Olde Cheshire Cheese

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Robotic Clerics

In the May 15th edition of the Los Angeles Times Magazine, Dan Neil writes:

[S]o I propose a radical solution: Robo-Pope.

If the role of the papacy is to hand down immutable canon law generation after generation, then the College of Cardinals should do away with the whole black-smoke, white-smoke drama and next install not Benedict XVII, but Pope Version 1.1. A cybernetic Holy Father could scarcely be more doctrinaire an rigid than the flesh-and-blood prototype, and would never be less. With Robo-Pope, the doctrine of papal infallibility would be a lot more persuasive. And besides, the long cassock would conceal the wheels.

I can across Dan Neil's comments this week as I was flying back to Ohio from Los Angeles. Perhaps they struck me so because I had just finished reading Ratzinger's own thoughts on the papacy [in relation to the liturgy]: In fact, the First Vatican Council had in no way defined the pope as an absolute monarch. On the contrary, it presented him as the guarantor of obedience to the revealed Word. The pope's authority...is not 'manufactured' by the authorities. Even the pope can only be a humble servant of [the Tradition's] lawful development and abiding integrity and identity.

Neil's cute attack on the papacy took place before he extolled the virtues of a robotic Paris Hilton: There are, in fact, many roles in which robots could serve as well or better than humans. While I have little invested in the impassioned defense of Paris Hilton's human dignity, Neil's comment did get me thinking back on the robo-Pope.

Hasn't a fair amount of Protestation taken place precisely because the human fallibility of the Pope seems hard to square with his perceived infallibility? From what little I know, most of us Protestants misunderstand papal infallibility (which I once heard is complicated by the fact that Vatican I's meditation on the same was cut short by the Franco-Prussian War), but that has not kept us from being suspicious of the Bishop of Rome's humanity nonetheless.

Ratzinger's words should give Protestants--and Popes--a reason to pause, if only because they remind us that the church seeks to preserve the truth that only God possesses (isn't this line of thought what allowed John Paul II to claim that Christianity is not an ideology?).

Were his words better measured, Neil's comments might have helped uncover the great and fleshy heart that pumps Eucharistic blood throughout Christ's body. Instead he is content to indulge that casual cynicism that sees the church as heartless, bloodless and hollow, existing only to tamp down the free, fun-loving spirits of people everywhere.

Whatever the differences that remain over the papacy (and after almost a thousand years of divisive arguing, they have been substantial), I for one was glad for the Pope's humanity when reading Neil's article--if only for the reminder that the work of God in Christ takes place in and for the human drama, something no robot could understand.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Gambling On Gettysburg

An article in yesterday's paper announced the hopes of some to allow a casino to be built in Gettysburg, PA. The town's obvious historical importance during the American Civil War has meant that this growing community is having to consider more than whether its citizens should be allowed to play the slots or not.

To be fair, no one has been so callous as to propose placing the casino on the battlefield itself--currently, it would replace the Gettysburg Driving Range. The idea's supporters have optimistically pointed out the possibilities of increased tourism and lower taxes, even going so far as to wager that those who have their fill gambling might get the urge to take in the historical sights before heading back home (unfortunately, gambling near Vicksburg has already shown that people come for the money, not the Civil War monuments).

Not surprisingly, others have been less thrilled about the plan. Complaints range from the mundane (quotes are my approximations), "Traffic is already bad in Gettysburg and a casino will just make it worse!" to the more profound, "This battlefield tells us something important about what it means to be American."

The Gettysburg battlefield complicates the easy arguments of those who want the casino, I think. Not just the battlefield, but also the place it began to occupy in the American consciousness after Mr. Lincoln's fateful speech there in November, 1863. To quote a line, "[W]e here highly resolve these dead shall not have died in vain; that the nation shall have a new birth of freedom...."

Could not the supporter say, "They did not die in vain. We are free to build a casino?" Unlikely as these words are to appear, they represent my real experience of an American pettiness that values self-indulgence (dare I say, concupiscence) almost absolutely and misses what Gettysburg calls us to: a high resolve, a nobler kind of freedom.

What is the nature of this higher freedom? John Courtney Murray, S.J. reminded us that the American experiment was grounded on the maxim (among others) that only a virtuous people can be free. Freedom and virtue form a necessary but fragile accord. As Lincoln himself noted at Gettysburg, "Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure."

I hope the casino fails, precisely because they're gambling on Gettysburg.

A Few Reflections - Part I

“This teaching authority frightens many men within and outside the Church. They wonder if is not a threat to freedom of conscience, if it is not a presumption that is opposed to freedom of thought. It is not so. The power conferred by Christ on Peter and his Successors is, in an absolute sense, a mandate to serve.” -taken from Benedict XVI’s 1st Homily From the Cathedral of Rome.

This past weekend Benedict XVI was officially installed as the Bishop of Rome. I will come back to comment on this event and consider the important messages in Benedict's homily, but first lets back up several weeks. This past month has been filled with a whirlwind of activity centered around the Papacy. The world has watched a beloved Pope pass into eternal life, and a new Pope ascend to the Chair of Peter. The media has covered these events around the clock, and although much has been said about the Church, Vatican, and the Popes there is still a great deal that has not been said. So many lives were impacted by Pope John Paul II, the sheer volume of these stories will make it impossible to hear every account, but I would like to start by sharing some of my own reflections.
I was blessed to have the opportunity to spend my junior year of college studying at the Angelicum in Rome. I was very lucky to be studying during the Fall of 1999 and the Spring of 2000 - marked by the start of the Jubilee year. Never could I have imagined what was going to happen to me as I left my family and friends in the airport on that beautiful September afternoon. To recount all of the events and experiences of that year would require me to write a small book, but one of the events that stood out above and beyond the rest was meeting Pope John Paul II.
I will never forget arriving back to my residence and having a message from the Vatican. I called the number on the message slip and was stunned to find out I had been granted the privilege of attending Mass in the Pope’s private chapel the next morning. Needless to say I could barely contain my excitement and sheer joy, I was calling the United States all afternoon informing my family and friends that I would be meeting the Pope the very next morning! I did not sleep that night and the next morning I hopped out of bed and got down to the Vatican as fast as my feet would carry me.
As I walked into the Pope’s chapel that morning I was barely breathing, the first sight I saw was the Pope kneeling in prayer before the alter. The chapel was very small, it probably only held about 20-25 people. The whole experience was surreal. After Mass the Pope came out of the chapel and greeted each one of us individually and handed us each a rosary. He spoke to me in perfect English and then spoke to the people next to me in German and the people next to them in Italian. The Pope did not miss a beat, his love for languages and great ability to communicate was clearly evident to me that morning.
I do not remember the rest of that day - it was all a blur. I left the Vatican and went about the rest of my day, attending classes and studying. When I returned back to my residence late that afternoon I was elated to find pictures waiting for me. The Vatican photographer had taken pictures of the event and they were then delivered to each person in attendance. When I opened up the envelope and saw the pictures, the significance of what had happened to me was finally beginning to sink in.
Fast forward five years... As the world watched the great communicator, Pope John Paul II, slowly leave this earth I was heartened to know he was still communicating a message to the world. Through his suffering he communicated the value and dignity of human life in all of its stages. He communicated a message of courage and faithfulness, a message of hope amidst suffering - all the while transforming the hearts and minds of many. There were many questions to be answered after the passing of the Pope - "How could anyone ever follow a Papacy such as John Paul's?" "What is now going to happen to the Church?" and "Who will be the next Pope?" But John Paul II left the world with yet another message and in many ways an answer to all of these questions - "Be Not Afraid."
John Paul II took his role as Successor of Peter very seriously, he sat upon the Chair of Peter and served with diligence and care. By all accounts Pope Benedict XVI is ready carry on this great tradition of service and obedience to the faith. TO BE CONTINUED

Friday, May 06, 2005

War, Grandma and the Popes

Sixty years ago this Sunday, Allied forces overcame the Nazi war machine that had produced so much death across the face of Europe. The significance of this event is obvious, not just because Hitler's nightmare had been ended, but also because the boundaries of postwar Europe would help frame the conflict between Communism and its antagonists that would take up most of the rest of the history of the 20th century.

Perhaps I am sensitive to this war more than others because my own family was born from its ashes. My grandmother was a Nazi warbride, one of a string of exotic women my grandfather philandered with as the Army made its way across France and Germany. Though she survived the war, I am not so sure she has ever escaped from the effects of its carnage. As long as I have known her, she has spoken more of death than of life, more of pain than of pleasure, more of struggle than of rest.

Even these 60 years later, strange quirks of hers will be explained by some wartime event. She recently told me that she doesn't make long distance phone calls because of a phone call--followed by a hellish train ride and hospital visit--that signaled the death of her father after a bombing raid.

So that's why grandma never calls.

My intent in writing tonight was not mainly to consider World War II in general, and my grandmother in particular, but to reflect on the question: What will happen when those who participated in--and lived through--World War II are gone? What will their absence mean for us?

This question came to mind when listening to the punditry that inevitably surfaced after John Paul II died and Benedict XVI was elected. While this point is not original, I believe it deserves to be reiterated: Neither man can be properly understood without considering the effects of both Nazism and Communism on his person.

No wonder each has spoken so frequently on the dignity of the human person, for each has seen first hand what happens when that innate dignity is radically denied. Could it not be possible that those who dismiss John Paul and Benedict too quickly do so because they do not consider the larger trajectory of their experiences? I am by no means suggesting that neither man can be legitimately criticised; rather, I am proposing that we must listen carefully to their vision of the good and its necessary denunciation of those impulses among us that too strongly resemble the perversity that led the human family to such cataclysm just 60 years ago.

The witness of these witnesses is so vital because the temptation for many of us is to view the evil perpetrated during the Second World War as an historical aberration. When what most of us have left is the black-and-white celluloid of the Reich playing on the History Channel, is it not seductive to consider our own circumstances and say, "Back then the world was crazy for a time. Fortunately, we have largely gotten that out of our system."

The horrors that occured in the former Yugoslavia rattled that attitude a bit, but didn't serve to dislodge it. Do we not react so casually to Rwanda and Sudan because we have failed to see how the experience of the Second World War and its aftereffects are still somehow present with us?

Those formed by World War II shall be with us only a short while longer. Certainly in their absence we will not lack people who know what it is to live under tyranny, but we will lose the uncomfortable, uncompromising presence of some who know all too well what such tyranny looks like among us.

Though not without controversy, the legacy of John Paul II--among other things--should serve for all Christians as a call to remember that the contempt for humanity so visible in the 20th century has not died with those who have, or will soon, pass away. Especially for followers of Christ, this anniversary reminds us of our continuing call to remembrance and critical reflection, for the incarnated God, Jesus the Lord, has elevated the human creature to such a place that with all our thoughts and actions, we must witness to the inestimable worth of all people.