Saturday, March 30, 2013

Pope Francis and the Politics of Establishment

Change of Cast: As soon as a religion comes to dominate, it has as its opponents all those who would have been its first disciples.        -Nietzsche, Human, all too Human, a.118

The new pope is pissing a few people off, unsurprisingly, and it makes for some intriguing moral politics.

I want to start out here by saying that I like the new pope and I think he was a good selection for these times. Francis knows what he's doing, and has all the makings of a leader who can resuscitate the image of his faith throughout the world. Acting as a man of the people works for the same reason that politicians kiss babies and wear cowboy-ish jackets straight out of Brokeback Mountain. We like the notion of a leader that is relatable, who serves instead of presides, and we like powerful people behaving humbly, so Francis' charm offensive is working wonders. He's a fantastic PR pope. If you think that a church should follow the teachings of Jesus and act as Jesus would have acted, then Francis is likely a great pope to you, his lack of grandiosity refreshing.

But the contrast with Benedict XVI's old "pomp and circumstance" routines makes for an intriguing question. Does the regalia matter? Many people today would simply answer, no. It's fairly clear that, as a matter of general sentiment, there is no role for publicly displayed institutional arrogance. But if such displays are really bad for those in power, then why have they lasted so long? What's the point?

Take the questions seriously, and it's easier to see some of the problems Christianity is dealing with today.

The Moral Mess of the West

More than most people tend to admit, it's difficult for morality as we know it and individualism to fit together. Given that karma is a wish and not a fact, moral behaviors - kindness, self-sacrifice, humility - must be celebrated as good in their own right, and not be dependent on utilitarian justification. These behaviors are based on the principle of dis-empowering the self for the sake of others, and because of that, the church's role as an institution of authority and the church's original principles don't mix well in the eyes of some people, relying pretty much entirely on metaphysics for legitimacy. Take away a special relationship to God, and any church that claims to have moral authority over people's actions in any significant way is deeply hypocritical. Religious institutions, even if they believe their continuation serves a worthy purpose, are still institutions, still hierarchical, and will eventually have to grapple with the conflicts between survival and adherence to principles. This is a primal, long-standing paradox of morality and power in an individualist society, not just with religion but with any institution that subscribes to the self-sacrificing elements of Judeo-Christian morality.

The problems have only been amplified by modern society's view on moral decency, which is basically so Christian that it can no longer tolerate the Christian church as an institution. We look at decency as normal and assume that people want to be good naturally; it's power that corrupts, and too many people blame the moral failures of the average Joe on the usual suspects like inequality and exploitation. Thus, society can recast morality as logical, and the drive towards empowerment as irrational. Not just modern atheists, but conservative writers like Jacques Barzun clearly separate morality from religion. That's ridiculous, but the notion is tasty for those who hate power, and is at the root of much current ridicule of the reportedly moral nature of Christianity's God: why would a loving and all-powerful deity allow people to be hurt? Why set them up to fail? It's a good question with no good answer, unless, like me, you look at the church as a social institution and don't take its metaphysics seriously.

Now, looking at the Catholic church specifically, much of the debate over Francis' behavior stems from a bifurcated understanding of what a church is supposed to be, and this has caused tremendous problems for the faith. One assumes the Catholic church must subscribe to Christian principles. But the Catholic church really can't do that; if it had, it would not have survived, or thrived, or been the slightest bit functional as an empowered institution of Western civilization since the fourth century. If people had any understanding of the way that institutions function, they would understand that the Council of Nicaea meant the end of Christianity in the vein of Jesus' teachings (actually, more the Apostle Paul's teachings), and the beginnings of a political body tenaciously playing the game in order to survive. Power flows up, not down, and even though pure Christian ideology inverts this, the church has always followed all the conventions of power in practice. So Catholicism must exist with split ideals where it both promotes self-sacrifice and stubbornly refuses to sacrifice itself.

This is not a slam against the move to institutionalize. Quite the opposite, the West as we know it would have been impossible without the church, and anyone who says otherwise is a moron. Even Mark Twain said as much, in Connecticut Yankee, and he generally disliked religion. I'm pro-establishment, and I respect Catholicism for its power; establishments stabilize and bind societies together, a role of tremendous value that most people today take for granted or find outright disgusting. I don't; I'm not an egalitarian or an optimist on human nature, and no one else with a history degree should be, either. I'm not of the opinion that an institution works better if it debases itself to the lowest of the low, which puts me against Francis as a matter of principle, despite liking the guy. These are among the reasons I strongly prefer the Catholic and Orthodox churches to any Protestant denomination: Protestantism has its roots in a form of intuitionism, and it's extremely difficult for a Protestant church to exercise any form of discipline on its members because of it. This is also why Protestant denominations are constantly splitting off over inane questions of theological detail.

It's easy to say that being authoritative and arrogant breeds resentment and disrespect, since this is our immediate gut reaction to threatening power, but the reality is not that simple. Plenty of us have bosses who irritate us with their insistence on being treated as authority figures, and yet, they are. Even as we mutter obscenities under our breath, we put up with it, and thinking people still know the exercise of power is necessary. Deep down, subconsciously, below the veneer of moral self-righteousness obtained through Christian ideology that prizes weakness, even those who don't think much still recognize and respect power for what it is. Benedict was willing to bring back the role of the church as an authority, and his taste for splendor reinforced the image of the church's power; Francis is willing to put that role off to regain "hearts and minds", and my disdain for these tactics resembles my disgust with democracy; you do not become a moral shot-caller by undermining your own authority.

But the modern church does not have the power that it used to have, anyway. In the old days, the Catholic Church held a monopoly over morality in the same way that the state holds a monopoly on violence, and its modern trials come from the end of this privileged position. We are not in the twelfth century anymore, and Catholicism today must compete in the marketplace of ideas. In a society that chooses its moral principles and authorities like it chooses its wireless service provider, this means changes.

Where are the Catholics Headed?

Francis' strategy is going to be effective, at least for a while; he will probably retain more of the lay population that would otherwise leave the church, and might draw in a few from the outside. Both strategies for handling the new reality of religion - the bunker mentality, built up against the secular world - have their benefits and drawbacks, but Francis will get Catholicism to the next stop. That's all you can ask of him.

But there may come a time during his papacy where uncomfortable questions come up about the wealth of the Catholic church and the hypocrisy of being so rich while purporting to be chiefly concerned with humanism and the welfare of the poor. This argument gets amplified for Catholics more than other denominations because of the Vatican's incredible wealth, and Francis' behavior will draw attention to this issue. This is one of those elements that undermines the image of the church as simply a collection of Christ-like do-gooders. It IS an institution, and the benefits of its existence as an institution - authority that promotes generally civilized behavior, education of a population into a shared sense of right and wrong, providing sanctuary with its resources, the regular practice of traditional community-building behaviors, a shared sense of identity for those who attend - give it value. Francis needs to be looking forward to making this case. It's going to be difficult enough to pull off the necessary defense of his organization in a society so cynical about religion.

The long-term question here is whether or not the Catholic church is going to continue as a respected institution at all. If Francis' acts do not place emphasis on the notion that the church is more than just a charity, that the beliefs and discipline and traditions of the organization hold value, then it will probably do well in the short run and poorly in the long run. Charity is enjoyable for a while, until the newness wears off and the futility and exertion becomes so obviously pointless to the rational mind. The primary function of a charity is the self-esteem of the giver. The Catholic church cannot adopt that role and survive.

In any case, Francis is facing unprecedented problems, issues that Catholics have been trying to avoid. I will be particularly interested to see, not only how he addresses the question of poverty in contrast to the church's wealth, but also questions of, say, the integration of women into the priesthood and whether priests will be allowed to marry. One way or another, it's going to be an interesting papacy.

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