You can be the president
I’d rather be the pope.
– Prince, "Pope"
The networks and cable news channels were out flexing their pomp muscles this week. It’s important for them to do this once in a while, especially for something planned in advance. You never know when an ex-president is going to die again and you want to be sure they have their deferential live-event chops in order.
Joseph Ratzinger made his first visit to the U.S. in his new name, costume and popemobile and the supplicant media beat a path to his door. Rather than spend their time on vastly more important but un-sexy matters like a disastrous Stupid War and a tanking economy, the nation’s news organizations spent most of this week sucking up to America’s 71 million Roman Catholics by uncritically celebrating the pageant of parades and Masses in Washington and New York.
The church took a giant step backward when it elevated the staunch conservative Ratzinger to pope status in 2005, a step the bishops apparently thought they could afford, since they were already a hundred or so steps behind the modern world. Accepting the earth revolves around the sun is one thing but – condoms? Tut, tut – we’ll have none of that. Maybe someday the church can make up a couple of those steps by recognizing the equality of women, but, let’s not go crazy out here.
In his prior position, Ratzinger cracked the whip for the church hierarchy as head of the office that, believe it or not, used to be called the Inquisition. Talk about your rich church history. As the Defender of All That is Wrong – I’m sorry, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (same difference) – Ratzinger put the hammer down on those who would try to bring the church into (at least) the 19th century on issues such as birth control and homosexuality, the result of the insane position on the use of condoms having caused untold death and disease in the third-world countries. He presided over various purges of those who would entertain notions of "liberation theology" (Jeremiah Wright, the cardinal will see you now) and helped, however temporarily, to keep the church’s sexual abuse under wraps.
The week-long media love-fest with the pope – on behalf and because of their Catholic viewer demographic – has done wonders for Ratzinger’s image. He has discussed the sex-abuse scandal early and often, even meeting with several victims in an unannounced location. Brilliant damage control strategy – who’s he got working that, Karl Rove? No word on whether he brought the church’s bulging checkbook with him – now that would be making amends. The awed anchors have found him nicer than they expected – what did they expect, that he’d swing his staff around like the explosion-loving Tim the Enchanter in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, smiting cardinal sinners left and right? Ratzinger has obviously benefitted from low expectations and the intense security detail that preserves his beatific countenance from unworthy disruption.
This is all just casual amusement for the majority of American Catholics, an increasingly shrinking and aging group (other than the booming, younger Latino sector), who attend every other Sunday or so and otherwise ignore most of the church’s ridiculous teachings. The more doctrinaire, almost evangelical Catholics – which seems to include a remarkable proportion of local right-wing bloggers and national columnists like the putrid Bob Novak [ed. -- OK, Bill Kristol is not Catholic, but still putrid]– also pick and choose from the church’s teachings, beating people over the head with the church's anti-choice position (it has been said that if men got pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament) and conveniently ignoring the church’s strong statements against the death penalty and the Stupid War and U.S. occupation of Iraq and in favor of economic justice for the world’s poor. Same as it ever was for those of faith, who believe what they want to believe and leave the rest.
But, for now, the right-wing commentators are treating the pope’s tour like some kind of national cathartic event, claiming the smiles of the faithful crowds and pretty pictures as some sort of rejection of satanic secularism. It’s hardly that. The pope comes and the pope goes, but $4 a gallon gas and the rest of the disastrous legacy of Junior Bush will continue. It'll take more than medival scanctimony and Latin prayers to get us out of this mess.