, more than 35 percent of their income on food supplies,” compared with less than 10 percent in developed countries.
Everything is linked: Chinese drought and Russian bushfires produced wheat shortages leading to higher bread prices fueling protests in Tahrir Square. Sternberg calls it the globalization of “hazard.”
Ditto in Syria and Libya. In their essay, the study’s co-editors, Francesco Femia and Caitlin Werrell, note that from 2006 to 2011, up to 60 percent of Syria’s land experienced the worst drought ever recorded there — at a time when Syria’s population was exploding and its corrupt and inefficient regime was proving incapable of managing the stress.
In 2009, they noted, the U.N. and other international agencies reported that more than 800,000 Syrians lost their entire livelihoods as a result of the great drought, which led to “a massive exodus of farmers, herders, and agriculturally dependent rural families from the Syrian countryside to the cities,” fueling unrest. The future does not look much brighter. “On a scale of wetness conditions,” Femia and Werrell note, “ ‘where a reading of -4 or below is considered extreme drought,’ a 2010 report by the National Center for Atmospheric Research shows that Syria and its neighbors face projected readings of -8 to -15 as a result of climatic changes in the next 25 years.” Similar trends, they note, are true for Libya, whose “primary source of water is a finite cache of fossilized groundwater, which already has been severely stressed while coastal aquifers have been progressively invaded by seawater.”
Scientists like to say that, when it comes to climate change, we need to manage what is unavoidable and avoid what is unmanageable. That requires collective action globally to mitigate as much climate change as we can and the building of resilient states locally to adapt to what we can’t mitigate. The Arab world is doing the opposite. Arab states as a group are the biggest lobbyists against efforts to reduce oil and fuel subsidies. According to the International Monetary Fund, as much as one-fifth of some Arab state budgets go to subsidizing gasoline and cooking fuel — more than $200 billion a year in the Arab world as a whole — rather than into spending on health and education. Meanwhile, locally, Arab states are being made less resilient by the tribalism and sectarianism that are eating away at their democratic revolutions.
As Sarah Johnstone and Jeffrey Mazo of the International Institute for Strategic Studies conclude in their essay, “fledgling democracies with weak institutions might find it even harder to deal with the root problems than the regimes they replace, and they may be more vulnerable to further unrest as a result.” Yikes.