Collie Creating
Codex Firestarter

What about the pope?

by Collie Collier
May 2005 Firestarter column

Man, this Firestarter is late. I'm sorry, people. I really wanted to write about this subject, but it's been hard to get up the enthusiasm to do so.

What caused this desire was someone asking me what I thought of the new pope. They were rather shocked when I shrugged indifferently, indignantly asking me how I could not care. Well, I do care about the influence the Roman Catholic Church has on the world, but it's hard to care much about a new pope when it's so obvious the cardinals made a political choice demonstrating nothing important is going to change.

I guess dynastic change brings out the worst in folks, though, which is why I wanted to make some statement, however casual and uninvolved I might personally feel. After all, I've seen far too many people snarking snidely about how it's about time those stupid liberals gave up on their secular nonsense and rejoined the church. Equally unpleasantly, I've seen other folks snidely snarking about how it'll be tough for the church to gain any relevance in the world today, considering its fearful blinkered atavism.

I don't think either group is in the right of it, just as I don't think either group is really referring to the new pope. That's not to say the pope isn't part of the discussion -- I just think people realize on some level his election signifies more of the church's same ole same old.

"True" names

I don't think I'm alone in this assumption either. Consider the aliases Joseph Ratzinger has garnered over the years: while head of the church's equivalent to the Inquisition he was commonly known as "Cardinal No," before the death of Karol Wojtyla he was known as "the Vice Pope," and now he's commonly referred to as "Pappa Ratzi."

I don't believe the catholics selecting these names are ignorant of either the pop culture references or the black humor double entendres represented thereof. It's sad to see they amusedly equate the man with a fictional super villain/mastermind, or with immoral action, or with rudely intrusive freelance photographers who do their best to capitalize on the violation of the privacy of individuals. However, I can't deny the potential appropriateness of their choices.

Regarding how the pope is likely to influence the church, I find it amusingly dismaying that most conservatives I hear about seem to believe all christians should now reunite -- but it's "those other guys" who have to do all the compromising, because they're just wrong, duh, and we're the true righteous. I find it equally dismaying to hear far too many liberals whining about how everything would be wonderful if we just dumped all the so-called old traditions since they no longer apply, in order to bring the church into the modern day world.

What's going on here? Have both sides forgotten the real beginnings of the church -- with Jesus, their purported founder? How can they talk about "long-standing traditions" without laughing incredulously, when their research is based only on the medieval time period?

Have they forgotten the original church was community-based, gathering at the houses of wealthy and supportive women and men, choosing their own clergy regardless of their sex or marriage status, led by those who were divinely inspired by Jesus rather than only those whom some self-professed hierarchy tapped?!

Clerical celibacy, birth control, female clerics, homosexual christians, papal inerrancy, clerical pedophilia -- there are so many tragic issues where the church claims infallible, long-standing tradition -- issues which are clearly against the actual teachings of Jesus in the bible! How can anyone take the church hierarchy seriously when they make such patently incorrect and absurd claims? When there's a church stridently asserting such demonstrably false fantasies are actually reality, and no we're not going to even let you talk about it... then how can the changing of the pope make a whit of difference? Le roi est mort, vive le roi.

I've written quite a bit already on most of these subjects, and if they interest you I've provided some links below. I even wrote an initial draft of this Firestarter where I snarkily re-stated all the logic behind the reasons I had little to no respect left for official church hierarchy.

However, upon reflection I didn't see the point of publishing it. Those who know this data are either already convinced, or are sure I and the authors I quote (including the Gospel writers) are wrong. Considering the hemorrhaging of membership the church is currently suffering (with more under John Paul II than any other pope in history), I'd have to say the church's increasingly hysteric insistence on its own infallibility is wearing a bit thin in the world today.

Cost/benefit analysis

Which is not to say it's finished. A friend of mine and I were chatting the other day about this very issue, wondering why Ratzinger was chosen. After all, he's quite old -- past retirement age and old enough that it's unlikely he'll last long. We came up with two possible reasons for his election.

The first is that he's a concession to the conservatives, while arrangements are made behind the scenes to start the slow process of bringing the church into the modern day, to prevent it becoming any more irrelevant than it already is in today's world. How they'd do that I don't know, but it'd be lovely if true. Of course, that's the optimistic scenario.

The second is a grimmer potential scenario, but the one I suspect is a bit more likely -- we postulated the new pope was put in place to continue to keep the church reactionary and conservative. This will alienate most of Europe, true, but in a sense Europe is already lost to the church. Any "liberal concessions" won't be enough for a society tired of blaming women and gays for issues the church itself hasn't been able to solve for over two millennia. It'd be a case of "too little, too late."

There is, however, a reason to keep the church reactionary -- Africa and some of the parts of Southeast Asia. Those two sections of the world are mostly poverty-stricken Third world countries and, curiously enough, are also the only places where the church's membership is actually growing. A strictly disciplinarian, hierarchical church apparently strongly appeals to this constituency.

Indeed, as one writer put it, being told who to blame for one's life problems means it can't possibly be your fault. Making a gentler, more forgiving, more Christ-like church would apparently alienate these new church members. So in the most pragmatic secular terms, it's in the church's best current interests to maintain a medieval mind-set, based on a fearsome and vengeful father figure.

This would also explain Ratzinger's insistent pressure to quickly make a saint out of the rather conservative previous pope -- which I find vaguely reminiscent of the Roman emperors making gods out of the deceased emperor who preceded them. Frankly, I thought there was more to sainthood than just authoritarianism and on-the-job seniority.

I found this possible motivation for why Ratzinger was elected (cost/benefit analysis) to be a really tragic alternative -- although I cannot deny its plausibility, due to the all-too-human desire to explain and blame painful disaster on outsiders. Nevertheless I find it creepy to suspect ignorance and poverty (whether deliberately chosen or unfortunate and unavoidable) encourages people to fall for comforting illusions such as this. Surely there should be more to religion than secular desires and fears?

Religious integrity

But that is all in the realm of speculation; only time will tell its falsity or veracity. Returning to the original subject, what might make me care about the church today, or its new pope? It's not an easy question to answer, especially with all the weight and emotional baggage of millennia of pointless misogyny, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and arrogant clerical self-righteousness. Nevertheless, here are my thoughts on the matter:

How about a pope with the intellectual and spiritual courage to state truth, instead of waiting over a century to apologize for the outright, known lies the church has inflicted on us? How about church policy that doesn't either contradict Jesus' teachings, or insult our intelligence? How about a pope who has the strength and faith to bring the church back to its real, true roots and its original traditions?

I don't expect this to happen in my lifetime, of course. However, as a certain wise man once noted,

When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me... And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

I hope for the changes of mature wisdom; I have faith there is untapped wondrous human potential in us all... and in the end, I guess we all will have to learn to forgive and love ourselves before we can truly love those around us, or any possible Maker.

Capitalization and dates

One of the things I learned from anthropology was that we capitalize to either attach importance to something, or to make it unusual. Thus people will often talk about "us" (without reference to color) as the norm, and Blacks as strange and unusual. Or, for example: we consider ourselves more important -- we're members of the Roman Catholic Church and follow the Pope, but they just go to temple and have rabbis or mullahs.

It's not a good habit, I think. This is why, when writing about religion, I'll occasionally refer to christianity and the bible in lower case. Amusingly, typing it so in Microsoft Word makes the word spelling program try to argue with me about automatically "correcting" it to its usual uppercase "importance" as Christianity. Sorry, Word, I've got the opposable thumbs -- I win.

Also, I just realized this column should have gone up on Mayday, the traditional date of the call to emancipation for the workers of the world. I find this amusingly ironic, especially considering the frequent misquoting of Marx' famous statement:

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

It makes me wonder -- when the religion itself is heartless and soulless to those it purports to lead or inspire... what does that do to the people? Where do we turn for relief, for kindness, for leadership? Certainly not to the government.

Maybe it's time for us to look within -- to think for ourselves, to have the courage to face our deity or our inner being without the comforting buffer of quick, easy answers from a substitute father-figure. Maybe we should try observing Jesus' kindly, generous Eight Beatitudes instead of YHWH's harsh and demanding Ten Commandments.

Why can't we find deific or internal inspiration and motivation for a decent life -- instead of spending so much time telling everyone else they're indecent and deficient and should just do what they're told?

Links on connected subjects

These are some of my writings and reviews which contain information on subjects loosely related to this Firestarter:

On the pride and perils of organized religion

Oct 2004 Firestarter: What is spirituality, as compared to religiosity?

A review of organized, as opposed to personal, religion

College paper: Feminism and the Bible: examining the Christian myth of creation

Yet another attempt to find some relevancy for women in the patriarchal bible

College paper: Thoughts on the Disciple Jesus Loved: A case for it being Mary Magdalene

Where I postulate freely that Mary Magdalene was both the disciple Jesus loved, and possibly the true author of the gospel of John

College paper: Paul's First Letter: Writings to the Thessalonians and Corinthians

An assessment of Paul's prescriptions on celibacy, marriage, and how women should conduct themselves, in the then-minority religion of christianity

College paper: Women & the Early Christian Church: the New Testament from a literary and historical perspective

A quick review of how women's treatment in the early Christian church changed, as the fledgling church moved from 'cult' status to being part of the societal 'status quo'

University paper: Women in Religion & Politics: A Possible Non Sequitur?

A fascinating paper to write. The more I learned of 'fundamentalism,' the more I realized it wasn't simply a few dangerously fanatic lunatics imposing their will on women through a society's accepted 'state religion'

Book review: The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis

(fiction) A fascinating epistolary story thoughtfully detailing some of the better tenets of christianity, but presented with a novel twist -- as advice on temptation given between devils

Book review: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

(fiction) The story of the Price family, following their patriarch as he brings fiery fundamentalism to a Congolese village in 1959
On female apostles, biblical errancy, and clerical celibacy

Sep 2004 Firestarter: Were Jesus and Mary Magdalene really married?

...or "Is the premise of The DaVinci Code really true?"
On homosexuality, intellectual & religious integrity, and various forms of marriage

May 2004 Firestarter: Why Not Same-sex Marriage?

A review of some objections to this form of marriage

Book review: The New Testament and Homosexuality: Contextual Background for Contemporary Debate by Robin Scroggs

An excellent analysis of the actual, culturally intended meaning of all the Biblical verses concerning homosexuality

Book review: Here I Stand: My Struggle for a Christianity of Integrity, Love, and Equality by Retired Bishop John Shelby Spong

The inspiring, fascinating autobiography of a man of courage, heart, and integrity -- a true Apostolic successor

Book review: Leaving Mother Lake: A Girlhood at the Edge of the World by Yang Erche Namu & Christine Mathieu

(included for information on an actual functioning society without marriage) A fascinating semi-autobiography about a unique individual from a unique culture -- the Moso, from the "Country of Daughters" in China

Book review: Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit by Garry Wills

A fascinating, eye-opening review of biblical & ancient textual exegesis concerning current papal "hot button" issues

Book review: A Pilgrim's Way by Retired Bishop Walter C. Righter

which tells of the Episcopal bishop charged with heresy for ordaining a supremely qualified gay man

Reader comments

05.16.05: Scott's thoughts

(and my replies)

The piece about the Pope, I think is one of the most lovely articles I have read of yours. Hardly a word out of place.

Hm, interesting. I found it a bit rushed; I thought the Firestarter on Jesus & Mary Magdalene flowed much better, was more fun to write and research, and consequently ended up being far more worth reading. Still, diff'rent strokes, I'm sure. Thank you very much for the lovely compliment. ;)

I think I liked the piece on the Pope because it was so concise, and strong in the approach, with an economy of words, and it was very clear even if your feelings about the new pope were indifferent.

05.21.05: Lou's thoughts

(and my replies)

First, I think it's nice to see someone say something that isn't gushingly amazed and wonderful, "Hey! The old pope got old and DIED! What do you KNOW? He was SO GOOD. And they picked a NEW ONE! OH MY GOD! A NEW POPE!" I see hype spun by an expert media relationship department, and everyone just nodding and smiling with it.

I think you did a good job of conveying the attitude you have of, "Yeah, so?" well, and making cogent points about why it's not likely to be a big deal either way.

I did find this to be one of your tougher-to-read Firestarters. There were a couple of paragraphs that made no sense at all for a while. One of them took Babelfish to understand, and the other just had to wait a while while the Magic-8-Ball that is my brain coughed it up. It made reading the article difficult and confusing, even though I did figure it all out by the time I was done.

Now, my usual as-I-read-through questions...

Why, in the first paragraph, is "Firestarter" bold? If it were a link to the "what is a Firestarter" page, that would make more sense, but I hit the bold and was quite interrupted by it. Bold does that to me, though. I hate John Dvorak's PC Mag colum where he bolds every name, too. His is unreadable, yours is merely a "What's this?"

Hm, good idea, and thanks. I'll try more useful linking when I refer to the Firestarters.

"Cardinal No" is a super villain? Oh! Much later it came to me. I had no idea what you were talking about. I had to work really hard to understand this whole paragraph, as I didn't get the references you were making. I didn't read "the vice pope" as in "the pope of vice" but as in "the vice principal"'s meaning. At least, I think that's what you're suggesting.

Yup. The Italian press seems to love double entendres.

"Have they forgotten the original church was community-based, gathering at the houses of wealthy and supportive women and men, choosing their own clergy regardless of their sex or marriage status, led by those who were divinely inspired by Jesus rather than only those whom some self-professed hierarchy tapped?!"

Very nice! It'll irritate a lot of people, though. I think there's probably quite a few who don't know, too, and only know what they've been taught by the same Church who's claiming this is How It Is. Or maybe I don't know what the Church teaches... I'm guessing there, so maybe you should ignore that last concern.

"Le roi est mort, vive le roi."

I have no idea what this means, and the paragraph makes no point with out it. I don't even know what language it is. Latin? French? Italian? Babelfish gives me "The king died, lives the king.", so I suspect now it's "The King is dead, long live the King." Why the foreign language?

Because it's a classic historical phrase for that sort of situation, Lou. No, it wasn't intended to be pretentious; it was just the clearest statement I knew of for such a time. ;)

" the church's best current interests to maintain a medieval mind-set, based on a fearsome and vengeful father figure."

Perhaps this is because of the poverty and conditions there being similar to the conditions that allowed the church to flourish in the first place. That escape from self-hatred, the sense of unity and direction when there is no useful sense of "country" and no single person is strong enough to do it by themselves may be why the church can interest these people.

The church originally flourished without the need for a fearsome and vengeful father figure -- it was supposed to be redeemed from that by Jesus' teachings.

The Synoptic Gospels (i.e. Matthew, Mark, and Luke -- John's reads more like a hallucinatory dream) are quite clear on that, as is Paul. As the Scripture I quoted states,
"And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love." 1 Corinthians 13:13

Not fear, not hatred, not bigotry, hierarchialism, racism, or sexism -- love. Therefore surely to teach otherwise is a false teaching, no matter how glorious the promises of that so-called teacher might be?

"Surely there should be more to religion than secular desires and fears?"

What if what the Church is providing is a feeling of unity, togetherness, and a sense of purpose and direction? In a country with no real economic drives, where the leadership is not paying attention to the populace or is not strong or not liked, or simply not communicating, if you are alone, starving, downtrodden and unhappy, what have you got? Nothing but misery.

Along comes someone strong, righteous, and powerful who says, "No! You can escape this! Here is what you do! Here is all you have to be! Go! Do as I say!" This may apply to other strong churches, as well. I was thinking that the strict ordering of life that (if I remember correctly) Islam brings may be accepted by so many for those same reasons.

Is that a secular reason, though, or is that a spiritual reason?

I would suspect secular, since part of the teaching seems to be to hate those who are not just like you -- in this case, homosexuals. Hate is not a christian teaching that I've ever read of in the New Testament, and I'm not sure solidarity at the cost of someone else's dignity is ever a good idea.

"How about a pope with the intellectual and spiritual courage to state truth, instead of waiting over a century to apologize for the outright, known lies the church has inflicted on us? How about church policy that doesn't either contradict Jesus' teachings, or insult our intelligence? How about a pope who has the strength and faith to bring the church back to its real, true roots and its original traditions?"

This would be swell. However, no single Pope could do that or be that way. It's too sudden, too sharp a change. It took the Church hundreds of years to dig itself in to this hole, and it'll take at least several years, if not a couple of generations to get itself out.

I think the best we can hope for is a Pope who wants to steer the church a little away from the extreme conservatism and to begin to slowly address these issues, and to change the conservative course the Church is on to be just a little bit more modern. Over time, that changed course will percolate through the structure and people in place, and will replace them all.

You simply have to out wait the old guard; they'll get old and die. The important part is to make sure the upcoming see that a change needs to be made, and are ready to make that change.

I understand this is how things work, but I was answering the original question, which was: what would make me care about the church today, or its pope. Quite frankly, any pope who did any of the things I've mentioned above would leave me so completely flabbergasted that he'd likely have my undivided attention. ;)

I've heard a few things about the new Pope that give me a little hope. He was in charge of a department called "Dogma" and took that seriously. Now that he's in a different position, he may act differently. He apparently changed his stances on a couple of things - I don't remember what now, sadly - to be less extreme and more open. Nothing radical, but a step away from the unthinking rhetoric of old.

I look forward to this possibility. Considering he's already pressuring for the previous pope's immediate sanctification, though, I'm not holding my breath.