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Popes and the Myth of WaPo’s “5 Myths”

3:26 pm in Uncategorized by E. F. Beall

I know, I know. We’ve really hammered away at the subject at FDL since Papa Ratzi announced that he will relinquish the shoes of the fisherman at the close of business this coming Thursday. We’ve even had fun with it when Peterr volunteered to take the job. (I’ll support him in exchange for preferred access to that great Vatican library.) One might think it’s time to let it go. Still, after fetching my paper this morning I found that I couldn’t resist another entry.

As I’ve previously noted, every Sunday the Washington Post recruits an expert on some subject to write a column entitled “5 Myths about [the subject].” The item is printed on page 2 of the “Outlook” Section, next to another weekly feature on who had the “Worst Week in Washington” (today, former Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr.) and the continuation of one of the Outlook page 1 articles (today, a review of Al Gore’s new book by Chrystia Freeland). That is, it is sandwiched between the page 1 lead-ins of that article and typically two other generally unreadable ones, which are continued in the interior to share billing with other generally unreadable articles, and the back page consisting of WaPo’s chief book reviewer pursuing his craft (more on him another day).

The expert on the given Sunday typically gives an introductory paragraph and then lists the five “myths,” with a rebuttal of each. As it turns out, one or two of these so-called myths may indeed be such, but as often as not the item is a straw man that no one really believes, or is subtly distorted from what people actually believe to make it easier to refute, or is actually true while the “expert’s” argument is wrong.

Well, you guessed it, today’s column is “5 Myths about picking a pope,” by Thomas J. Reese, SJ. He is a fellow of the Woodstock Theological Center of Georgetown University who, although the paper does not say so, is something of a maverick within the faith: Upon Benedict’s election in 2005 he resigned the editorship of America magazine, after being thought (by guess who) too liberal on the hot-button issues of priestly celibacy and ordination of women. Should be interesting, right?

Let’s just see. Fr. Reese’s Introduction says he will treat “misconceptions” about the coming conclave that will choose the new pontiff, then he states these as follows.

1. Pope Benedict resigned, rather than remain in office until death, so he could influence the cardinals to elect someone like him.

Certainly some people have thought so. The rebuttal first cites the official line that the resignation is for health reasons, and quotes the Vatican spokesman who said the next day that Benedict will not interfere in the succession process. (There is one glaring error here, that he “is moving out of Rome,” but maybe this part of the article was written before the announcement of living quarters within the Vatican.) Then we have a primer on the formal process, then a note that the last time a pope tried to influence the succession, in the 6th century, the Roman Senate was up in arms. Finally, Fr. Reese says,

Benedict has appointed 57 percent of the cardinal electors (John Paul II named the rest), so they will most likely elect someone with similar views. In American terms, that means someone to the right of Newt Gingrich on social issues and to the left of Nancy Pelosi on economic issues.

Upon first seeing this I thought the last phrase was ludicrous, but then I remembered that Pelosi is caver-in-chief of the House Democratic caucus. Benedict has talked a lot about the scourge of poverty, so this point might be accurate. But what is left out here is of course that then-Cardinal Ratzinger is the man who nominated that 43% that John Paul II named, since he was the latter’s right-hand man.

The “bilan,” as the French say, is that while the rebuttal may be technically correct, Benedict knew that he didn’t have to have a formal say in order to get the type of guy he wanted into the office.

2. The next pope is likely to be African or Latin American.

I would have no problem believing that this one is a myth, but what Fr. Reese mostly argues against is the proposition that the next pope should be from the southern regions. He does begin by noting that most of the cardinals are still from Europe, so that “chances are the next pope will be European.” But the text then slowly shifts to noting the arguments of those who want an African, and finally ends with,

Both John Paul and Benedict railed against secularism and relativism in Europe but were unable to turn the tide. If there is a cardinal who can turn the church around in Europe and the United States, he deserves the job.

3. The cardinals will elect a brilliant theologian like John Paul and Benedict.

I hadn’t heard this one, but I guess some might believe it. Here the rebuttal begins with a claim that each of the last two popes was the most intelligent of the cardinals who were meeting at the time when it turned out they elected him. I have no idea whether or not that was the case. But then Fr. Reese once again shifts from what will or will not be to what should or should not be, although here his argument is more interesting. He says “The problem with most academics and intellectuals, especially philosophers and theologians, is that they have already made up their minds on important issues and rarely change them.” Spot on, in my experience. He says that the church needs, rather, some non-dogmatist who knows how to negotiate. Then:

Both John Paul and Benedict got into trouble because they were surrounded by people who thought the popes were the smartest men in the world. Such people are reluctant to challenge their bosses.

In particular, he says, if not for that factor someone might have told Benedict in 2006 that if he quoted Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologos denigrating Islam there would be protests.

Lots of luck with your wish here, Fr. Reese, but the Church, after all, is a hierarchy where the Pope is viewed as God’s representative on Earth.

4. Don’t expect big surprises from the next conclave.

Here the rebuttal is by way of example: the 1958 accession of John XXIII was thought ho-hum, but he “convened the Second Vatican Council, which transformed modern Catholicism”; John Paul II in 1978 was the first non-Italian pope in centuries. In conclusion, the next pope, once elected,

has no one from whom to take his cues. He has to think, consult and pray before each big decision. Where that will lead him is anyone’s guess.

This would seem to contradict the wish in #3 that a mechanism for getting sound advice be in place, but never mind. To me, the rebuttal hinges on what you mean by a “big” surprise. I don’t know enough about the Second Vatican Council to comment on how much of a deal it was, but not too many care whether a European pope is Italian or Polish. As the rebuttal itself notes, there won’t be “female priests next month,” but to me a big surprise would be something like an apology for the savage execution of the philosopher Giordano Bruno in 1600 or, to consider a more contemporary possibility, turning a whole bunch of child molesters over to the authorities of their respective countries for jailing. Nothing like that is going to happen.

5. It doesn’t matter who is elected pope; nobody listens to him.

Here the “rebuttal” again sidesteps (negation of) the stated factual proposition, this time to express a hope that the new pontiff will indeed be someone that people inside and outside the Church will listen to. He must be someone who can make Christianity live for people of the 21st century. To conclude,

In preaching the Gospel, the church needs to imitate, not just quote, great theologians such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. Both took the best thinking of their times — for Augustine it was Neoplatonism, for Thomas it was the writings of Aristotle — and used it to explain Christianity.

I know enough about what Aquinas actually did to correct the last statement somewhat: He read Latin translations of Arabic translations of Syriac translations of the Greek writings of Aristotle, rode roughshod over (Latin translations of) some of the Aristotle interpretations of the Persian philosopher Avicenna and of the Arab philosopher Averroes (granted that they also worked from translations), and somehow justified such notions as the Trinity (a concept of which the earliest Christians had no idea, according to at least one recent book). Still, one understands the wish, and the Catholic faithful will probably share it.

However, my interest in religion is not in practicing it. (Rather, it is in studying the history of religions, especially in the ancient world, and that is way off topic here.) Thus I don’t get too excited about such issues as whether or not there should be female priests. But I can’t help noticing that today’s “5 myths” piece, like those of other Sundays, ignores a lot of what is actually going on, such as, in today’s case, La Repubblica’s assertion the other day that Benedict’s resignation was connected to his receipt of a file noting a network of gay prelates inside the Vatican itself.

In that way, at least, we see again that WaPo’s notion that it is refuting 5 myths is itself a myth

Washington Post Op-Eds: Popery, the AIDS SOTU, CIA capability, and Steven Chu

7:04 pm in Uncategorized by E. F. Beall

Given that my last piece about WaPo scored fourth place in a Google search of its subject matter the day after I posted it (details @ comment 10 here), why not try again?

To emulate Marion in Savannah’s daily NYT Op-Ed report somewhat — I’ll skip the breakfast rundown — today we have Liberal #2 (aka E. J. Dionne, Jr.), Compassionate Conservative (Michael Gerson), Honorary Hasbarist (Richard Cohen), and Fox Guest (Charles Lane). Liberal #1 (Eugene Robinson) at least used to write on Tuesday, but not today for whatever reason. Here is what they say.

Liberal2, reminding us that he is a liberal Catholic, concerns himself with the legacy of Papa Ratzi upon the latter’s decision to relinquish the shoes of the fisherman. He writes with some authority since he once corresponded with then-Cardinal Ratzinger. He finds the man to be a paradoxical figure, one who was alarmed enough by the student revolts of the 1960s to fight liberalizing trends in the Church — thus his current campaign against gay marriage — but one who has unusual compassion for the poor and downtrodden. He thinks the nearly unprecedented decision to resign was “inspired.” because “it will give the church a chance to confront its crises — and its opportunities.”

Maybe so, but L2 does not trouble us with the well known problem of the then-Cardinal covering up child abuse or the possibility that the resignation really has to do with the resurrection of that scandal in the current case of Cardinal Mahony, where previously unpublished documents may yet come to light. Nor does he notice that Benedict either appointed or had a hand in appointing all of the Cardinals who will vote on his successor, so that he might be able to continue to guide the Church with an unseen hand. (These points are discussed by FDLer Pam Spaulding and her commenters here.)

Compassionate Conservative takes the occasion of tonight’s SOTU address to reflect on past such occasions, and unsurprisingly zeroes in on one by his former employer, Bush 43, in January 2003. Also unsurprisingly, CC does not mention “the sixteen words” in that speech that falsely claimed Iraq was trying to get a lot of Uranium from Niger, but rather extols at some length the proposal that would become The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which did make a dent in the global epidemic. Fine; I’ll give W points for that, his one foreign policy achievement, and for his respect for the Spanish language, although that’s all.

Honorary Hasbarist only mentions Israel in passing for a change, noting with thinly disguised satisfaction that it can attack the Syrian government’s air defenses any time it wants. His actual concern today is to criticize the Obama administration for not taking sides in the Syrian conflict more than it has, to implement a no-fly zone for that government’s aircraft and, especially, to supply weapons to those of the insurgents “who could be trusted with them.” For the CIA should be able to distinguish these worthies from the al-Qaeda-linked forces. (Right. As if the CIA could spare the resources from finding out where the “terrorist” funerals will take place in Pakistan so that it can attack the mourners.) Thus, says HH, the “Obama Doctrine” that everyone has been waiting for is here, and is called “looking the other way.” Sure, we really need to spread the American eagle’s wings further in that region.

Fox Guest disparages the Obama administration’s interest in electric cars, which others have certainly said has experienced roadblocks, as a “fantasy.” He cites such points as an American Physical Society symposium where it was concluded that “all-electric vehicles will not replace the standard American family car in the foreseeable future.” But the real target appears to be the outgoing Energy Secretary:

Energy Secretary Steven Chu, he of the Nobel Prize in physics, epitomized the regnant blend of sanctimony and technocratic hubris. He once told journalist Michael Grunwald that photosynthesis is “too damn inefficient,” and that DOE might help correct that particular error of evolution.

This does not quite reach the ignonimous level of the writer’s previous attempt to enlist the image of the wounded Gabrielle Giffords in support of Wisconsin Governor Walker’s attack on collective bargaining; still, it has a stench about it. (That cruise ship stranded in the Caribbean, without working toilets, comes to mind.) What Chu actually discussed with Grunwald, according to the latter, was the possibility of genetically-engineered microbes that would use a more efficient process than photosynthesis to produce fuel. To me this sounds more like finding a method to improve on natural evolution than “correcting its error.” And I don’t know what the pointed reference to Chu’s Nobel is supposed to prove: Several of the members of the American Physical Society that FG thinks is in love with gas-guzzlers also have one. (The politics of the Physics Prize may be as Byzantine as those for Peace or Economics, but that’s another story.)

The kicker is FG’s last sentence: “I might add that Chu does not own a car.” I guess the idea here is that he can’t competently recommend what kind of car people should buy if he doesn’t even drive one, but to me it suggests that the alternative to the electric car is not the individually owned internal combustion engine in the first place, but mass transit.

Phew. My respect for Marion in Savannah knows no bounds: I sure would not have the stomach to read these things every day.