Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Pope Benedict XVI

I have been quite disappointed with the choice of Cardinal Ratzinger as our new Pope. There are many things to say about an event like this, though it's probably healthy to start with the obvious one: we don't know what's coming. No man or woman is a static thing, defined without reference to time and to their ongoing choices. No one is the sum of their past, either. Everyone responds in a living, breathing way to events, many of which we can't foresee. And I can be happy about the fact that the Cardinal stands to the left of mainstream Westerners when it comes to poverty and the other ills of our capitalist societies. But on the basis of the cardinal's past on most other issues, I am not encouraged.

On the one hand, I am willing to imagine that Cardinal Ratzinger drew to himself the common portrayal of intellectuals as cold, or closed to any human appeal that is not intellectually strong enough to win his respect. As an intellectual or brainy type myself, I know that my warm side is sometimes difficult to detect but real, and that I respond openly to more than just intellectually perfect appeals. Those years when I was not so much reading books as practicing and teaching yoga are the only time I did not have trouble conveying these sides of myself. On the other hand, it's still true that intellect can get in the way of many things, including the heart, the gut, and the spirit. A powerful intellect can do all these things that much more.

I have heard that Cardinal Ratzinger is a supremely warm man, though not a publicly warm or charismatic one. I can believe that his heart is alive and well. Nor does his intellect seem to get in the way of his gut: he does not seem like an indecisive intellectual. His mind and his gut are unified; self-contradition within, though it probably exists as it does within everyone, seems to have been resolved. And does his mind get in the way of his spiritual practice? From all reports, he seems a man drawn to strong contemplative practices, as many heady people tend to be. In the Eastern meditative traditions that produced yoga, as well as in Christian contemplative traditions (such as the Benedictines, after which the new pope is named), you will often hear that the mind must be subdued and disciplined, or else it will stand in the way of spiritual practice; and I have found myself that too much book-learning can dry up the spirit. But that does not seem to be the danger here.

What concerns me more, actually, is his mind. It seems clear that he is a good person, and that his mind does not dominate the rest of him in an unhealthy or repressive way. But to what extent does his mind draw from the rest of him -- from internal and external experience? I know that his mind does draw from experience, and surely enough to produce a healthy human being. But I'm asking about more than health. I'm asking about suffering.

Let me go back to John Paul II to explain what I mean. Our deceased pope, Karol Wojtyla, was a charismatic, warm, intelligent, athletic man -- actor, poet, theologian, evangelist. Some of his doctrinal ideas were truly radical, while others were conservative. I think it's safe to say that any of his words, whether radical or conservative, could not help but include some worthy contribution worth listening to. But it's equally clear where he forced the Church to grow and change, and where he asked it to remain as it was. He proposed speaking of Jews as "our elder brothers and sisters in faith", something that an older Church could not imagine doing. He visited and prayed in synagogue and in a mosque, again something that at one time was unimaginable. He reached out to the Eastern Orthodox churches and dared to suggest, however informally, that even the primacy of the pope's office (the chief obstacle in any discussion between Latin and Eastern churches) was open to discussion, so keenly did he long for a healing of the rift with the Eastern Churches; and this was unthinkable in former times. He apologized for sins of the Church toward all these groups and toward science and women -- sins that, of course, the Church did not once consider sins. In many ways, John Paul II pushed the Church in places where it once did not want to go and was not necessarily eager to go even in his own time.

I feel as many do, that his personal experience under Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism pushed him toward his personal and greatest contributions, particularly his deep-set courage in describing communism truthfully and sparking courage in those victimized by it. My personal feeling is that this intimate acquaintance with tyranny and violence moved him, made him especially open, to rejecting in his gut the political violence committed by the Church. That he personally saw Jews, some of his own friends, being taken away never to be heard from again, surely played a role in his great sympathy to the Jewish people (a sympathy which, incidentally, is all the more striking because it did not include, as it so often does among conservatives, choosing Israel's side in its conflicts with Arab neighbors). He saw suffering up close and experienced it within himself, so to speak, by losing friends, working under harsh wartime conditions, being forced to live in secrecy, all during the war, then living for many years behind the Iron Curtain. All these things, he took into himself not through books, but through his own body and its internal and external experiences (pain and emotions). When you feel pain, you question, you push within for deeper answers, you pray with your fullest self present -- and out of all this, something quite deep indeed may be lifted out of you.

To say nothing else, what you produce will often be personal and original. And because it is personal, which is to say human, it is ALIVE and responsive. It responds to what happened and what is happening. Karol's mind, heart, and spirit responded in that original, personal, warm, living way to international problems -- not in an ideological or intellectual way, but with the warmth and intelligence that wishes to alleviate suffering. That is why he could never affirm Western individualism either, for he saw how capitalist, materialist societies exacerbated poverty and caused deaths in their own way.

Now, if you go to those doctrines of Karol's which we do not think of as innovative, I think you'll find that they have to do with things, or fields of human experience, in which Karol did not suffer exceptionally, or witness exceptional suffering. He was not, to be clear, merely saying that Church teachings about sex needed to be transplanted as literally as possible from the past without response to the modern world; and it's something of an unknown and delicious irony that he co-wrote a book championing, among other things, the female orgasm. But if we ask where Karol demanded innovation and pushed the Church to do things once regarded as unthinkable or even heretical, we have to name his contributions to international politics first, and to such domestic matters as capital punishment (something he had seen on a mass scale in Poland), before we mention the teachings on sexuality: divorce, extramarital sex, masturbation, contraception, homosexuality, abortion, and the priesthood with regard to marriage or women's ordination. If we do mention his innovation in those fields, it cannot be without ultimately agreeing that he was basically pushing in the other direction, against change, for the teachings to persist in their basic form.

There are no indications in Karol's biography that he suffered due to a sexual matter. What Karol did understand on a primary level, which is to say in his body, was celibacy. He understood, therefore, just how powerful the sex drive could be, and therefore he must be heard when he cautions us as to how destructive it can be. Were our society's only sexual problem to be sexual addiction, John Paul II would be as fine a teacher as we could ask for. Except that even here, the finest teacher of all would be someone who had battled sexual addition and overcome it. No sign that John Paul II had this problem. And our society's problems with regard to sex are varied and profound. I have felt, in reflecting upon his sad passing away, that his greatest responsiveness was not in this field of human experience. He did not suffer it, and as is the case with celibate clergy, he witnessed it less than people in the outside world can.

I say all this cautiously because his teachings on sex cannot, in my view, be rejected wholesale, at least not without accepting death. I feel that the Church too often takes issues in which its spiritual teaching is basically correct, but in which life and death are not at stake, such as contraception, and puts them in front of human life, as we watch AIDS extinguishing life in Africa and elsewhere on such a massive scale. Yet I feel that abortion is a life-and-death issue, and that the Church in this case has stood for life, often without listening or responding properly to women's concerns, but has nevertheless chosen to speak an unpopular truth about the issue. And again, among all the sexuality issues, in abortion (as with euthenasia) we have the closest approximation of that to which John Paul II was most sensitive -- the taking of life in large numbers, with the sanction or encouragement of the state.

So I do find the stance on abortion to be basically correct, though not without its problems. The stance on contraception often seems to me to be anti-life, as I noted in relation to Africa. The stance on homosexuality is not an embrace of death, but I think it is the only one of the sexuality issues on which the Church is doing no more than embracing tradition, and has no spiritual teaching to offer that will stand the test of time. That goes also for the prohibition against female priests and married priests, with the qualification that the tradition of celibacy is worth nurturing in some way. Divorce, extramarital sex and masturbation are all complicated questions, though in each case the Church's teaching does promote spiritual health; judgmental attitudes, and inflexibility arising from THAT, seem to me the greatest problems here.

The one sexuality issue that I have not mentioned is rape; sadly it is a revealing key in all this. The basic Church teaching on rape is not problematic; and traditional Biblical morality contains much that finds it immoral. Yet what has happened recently? Boys have been raped in great numbers. The suffering is theirs; and horribly, as John Paul II said, churchmen were the perpetrators. He called it a grave sin and a crime, without closing the door to the genuine possibility that perpetrators (such as criminals on death row) might change. Yet none of the Church teachings on sexuality, apart from this condemnation, seemed to help or stop this suffering. Disturbingly, the Church's stances, not the spiritual core of the teachings but almost surely the inflexibility, seemed either to fuel these crimes or to permit them. How can anyone be inflexible, to take just one example, about even discussing the prohibition on married clergy, after atrocities like this?

Someone from the West, who had suffered in some intimate way from the West's sexual pathologies, in his or her personal experience (which includes both one's personal body and one's relationships), would understand the sexuality issues in a living, compassionate way such as John Paul II brought completely to other issues, and only incompletely to sexuality. I sometimes feel that we should elect to the papacy one of the boys who was abused, when he has grown and come through his trial. From him you would get innovative yet challenging thinking on the sexuality issues. From our Church, in recent years, we've had too much stasis on these issues -- and most grievously, the declaration that these things are not open to discussion. How calamitously different from the Church's vigorous dialogue with other religions and unhesitating commitment to talk about human rights, war or poverty.

Whatever may be said for the teachings, stifling of discussion is just wrong. It is wrong for the victims, for those who have suffered less, and even for the Church hierarchy. After all, how else do our leaders expect to plant, nurture, and teach their teachings except by raising them in discussion?

I felt yesterday, upon Cardinal Ratzinger's election, that under his papacy we might not even see married priests, which is an innovation that John Paul II did not embrace, but also one which he did not condemn from a moral point of view; he was simply preserving a Church tradition, and upholding the general tradition of celibacy. But celibacy was made mandatory only a thousand years ago in the Church, so that priests would not leave their inheritance to sons outside the Church; and the practice has often been widely set aside by priests who openly marry, even today (for instance in Africa, where priests are sometimes widely respected for sticking to just one wife). And with the terrible shortage of priests, you would think this one stance could be modified. I'm not so sure now.

What are Pope Benedict XVI's experiences with suffering? Time will tell.


Blogger Snow Jester said...

I agree with you that the Catholic Church's stance on sex isn't as enlightened as it could be, and, given the reports in the press, it is unlikely that Pope Benedict XVI will be radical in this area as I for one would like to see.

I personally was hoping for a South American Pope, as it seems that that is where the church is at its most liberal, but I suspect that God's will is showing itself in the selection of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger for the highest office in the Catholic church.

I believe that this selection is a way of God saying to us that there is hope for everyone when a former (albeit very reluctant) Nazi can become Pope.

I am praying that Pope Benedict will surprise and delight the world when we've learnt more about the man that he is.

April 22, 2005 5:26 PM  

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