Monday, March 26, 2018

Differences between Two Living Popes White-Washed in Fake News

People in glass houses should not throw stones. Or, the person who is without sin casts the first stone. Lastly, a house divided cannot stand, at least in the long run. Yet houses are so rarely as fundamentally divided as the one in which I grew up. Regarding religious institutions, theological differences can be allowed to blow up into major, life-threatening disputes, or papered over by sins of omission pertaining to just how deep a fissure goes. Conflicts, in other words, can be exacerbated or mollified, depending on the temperaments.
On February 7, 2018, Joe Ratzinger, a former pope of the Roman Catholic Church, wrote a letter pertaining to a multi-volume book on the then-current pope’s theology. Reading from the letter at the book’s presentation the next month, Dario Vigano, the prefect of the Vatican’s communications office, said that Benedict, the  former pope, confirmed that Francis, the current pope, had a solid theological and philosophical training and that the book showed the “interior continuity” between the two papacies.[1] This “left the impression that the 91-year-old retired pope had read the [book] and l endorsed it, when in fact he hadn’t.” The retired pope had not read the book!
Vigano was guilty of bearing false witness; he lied. He also conveniently left out the last two lines of the first page of Benedict’s letter, and the Vatican went so far as to blur the lines in a digitally manipulated photo of  the page released to the public. The former pope noted in those lines that the author of one of the volumes—a progressive theologian by the name of Peter Huenermann, “had launched ‘virulent,’ ‘anti-papist’ attacks against [Benedict’s] teaching and that of Pope John Paul II.[2] But is criticism of the theological interpretations of two popes in particular the same as criticizing the papacy itself? It apparently felt so to the retired pope, who consequently decided he had insufficient time in a retirement confined to the Vatican to read the book. He had not read the book, so he could not possibly have found in it an “interior continuity” between him and Pope Francis.
As if bearing false witness were not hypocritical enough for the Vatican, the Secretariat for Communications made reference to the “presumed manipulation” of the letter even though the office had just released the entire letter, in focus, publicly, which clearly showed that manipulation had taken place. Indeed, the Vatican admitted that it had blurred the final two lines of the first page of the letter. The Secretariat “said its decision to withhold part of the letter [had been] based on its desire for reserve, ‘not because of any desire to censor.’”[3] Recalling the detective Perot reacting to the old countess in the film, “The Orient Express,” I answer in a similarly raised, shrilled voice, obfuscation and another lie!
The inherently irresolvable, Kierkegaardian sort of irony can be found in Pope Francis having dedicated his annual message for the church’s social communications day to fighting fake news and the distortion of information. That pope had “frequently criticized journalists for only giving half of the story.”[4] Francis probably had had the United States in mind, and deservingly so, for the splinting of network news had resulted in some very partisan news networks, and, perhaps relatedly, U.S. President Trump had presented his country and the world with a gaping loophole: the possibility that lies can slip through with impunity such that truth itself becomes, as Nietzsche had urged, a problem rather than a given.
As bad as fake news is in the media and government, the added element of hypocrisy in a Christian church that recognizes the Decalogue as truth renders the Vatican’s lapse much more severe. Alternatively, the Vatican could have produced the entire letter and mollify any perceived cleft between the two living popes as that which exists between theology and pastoral care. A woman who thought I might make a suitable pastor at her church, said to me when I visited her church, “I know you got the theology down, but can you care for the people?” I answered affirmatively; she should have asked about my theology instead, for I am indeed a deep thinker who transcends reigning assumptions, sometimes treating them as problems rather than as given. I suppose folks could make my propensity into a big deal, or not, depending on their penchant for conflict.
Certainly the two co-extant popes could be said have differed. I submit that they were closer on Catholic social ethics than people who conflate style for substance have realized. Both popes resisted the institution of women priests, and both men maintained that homosexuality is a sin. Perhaps Benedict put more emphasis on God’s judgment while Francis pointed to God’s mercy. Is such a “division” worth fighting over? Can it instead be transcended? I submit that a focus on transcendent, religious or spiritual experience, which is oriented beyond the limits of human cognition, sensibility, and perception, can relegate differences of emphasis on theological and pastoral matters. Put another way, the people invested psychologically in turning mole hills into mountains with troops digging in on both sides are not transcending in a religious sense. This includes Vatican officials, for time devoted to lying and manipulating could otherwise be more focused on what really matters in a religious organization. The worldly, our realm of quotidian activity in which we live, can be viewed as merely a surface that can be transcended in a distinctly religious sense. What I remember about Pope John Paul II was images of him kneeling whether in prayer or raw yearning for God. His views on women or gays in the church pale in comparison. So too, his anti-communist view and work similarly have fallen aside. A religious organization is primarily about religiosity. Perhaps both Benedict and Francis could emulate their common predecessor in this respect.

For more on religion and leadership, see "Christianized Ethical Leadership," and "Spiritual Leadership in Business."

1. Nicole Winfield, “Vatican Bows to Pressure, Releases Retired Pope’s Letter,” Religion News Service, March 18, 2018.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.