There’s nothing quite so tiresome as a convert sometimes. The Putz has his cassock in a twist over “The Pope’s Phone Call.” He sniffles that expectations of doctrinal changes on subjects like divorce and communion are growing, and that presents perils for Pope Francis. Only from rigid little freaks like you, Putzy… MoDo, in “Slaves to Prejudice,” ponders home home on the racist range, where the cows and the antelope play (for free). The Moustache of Wisdom asks “Who Will Influence Whom?” He says as Russia pushes Ukraine, Ukraine pushes Europe. Mr. Kristof, in “Religion for $1000, Alex,” says Americans are a nation of believers, all right. He then asks, but do they really know what they’re believing in? In “The Angel in Larry Kramer” Mr. Bruni says with an HBO movie of “The Normal Heart,” a complicated hero gets the tribute he’s due. Here, FSM help us, is the Putz:
This weekend in Rome, the Catholic Church is celebrating a double canonization — two popes, two sainthoods, 2,000 buses full of pilgrims — that serves as a kind of capstone on Pope Francis’s first year in office, and an illustration of his agenda for the church.
The two popes are John XXIII and John Paul II, respectively the pontiff who summoned the Second Vatican Council and the pontiff who put his stamp on its interpretation. In the partially accurate clichés of Catholic punditry, they are the liberalizer and the conservative, the icon of Catholic progressives and the hero of the Catholic right. And in canonizing them together, Francis is engaging in very deliberate symbolism — signaling, not for the first time, a desire to push the church’s left and right toward a kind of synthesis, and to move Catholicism beyond its post-1960s civil war.
For now, that push has been remarkably successful: to an extent that seemed nearly impossible before his elevation, Francis has altered the church’s image among its more disaffected members (and in the secular press) without making any of the doctrinal shifts that conservative Catholics believe the church, by definition, cannot make.
For now. But there may be trouble ahead.
The source of the potential trouble lies in a place where Francis has arguably been most effective — in the distinction he’s drawn between the doctrinal and the pastoral, between how the church expounds its moral rules and how it approaches the human beings trying to live up to them.
This distinction, always part of Catholicism’s lived experience, has allowed the pope to finesse difficult issues like homosexuality and divorce, and reach out to people whose states of life have left them feeling alienated from their faith.
Now, though, it’s come up in a more specific case — an alleged papal phone call, reported on somewhat confusedly last week, to an Argentine woman who was seeking permission to take communion despite being married to a divorced man, a situation the church considers adultery unless the man’s original marriage were annulled.
According to the husband, who wrote about the phone call on Facebook, Pope Francis gave permission for the woman to do so. According to the Vatican, what Pope Francis said is nobody’s business except for the woman herself. Such conversations, a Vatican spokesman said, “do not in any way form part of the pope’s public activities,” and “consequences relating to the teaching of the church are not to be inferred.”
This formulation may be technically correct, but it’s also a little bit absurd. Even in “private” conversation, the pope is, well, the pope, and this pontiff in particular is no naïf about either the media or human nature. Whatever was actually said, the idea that it never occurred to Francis that a pastoral call on such a fraught subject might get media attention seems … unlikely.
And whatever his intentions, the phone call and the coverage of it suggest two obvious perils for a papacy that leans too heavily on the distinction between the doctrinal and the pastoral, between official teaching and its applications.
One is what you might call the late-Soviet scenario, in which Catholic doctrine is officially unaltered, but the impression grows that even the pope doesn’t really believe these things, and that when the church’s leaders affirm a controversial position they’re going through the ideological motions — like Brezhnev-era apparatchiks — and not actually trying to teach a living faith.
The other is the dashed-expectations scenario, in which the assumption that a church teaching is about to change creates widespread disaffection when it doesn’t. This happened with contraception in the 1960s, and it could easily happen with divorce and remarriage under Francis.
Indeed, it could happen even if there are some changes to church rules. The Vatican could relax procedures governing annulments, for instance, in ways that (depending on her circumstances) might address the Argentine woman’s situation, and a press expecting something more sweeping might treat the reform as a big nothing.
There is also a third perilous scenario, even if my own assumptions about the nature of the church tend to rule it out. Francis could actually be considering a truly major shift on remarriage and communion, in which the annulment requirement is dispensed with and (perhaps) a temporary penance is substituted.
Such a shift wouldn’t just provoke conservative grumbling; it would threaten outright schism. The church has famous martyrs to the indissolubility of Christian marriage, and its teaching on divorce and adultery is grounded not just in tradition or natural law, but in the explicit words of Jesus of Nazareth.
This means that admitting to communion people the church considers to be in permanently adulterous relationships wouldn’t just look like a modest development in doctrine. It would look like a major about-face, a doctrinal self-contradiction.
Which is why Pope Francis probably is not actually considering it.
But from small phone calls, large theological crises sometimes grow.
Now here’s MoDo:
When a cranky anarchist in a cowboy hat starts a sentence saying “I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro,” you can be dang sure it’s going downhill from there.
The unsettling thing about Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy’s ugly rant on the Virgin River on Saturday, The Times’s Adam Nagourney told me, was that there was no negative reaction from the semicircle of gun-toting and conspiracy-minded supporters who had gathered round to hear it. The oblivious 67-year-old Bundy, who has refused for 20 years to pay for his cattle to graze on our land, offered a nostalgic ode to slavery.
Recalling that he saw African-Americans sitting on the porch of a public-housing project in North Las Vegas who seemed to have “nothing to do,” Bundy declaimed: “They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy?”
The man hailed as a “savior” and “folk hero” by Fox News doubled down Thursday, declaring: “Cliven Bundy’s a-wondering” if the black community was happier during slave days when “they was in the South in front of their homes with their chickens and their gardens and their children around them and their men having something to do.”
By Friday, he was saying that all Americans are slaves to the government and comparing himself to Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. Just another dark-ages bigot who goes nuts at the idea that whites are losing clout in an America run by a New Age black president. What’s the use of being white, after all, if you can’t be king of the hill — even if the hill really belongs to the government?
Conservatives saw no hypocrisy in rallying around Bundy for breaking the law, refusing to pay between $1 and $2 a month per cow to graze on federal land, while they refuse to consider amnesty for illegal immigrants committing Acts of Love.
Rand Paul, the libertarian senator from Kentucky who wants to be the Republican presidential nominee, took almost a day to distance himself from the self-immolating Bundy. Paul was so worried about alienating the segment of the party that will decide the nomination, he couldn’t even respond quickly to say the most simple thing on earth: Racism is bad.
As BuzzFeed reported, Chris McDaniel, a G.O.P. state senator mounting a strong challenge to Thad Cochran in the Mississippi Republican primary, has written blog posts blaming the “welfare dependent citizens of New Orleans” for not finding higher ground during Katrina, charging that “Mexicans” entering the country are hurting “our culture” and calling racial profiling of Muslims a “victory for common sense.”
From cockfighting rallies to online gun sweepstakes to cracks about “wetbacks” to waxing nostalgic about slavery, the Republican fringe has gone mainstream. When the younger stars of the G.O.P. race to embrace a racist anarchist lionized by Sean Hannity, it underscores the party’s lack of leadership or direction.
After making noise about reaching out to women (even as Senate Republicans unanimously blocked a vote on the Paycheck Fairness Act and Republican legislatures around the country pass more abortion restrictions), the G.O.P. now has the delightful Det Bowers out there doing marital counseling. Politico reported that the wacky 62-year-old evangelical minister, who is challenging Lindsey Graham in the South Carolina G.O.P. Senate primary, once asserted that 95 percent of broken marriages are caused by women giving more attention to their children than to their husbands. “He did run off with some other woman, and you packed his bags,” Bowers said, adding: “You just ran him off. You paid more attention to your children than you did to him. ‘Oh, he doesn’t need me?’ He needs you more than they do. He chose you, they didn’t. An abominable idolatry.”
It’s a measure of how hallucinogenic conservatives are that they are trying to re-litigate slavery during the second term of the first African-American president.
Earlier this month, Jim DeMint, Tea-Party godfather and president of the Heritage Foundation, bizarrely told a Christian radio station that it was not “big government” that freed the slaves, but “the conscience of the American people” and Abraham Lincoln, a Republican. (Umm, wasn’t he big government along with his hundreds of thousands of troops?)
In another case of inexplicable foot-dragging, Rand Paul was reluctant to cut loose Jack Hunter, his social media director and co-author on a Tea Party book, after the media wrote about his past life as a shock jock named the Southern Avenger who advocated secession, wore a Confederate flag mask, toasted John Wilkes Booth, and complained that whites are “not afforded the same right to celebrate their own cultural identity” because anything “that is considered ‘too white’ is immediately suspect.”
At Harvard’s Institute of Politics on Friday, Paul said that “The Republican Party will adapt, evolve or die.”
He might want to listen to his own advice.
I’ll ask again — what do you think would happen if a black man or a Muslim pulled the kind of crap Bundy is? Now here’s The Moustache of Wisdom, writing from Kiev:
Sometimes the simplest question speaks the biggest truth. I was meeting with some Maidan activists here in Kiev last week, and we were talking about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s insistence that Ukraine was part of Russia’s traditional “sphere of influence” and “buffer zone” with the West, and, therefore, America and the European Union need to keep their hands off. At one point, one of the activists, the popular Ukrainian journalist, Vitali Sych, erupted: “Did anyone ask us whether we wanted to be part of his buffer zone?”
Sych’s question cut right to the core of what is unfolding here. Quite simply, a majority of Ukrainians got mad as hell at the game imposed on them — serving as bit players in Putin’s sphere of influence, so Russia could continue to feel like a great power, and also being forced to tolerate a breathtakingly corrupt pro-Russian regime in Kiev. After a bottom-up revolution in the Maidan, Kiev’s central square, which cost 100-plus lives — “the Heavenly Hundred” as they are referred to here — Ukrainians are asserting their own sphere of influence, a desire to be part of the E.U.
But, in doing so, they’re posing a deep philosophical and political challenge to Putin’s Russia — as well as to the E.U. and America. How so?
If Putin loses, and Ukraine breaks free and joins the E.U., it would threaten the very core identity of the Russia that Putin has built and wants to expand — a traditional Russia, where the state dominates the individual and where the glory of Mother Russia comes from the territory it holds, the oil and gas it extracts, the neighbors it dominates, the number of missiles it owns and the geopolitical role it plays in the world — not from empowering its people and nourishing their talents.
If Putin wins and prevents Ukraine from holding a free and fair election on May 25, his malign influence over his neighbors would only grow. And you would see more of what you saw last week when Joe Kaeser, the chief executive of Siemens, the German engineering giant, went to Moscow to slobber over Putin and reassure him that all their deals would proceed — despite what Kaeser called “politically difficult times.” (That’s German for Putin’s blocking Ukrainians from E.U. membership that Germans already enjoy.)
You can’t walk the cobblestone streets of the St. Sophia Square in Kiev, or tour the magnificent 11th-century onion-domed church of the same name, without learning just how much Russia and Ukraine have influenced one another over the centuries — and today will be no different. The first unified “Rus” state was born in Kiev, when “St. Vladimir the Great, the Grand Prince of Kiev,” unified all the tribes and territories in the region into an entity called by historians “Kievan Rus.” St. Vladimir also made Orthodox Christianity the official religion.
Now fast-forward 1,000-plus years, and you have another “Vladimir the Great” — Mr. Putin — massing troops on Ukraine’s border to re-establish Russia’s influence here. Putin recently hinted that it might be time for him to reclaim “Novorossiya” or New Russia, which is how a region of southeastern Ukraine was referred to by the czars in the 19th century, when it was part of Russia.
So when Putin says New Russia, he really means Old Russia — a Russia that used to dominate Ukraine. And he wants to prevent a New Ukraine from arising that again influences today’s Russia with new ideas, only this time liberal ones.
“This has become an existential fight for everybody,” explained Pavlo Sheremeta, Ukraine’s new economy minister, who added that his liberal Russian friends are calling him, saying: “Please hang on. Don’t betray us.” Don’t let Putin crush the model that Ukraine is trying to build, otherwise Russia will never change.
“Long term, Russia’s success depends on how it competes in the 21st century, and you don’t just compete with oil and tanks and by bullying someone else,” added Sheremeta. That may make you feel strong “at the moment, but it is just a drug. Ukraine’s eventual success can be another proof that democracy, rule of law and human rights are the best recipe for sustainable development — and not the drug [Putin] is giving to his people.”
Nataliya Popovych, a businesswoman and civil society activist here, said Ukrainians have learned from their Orange Revolution in 2004, when they got rid of an old order but just turned everything over to a new group of corrupt politicians. This time the Maidan revolution has spawned a web of civil society groups that are acting as watchdogs on every minister and working to guarantee fair presidential elections.
But it won’t be easy. Ukraine is a complicated place. Its legacy of corruption, venal elites and police brutality mean there are plenty of domestic foes to the Maidan revolutionaries. But Putin’s interventions just make the struggle for a more decent, E.U.-anchored future here that much more difficult.
“The Heavenly Hundred died here for human rights and European values,” Popovych told me. But for these to get consolidated into a new politics in Ukraine, the fledgling new state “has to survive” and that will require the E.U. and America to help protect it.
“We would love this to be all about us,” she said. “But it is a civilizational battle going on. We just happen to be at the center of it.”
Next up we have Mr. Kristof:
With Easter and Passover freshly behind us, let’s test your knowledge of the Bible. How many mistakes can you find:
Noah of Arc and his wife, Joan, build a boat to survive a great flood. Moses climbs Mount Cyanide and receives 10 enumerated commandments; for all the differences among religious denominations, the Ten Commandments are a common bedrock that Jews, Catholics and Protestants agree on.
Sodom and his wild girlfriend, Gomorrah, soon set the standard for what not to do. They are turned to pillars of salt.
The Virgin Mary, a young Christian woman, conceives Jesus immaculately and gives birth to him in a Jerusalem manger. Jesus, backed by the Twelve Apostles and their wives, the Epistles, proclaims what we call the Golden Rule: “Do one to others before they do one to you.” The Romans repeatedly crucify Jesus — at Cavalry, Golgotha and other sites — but he resurrects himself each time.
Christianity spreads through the gospels, which differ on details but all provide eyewitness accounts of Jesus’s life from birth to death. Finally, Rome tires of throwing Christians to lions and becomes the first country to adopt Christianity as its religion. The Bible is translated from the original English into countless languages.
So how many errors did you spot? There are about 20 mistakes, which I’ve listed at the end of this column, and they reflect the general muddling in our society about religious knowledge.
Secular Americans are largely ignorant about religion, but, in surveys, religious Americans turn out to be scarcely more knowledgeable.
“Americans are both deeply religious and profoundly ignorant about religion,” Stephen Prothero noted in his book, “Religious Literacy.” “Atheists may be as rare in America as Jesus-loving politicians are in Europe, but here faith is almost entirely devoid of content. One of the most religious countries on earth is also a nation of religious illiterates.”
Nearly two-thirds of Americans say they believe that the Bible holds the answer to all or most of life’s basic questions. Yet only one-third know that Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount, and 10 percent think that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife.
Many Americans know even less about other faiths, from Islam to Hinduism. Several days after 9/11, a vigilante shot and killed an Indian-American Sikh because of the assumption that a turban must mean a Muslim: Ignorance and murderous bigotry joined in one.
All this goes to the larger question of the relevance of the humanities. Literature, philosophy and the arts have come to be seen as effete and irrelevant, but if we want to understand the world around us and think deeply about it, it helps to have exposure to Shakespeare and Kant, Mozart and Confucius — and, yes, Jesus, Moses and the Prophet Muhammad.
Secularists sometimes believe religious knowledge doesn’t matter because the world is leaving faith behind. Really? Faith is elemental in much of the world, including large swaths of America.
How can one understand Afghanistan without some knowledge of Islam? For that matter, how can one understand America without any intellectual curiosity about Evangelicals? Can one understand the world if one is oblivious to the stunning rise of Pentecostals at home and abroad?
Every high school and college graduate in America should, I think, have some familiarity with statistics, economics and a foreign language such as Spanish. Religion may not be as indispensable, but the humanities should be a part of our repertory. They may not enrich our wallets, but they do enrich our lives. They civilize us. They provide context.
And we don’t want to emulate the long-ago Texas governor who, in one of those stories that may be too good to be true, opposed Spanish instruction because: “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for us.”
Errors in the Bible story above: Joan wasn’t Noah’s wife (and Arc wasn’t his name); Moses climbed Mount Sinai, not Cyanide; there were 12 (unnumbered) commandments, and Jews, Protestants and Catholics have different versions depending in part on how they compress them into 10; Sodom wasn’t a person; same for Gomorrah; they weren’t the ones turned into salt; the Virgin Mary was Jewish; the immaculate conception is a Catholic doctrine referring to the conception of Mary; Jesus was said to be born in Bethlehem; epistles are letters; the Golden Rule governs what you do “unto others”; Jesus was crucified once; it’s Calvary, not Cavalry, and it’s the same place as Golgotha; Jesus is said to have been resurrected once; although we don’t know much about the gospel writers, they presumably weren’t eyewitnesses but incorporated eyewitness sources; the Gospels of Mark and John do not refer to the birth of Jesus; Armenia was first to adopt Christianity as state religion; the Bible is translated from Hebrew and Greek, not English.
Last but not least here’s Mr. Bruni:
I learned long ago to open my inbox with trepidation. A journalist is a magnet for complaints.
I also learned to take a deep breath and maybe a stiff drink if an email from Larry Kramer lurked there. A journalist who weighed in on gay issues or AIDS was a magnet for his complaints, which were no mere complaints. They were harangues, tirades, jeremiads about what was being overlooked and minimized, about festering injustices and faltering responses, about the need for everyone to summon a fury and determination commensurate to his.
I dreaded Larry Kramer, and sometimes I even detested Larry Kramer, but always — always — I knew that he was on the side of the angels and that we needed him there, in all his unappeasable and obnoxious glory. He was the blazing conscience of a generation of gay people at a crucial hinge of history, when a critical mass of us came far out of the closet, largely because of the AIDS epidemic. He, among others, demanded no less, making clear that our survival depended on it. His outrage gave birth in the 1980s to the protest group Act Up, with its utterly perfect slogan of “Silence=Death.” And the end of silence marked the beginning of so much else.
How to honor that? To thank him? I’m not sure there’s any adequate way, though there is, finally, a tribute that he long craved, sought and despaired of ever seeing, a movie version of “The Normal Heart,” his strident and devastating play of the plague years, during which his thinly fictionalized alter ego, Ned Weeks, tries to sound an early alarm. It stars Mark Ruffalo as Ned, Matt Bomer as his dying lover and Julia Roberts as a physician who shares his sense of urgency, and it will make its debut on HBO on May 25. There are friends of Kramer’s who say that his excitement about it may be helping to keep him alive.
He’s 78 and in precarious health — there have been sustained complications from a liver transplant more than a decade ago — and I used the past tense to describe his screeds only because they have receded. He seems to have lost the energy for them, and he has pulled back from the spotlight, even turning down requests for interviews about the HBO movie.
But maybe he has also looked at the changed landscape around him — the legalization of same-sex marriage in nearly 20 states, gay characters on every other television show, a new postage stamp commemorating Harvey Milk — and mellowed just the teensiest bit. Over the last few years, his emails changed. “I send you hugs and kisses,” he wrote to me about 18 months ago. Hugs and kisses? Kramer used to send brickbats and Molotov cocktails.
Right now there’s an impassioned conversation about proper credit for the huge successes of the marriage-equality movement. It stems from the publication of a book by my Times colleague Jo Becker, “Forcing the Spring,” which focuses narrowly on a few key figures from the fight to overturn a 2008 California referendum prohibiting same-sex marriage. In giving them such primacy, “Forcing the Spring” has raised hackles, and it suggests a new corollary to an old adage. Perhaps history isn’t simply written by the victors. Perhaps it’s written by the publicity-conscious participants with the foresight to glue journalists to their sides.
But any serious discussion of credit has to travel back many decades, to scores of pioneers who fought for the baseline recognition of gay and lesbian people that was a prerequisite for “I do.” It has to encompass Milk, Urvashi Vaid and, yes, Kramer, whose association chiefly with AIDS activism — with getting doctors, drug companies, politicians and gay men to wake the hell up — shortchanges his broader cause and full effect.
He understood as well as anybody else did that for Americans in the 1980s to care about AIDS, they had to care about homosexuals, and to care about homosexuals, they had to realize how many they knew and loved. He appreciated the need for visibility, from which so much subsequent progress on so many other fronts flowed.
Ryan Murphy, who directed “The Normal Heart” and helped shepherd it onto the screen, said recently that when he looks at blessings in his life — the husband he married in the summer of 2012, the son they had later that year — he sees Kramer’s handiwork, Kramer’s bequest.
“I don’t think we’d have the rights we do today as gay people if it wasn’t for Larry,” he told me. “For me, Larry is a civil rights leader, and I rank him up there with all of the greats.”
Kramer is complicated, though, and “The Normal Heart” acknowledges as much while putting a polite spin on it. Part of what makes him so fascinating is how vividly he demonstrates the braid of flattering and less flattering qualities in many heroes. Is it altruism that draws them to the barricades, or vanity? Where does conviction end and zeal begin, and what’s the line between fearlessness and obstinacy? Kramer grew so accustomed to doing battle — it was his default mode, his reflex — that he picked unnecessary fights.
He blew up at Tony Kushner because Kushner’s evolving screenplay for the movie “Lincoln” wasn’t going to explore the belief that the 16th president was gay. He blew up at the writer Michael Cunningham for some other act of supposed heresy. And he once said, in an interview with New York magazine, that he didn’t understand why “every gay person doesn’t agree with everything I say.”
“I’m serious,” he added.
The actress Ellen Barkin, who won a Tony for the role in “The Normal Heart” that Roberts plays in the movie, recently told me about Kramer’s apoplexy when, midway through the production’s run, some fabric on her character’s wheelchair was changed in a way that he deemed all wrong.
In Barkin’s recollection, Kramer said, “Ellen, did you notice that it’s flowers now? She wouldn’t have flowers.”
“I did notice,” she replied to him, “but it’s fine.”
“It’s not fine!” Kramer sputtered. “It’s not.”
And yet, Barkin told me, he could also be the sweetest man she ever met. “It’s an amazing paradox,” she said.
Both sides of Kramer are reflected in a documentary about him that HBO is producing. Its tentative title is “Larry Kramer: In Love and Anger,” and it begins with archival footage of him bellowing the word “plague,” along with expletives, as his eyes bulge. He looks like a deranged messiah.
And then, later in the unfinished movie, he looks like a dazed child, silent and full of wonder as he exchanges wedding vows with his longtime partner, David Webster, in the intensive care unit of a hospital last year.
The documentary is scheduled for release sometime in 2015, possibly in conjunction with an epic gay history of sorts, “The American People,” that Kramer has been writing for decades. It sprawls to thousands of pages, its heft a hint of the same grandiosity that prompted him to call a second autobiographical play of his “The Destiny of Me.”
“He has said again and again, and I think it is truly, truly felt by him, that he loves gay people and considers us all his children,” said Peter Staley, who worked with Kramer to set Act Up in motion.
Staley’s words reminded me of a remarkable novel, “Two Boys Kissing,” by David Levithan, that I’d just read. Levithan intersperses scenes of gay teenagers in the present with commentary from a Greek chorus of their gay forebears, who watch them and wonder if they’re aware of the dying and the marching that came before.
“We are your shadow uncles, your angel godfathers,” says the chorus. “We taught you how to dance.”
The movie of “The Normal Heart” in fact ends with a gay dance, at Yale University, Kramer’s alma mater. From its sidelines, Kramer, in the form of Ned Weeks, gazes at the next generation, seemingly knowing that it will live with less shame and in less fear than his did. His pride and relief are palpable.
“It was important for me to shoot that because it had hope,” Murphy told me, adding that he encouraged Ruffalo to “give a little smile of ‘thank you, Larry, for what you’ve done.’ ”
Thank you indeed. Hugs and kisses.