Rationally Speaking

Massimo's other ramblings can be found at his Skeptic Web.


Massimo's books:
Denying Evolution
Tales of the Rational

This column can be posted for free on any appropriate web site and reprinted in hard copy by permission. If you are interested in receiving the html code or the text, please send an email.

N. 61, May 2005

Habemus Papa!

Or, rather, they (the roughly one billion Catholics of this planet) now have a new Pope, former German cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now known as Benedict XVI. As a former Catholic (sort of) and an Italian who grew up not far from the Vatican , I followed the American media frenzy over the death of John Paul II with much interest, although the whole coverage by CNN and company struck me as rather odd. It is true that Catholics still make up a large fraction of Americans (and they vote based on some – but apparently not others – of their beliefs, as John Kerry discovered when it turned out that abortion is a moral issue, but war somehow isn't). Still, only 20% of American Catholics actually claim to closely follow the dictates of any Pope, and the US media usually pays little or no attention to what the self-described infallible sage from Rome says or does. No, the media frenzy was really just another example of celebrity worship, no different from the coverage of Michael Jackson's trial or the ever-fascinating saga of who Brad Pitt really goes to bed with.

That said, what ought we to think about the just departed Pope, Carol Wojtyla? As a scientist, I can't really complain that much about him. He managed to officially pardon Galileo (almost four centuries later, but hey!), though he refused to apologize for burning Giordano Bruno at the stakes. John Paul II also wrote a letter to the Pontificial Academy of Sciences in 1997 advising Vatican scientists (and Catholics at large) that the Church doesn’t have a problem with the scientific theory of evolution (that didn't help me much when I was living in Tennessee, since most of the local creationists would simply retort that the Pope was wrong and sure to go to Hell, which I'm confident would have come as shocking news to the man from Poland!).

On the other hand, Wojtyla was certainly a very conservative Pope, even by the standards of the Catholic Church as they had evolved since the Second Vatican Council. John Paul II refused to consider a larger role of women in the Church, actively campaigned against the use of contraceptives worldwide (Church officials on the ground in Africa have been accused of lying about the effectiveness of condoms to prevent AIDS, just to promote their senseless “abstinence only” policy), not to mention of course his opposition to gay rights and abortion. While one can surely expect the 2000-year old institution based in Rome to fighting a rear-guard war against human progress, it seems to me that a man indirectly responsible for the death and suffering of millions around the globe should hardly be considered for a fast-track to sainthood! Indeed, there have been many dissenting Catholic voices, even within the Roman Curia, against the strictness of Wojtyla's views.

Which brings us to Benedict XVI. Although Ratzinger chose his name with the intent of being conciliatory (Benedict the XV inherited a highly divided Church at the beginning of the 20th century, with progressives once again pitted against conservatives, and did his best to bring about a reconciliation), he isn't exactly known as a moderate within the Vatican. On the contrary, Ratzinger served under John Paul II as head of the “Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,” a position that allowed him to punish a score of “liberals” within the Church. According to the New York Times, one of Ratzinger's comments on his role as defender of Catholic orthodoxy was that “The Pope told me that it is my biggest religious obligation not to have my opinions.” How sad. And yet, how remarkably apt to capture not just Ratzinger's position, but the whole idea of the Catholic Church: not only there is one invariable truth, but nobody else can access it other than the highest ranks of the Church itself. It is precisely this sort of attitude, of course, that started the Protestant Reform and brought about a major schism among Christians, a schism that Benedict XVI is highly unlikely to help heal.

There are good reasons to think that Ratzinger has been chosen to succeed John Paul II because the august cardinals debating inside the Sistine Chapel had no idea of where the Church should go, and just wanted to buy some time (they are supposed to be inspired directly by God, but it seems that even the Almighty needed five rounds of voting to make up His mind). On the one hand, North Americans, and especially Europeans, have been abandoning the Church precisely on the ground of the kind of strict orthodoxy enforced by John Paul II and, likely, by Benedict XVI. Most Catholics in Western countries seem to feel an increasing cognitive dissonance between the realities of a complex multi-cultural society and a set of teachings that has hardened over two millennia. Then again, the Church has been growing especially in South America and Africa , where evangelical Christians and ultra-orthodox Catholics have been making the fastest gains in terms of converts. Thorned between choosing a liberal Pope to recoup some of the losses in Europe and the US, and an even more conservative one to help the expansion in the new territories, the college of cardinals went for the safest choice: an old Pope (Ratzinger is 78), who will maintain the same course established by John Paul II for a few more years. After that, God will provide. Or will She?