Today in the Bodleian I was looking for something online and
happened across a live broadcast of the cardinals' Mass before they are locked
away. I didn't have the sound on, but it seemed a very subdued occasion indeed;
the faces were grim. Outside the Mass was broadcast on giant screens, but very
few people seemed interested; the great space in front of St Peter's held only dribs and drabs of
people scurrying here and there, no-one paying attention to the images flashing
pointlessly into the emptiness. The lack of interest may in part have been due
to the black clouds sitting over the Vatican spitting rain on all and sundry,
one drop like a tear on the lens of the broadcasting camera. Or it could be due
to other causes.
When Ratzinger was elected to be Benedict XVI, I heaved a jaded
sigh, my body adding a large French-style shrug, knowing that the Roman Catholic
church had condemned itself to further irrelevance—in fact, it felt as though
with Ratzinger's election, the church had passed the point of no return.
Ratzinger had some good ideas theologically—which he invariably put to very
destructive, even at times, diabolical, applications. Over the years, rumours
have leaked out of the Vatican of his fondness for dressing up in old (e.g., 17th
century) pieces of ecclesiastical tat, while his wanderings through the vast
corridors were accompanied by a herd of cats. His resignation brought another
shrug, a much smaller one this time, since I have more or less lost interest at
the level of involvement—good riddance, but much, much too late. The lukewarm
accolades he received after the fact seemed to smack of relief more than
anything else, and his role as pope—though not his previous role as
rottweiler—will doubtless quickly be forgotten.
Now we seem to be about to witness the same process all over
again, a quickening march further along the road to oblivion. There are several
threads that run through press accounts of preparations for the conclave.
One of these threads is simple astonishment at the grandiose
and archaic rituals that are being enacted in Rome. These rituals are all the
more bizarre in the face of scholarship that has exposed fault lines in the
official mythology of church origins and prerogatives, not to mention the vast
gulf between them and the poor Christ, whom the cardinals claim to represent.
And that word claim is a key to the
hypocrisy: '. . . he did not claim
equality with God but emptied himself . . .'(Phil 2.6)—the core text of the
season of Lent leading to Easter that we are currently celebrating.
Another thread running through press accounts is a sometimes barely concealed
revulsion at the whole charade. Plump cardinals sweetly smiling waddle across
the piazza while stabbing opponents in the back—figuratively speaking, of
course, though it doesn't take much imagination to see in the mind's eye the
quick thrust of a stiletto—or misericordia
as it ironically came to be known—that one cardinal might push unseen into the
rolls fat above the red bellyband, under which beats a supposedly human heart. The Guardian has
published a rogues gallery of the cardinals going into consistory, and a very
depressing set of faces it is.
A third thread, and one I most identify with, is the
subtext, ‘This is quite amazing, but in this day and age, who cares?’ Tired old
men electing one of their number to be yet another ho-hum, tired old pope,
issuing dicta that destroy people’s
lives—if anyone pays attention; old men living in a mad fantasy world whose
ethos is perhaps best signified by the Borgias. It’s the ‘destroy people’s
lives’ that I do care about, and
one of my primary motivations for working in theology has been to discover why,
and expose the means, and false beliefs, by which the church causes so much
pain; its dehumanizing, degrading manipulative tactics in the process of
pursuing its stated goals of ‘salvation’. This last, I hasten to say, refers to
all institutional religion, not
just Rome. Christians have been cheated of their spiritual inheritance for far
Some of my Catholic friends try to hold out hope. The
problems in the church are so dire, they say, that the electors will be forced
make a radical shift. The consistory that elected John XXIII was conservative,
too, and look what happened. To which I can only reply, yes, look what
happened: all the hopes raised by Vatican II have been dashed, as his
successors try to turn the clock back to the Council of Trent, and
pretend as if Vatican II never happened. I’m afraid that for me hope does not
figure into the equation. Is it the Buddhists who say that until hope dies
there is no possibility of growth?
In any event, whatever happens will be interesting—in the
sense of the Chinese curse. From where I sit, it is much too late to save
institutional Christianity, and perhaps it is a mistake to try. The present
institutional forms are burdened almost to a standstill by their mad, bad
mistakes of the past, which hang around their figurative necks like Marley’s
chains studded with a filigree of Ancient Mariner's albatrosses—and for many of
the same reasons in fact that beset those two old reprobates in fiction.
Christianities—as in the early churches—will survive here
and there, but institutional forms have always been antithetical to the message
of salvation: salvation that originally meant freedom from a debased
culture and the persecution of
one’s self-conscious mind, so that one might enter into the Christian
community, a paradise of mutual support and service overflowing from the wellspring of life made available by the work of
silence—or at least that was the ideal for the first nine centuries or so.
today passes for Christianity—the idolatry of experience and the grandiosity of
institutions that are for, by, and of the clergy—may continue to thrive for a
while as fashions do, but in the end people will become bored of them and drift
away. Much of Christian heritage has already been lost; unless there is a
miracle of some sort, this election may cut the moorings that still attach us
to the rest.