Monday, January 31, 2011

Dictatus Papae

I hate to say this, but one thing that Facebook often lends itself to is a nattering lack of reflection.

I say this in a tone of rueful acceptance, mind you, not surprise or anguish.

It's a fucking "social network", after all.Generally I like to think that my selection of "friends" helps me avoid the "I'm picking out my toe jam! :-b" sorts of status updates; luckily I'm not bombarded with much of that sort of brain-destroying crap.Mostly the site does what it is supposed to do and provides me a sort of party line to check in with friends and chat about this and that. For all the handwringing about how the Evil Twitter, Facebook, and whatever other electronic media bete noir de jour are destroying civil society by substituting for "real human interaction", when you think about it these things are just replicating the slower means of distant communication humans have used since the beginning of literacy.

What is a "tweet" but a little postcard? What is a Facebook post but a short letter, a digital telegram, a typed-out phone call? "Having wonderful time, caught fish, weather fine. Come soon, Woosie."

I don't see how this happening in realtime, over a fiber cable, somehow makes the process dangerously antisocial. We've always enjoyed our long-distance relationships. Entire books have been published containing the epistolary friendships of pre-electronic times, when living a couple of tens of miles apart meant seeing each other once a year or so. People have always had ways of staying in touch with distant friends and lovers; these electronic means are just an adaptation of a very old gimmick, a quicker version of sending a house slave with a clay tablet to your brother and sister-in-law in Sumer.

But (and you knew there would be a but, didn't you?) to go with the advantages in celerity there is the disadvantage of brevity. If brevity is the soul of wit, it is the mother of inattention. A discussion limited to 420 characters isn't really much of a "discussion", and the one thing I find unlikeable about Facebook - I am not "on" Twitter and have no interest in doing so, since a tweet is even briefer than a Facebook post less informative, and thus more conducive to the ignorant-shouting sort of "communication" than Facebook - is that much conversation is necessarily brief and one-sided. A letter allows time and space for thought, and if two paragraphs are needed instead of one to dissect the issue they are there for the taking. The only limit is the paper and the patience of the writer, and reader.

Which may be the very heart of the matter. We as a culture are increasingly impatient; the notion of simply sitting and reading a letter - or a novel, or a long blog post - is becoming both difficult and challenging. Difficult because many of us are so busy, our days full of cascades of essential ephemera demanding our attention; challenging because our preferred style of prose is often simple and poorly suited to complex thought. While the text we read on paper or off the screen may be prolix the arguments are often crude, the exposition simplistic, and the argumentation circular or absent. So the quick declaratory statements of Facebook make us easier. We needn't marshal our overtasked intellectual reserve; the thinking is done for us.This has become a very roundabout introduction to a topic that emerged on Facebook the past week. Specifically, a friend of mine linked to this article in the New York Times discussing the falling out between the Roman Catholic bishop of Phoenix, Arizona, and a local formerly Catholic hospital.

It seems that the hospital in question performed an abortion on a woman who was in danger of injury or death if her pregnancy had progressed. The bishop, who had apparently warned the hospital that this sort of thing would put them outside Church law, used this surgery to sever the ties between the diocese and the hospital.

My friend was incensed. "Time to move into the 17th century, boys." is the way she put it. Another of her friends replied that the bishop had the right of it; that a "Catholic" hospital had the obligation to abide by church doctrine. Several more of us piled on and we had - especially for Facebook - quite a rousing little discussion. I don't think anyone's opinions were changed, but we at least got to hear a good bit from several sides on the matter.And the more I got to thinking about it, the more I found that I tend to believe in what I first said; that the bishop's job, if he were to be any sort of bishop and not a windsock for popular opinion, was to insist that the mother, as a Catholic or at least as the patient of a Catholic hospital, give her life for the life of her child in the same sense that a bishop would expect his priests to give their lives, if they had to, to ensure the lives, or the spiritual salvation, of those who depend on them.

His understanding of God's Will as expressed by his Holy Father should admit no less, and the tenets of his Church - an authoritarian organization whose fundamental nature is spelled out by the "Dictus Papae" (which includes such statements as "That of the pope alone all princes shall kiss the feet." and "That this (the Pope's) is the only name in the world.") - demand that those beneath him in the hierarchy submit to his interpretation of that Will.

That's cruelly hard. But religions in general ask us to put God first and ourselves afterwards; that's the nature of a religion, most religions. It's a feature, not a bug. Because of that demand religious faith can accomplish great things. Because of it faith can be the spark for horrible atrocities. The direction depends greatly on the nature of the person who "speaks" for the religion and the nature of those listening. But there is no promise that either the speaking or the reception will be beneficial and kind.

All we can only hope then is that our religions don't demand us to make choices that lead to suffering. But by their nature they can, and often do, and we can't really get one without the other, eh?

My bride, lovely woman that she is, is (if she only knew it) a classic American cafeteria Catholic. She has said that if she agrees with a doctrine, she would hew to it. If not, she would ignore it.

I can't do that or believe that.

To me the entire point of a religion - as opposed to a personal faith - is either accepting the doctrines of the religion or working to change them. But until they change, I don't thing that the adherent has an option to just ignore them.

Since I have yet to encounter a religion whose tenets I can accept without demur or disputation, I have no religion. Since I have yet to encounter a moment where my need to have an all-powerful Sky Daddy overpowers my skepticism of the entire notion, I have no personal faith, either. For good or ill, I am alone within my head when the moment for spiritual succor arrives.

And as ruthless as it is I wish that what happened to the hospital would happen more often. I wish that the Catholic Church, for example, would excommunicate people who use birth control, would stop granting annulments and force divorcees out of the laity. American Catholics haven't been forced to actually do what their church demands them to do for a long time. If they were, well, either the laity might change or the church might. Some people might find themselves alone as I do. Some may find that they can abandon themselves in order to have that Sky Daddy within them.

Either way, at least both sides would be consistent.

Because for me so long as a religion does not force itself into the public square and demand that people not its adherents adhere to its beliefs it should be true to itself. For some religions this is not a pretty or humane thing because by their nature they are not about the pretty and the humane but about the demands of a supernatural belief on a merely human soul.

This often makes them magnificent, grand, and terrible.

And it is perhaps the failure of my own soul that I would take the smallest common moment of human life; the sound of a sigh, the heat of a quarrel, the softness of a kiss, the breathless of lovemaking, the peace of a nap, the placid twilight of age, over all the magnificence and grandeur ever conceived.


Ael said...


You define what a religion ought to be and then define yourself out of it because it doesn't exactly fit your beliefs. The pope is infallible and people must either agree or logically conclude that they must leave the church.

Very top down.

Other people might define religion as a community of faith, where people who (more or less) agree get together to share and tune their beliefs. Only if you disagree strongly enough with the community would you rage-quit.

Very bottom up.

My mother-in-law is a devout catholic who thinks the last couple of popes were real losers.

It seems to work well for her and who am I to quibble.

FDChief said...

Ael: I don't have to define the Catholic Church, it does that just fine. If your mom thinks the last couple of Popes were losers, then how is she a "Catholic", seeing as one of the central tenets of the faith is the primacy of the Bishop of Rome? Whole wars were fought over that, remember?

IMO it doesn't matter whether the religious beliefs come down from the top or are the produce of consensus (very Quaker, that, but even the Quakers have some no-go areas, don't they?) the end result is a product that has its own internal rules. With luck those rules are benificent, as they are in the case of the Quakers. But people by and large are pretty impatient with benificent, witness the number of Quakers compared to the number of Muslims, Christians, Hindus et al who at various times have been motivated by the demands of their religions to cleanse their surroundings to meet the specifications of their deities. The religion acts as just another label to define "us" and "them", and often "they" get the dirty end of the stick.

Pretty much all "religions" (as opposed to individual faiths) HAVE to do that; it's the nature of the beast. Whether you get your revelation from a prelate or agree on it among yourselves (and the latter is pretty damn rare among religions, you have to admit) the first thing a religion does, if its anything at all and not just a hobby, is exclude the people who don't believe in it. Otherwise its not a "religion", its just a sort of mushy "faith" or "belief", a sort of 12-steppers' "Higher Power" which can mean anything.

As I said; religion, so long as it remains private business, is very much the business of those who enjoy fiddling with it. I don't, so I don't.

But I do have a problem with the idea that religion is "good". Religion is "good" in the same way that physical strength is "good" or sex is "good", in that it can bring rewards to the wise user. It can also, just like muscle and sex, be a fucking disaster.

I prefer my humans less exalted and at the same time less dangerous.

This is a personal opinion - your mileage may vary. But my blog, my opinion! That's the coll thing about blogging!

Lisa said...


I am absolutely with you: In matters of faith, one is either in whole hog, or one is out. Those who say they are "spiritual" leave me flummoxed. If you commune with nature, choose for transcendentalism, or totemism, or just say "it's a pretty day".

But don't claim for a religion unless you buy in. Like Hitch said, unless you believe you are consuming the body of Christ when you take the host, you are not Catholic. Period.

Ael said...

Well, there are the way things are supposed to work and the way things actually work.

When my Mother-in-law's parish (large, rich, well-educated) lost their priest due to advanced age, the church brought in a priest from eastern europe.

The new priest was very old school and started explaining the doctrine and how the parishioners needed to do and believe what he said. The parishioners explained (politely) that he had his head up his ass and told him to stuff it.

The Archbishop was quickly summoned to deal with the crisis.

Instead of going all Simon de Montfort on the parish, the Archbishop sent the priest back to Europe and held a special "reconciliation" mass with a new and much more diplomatic priest at the helm.

I guess that means the Archbishop agrees that my mother-in-law (and the rest of her parishioners) are all Catholics in good standing, despite whatever small doctrinal differences they have with the Bishop of Rome.

FDChief said...

Ael: Dude, if you have "small doctrinal differences with the Bishop of Rome" you're an Anglican. If you have LARGE doctrinal differences with the Bishop of Rome you're Greek Orthodox. If you belive the Bishop of Rome can go piss up a rope, you're a Lutheran.

This is what I meant when I said in the post that I'd like to see the U.S. Catholic clergy put up or shut up. Rome has allowed a huge "U.S. exception" to a hell of a lot of things - you don't think those Catholic families coming to Mass with 2.5 kids have been making the rhythym method work, do ya? - since the Sixties because they realize the implications of forcing the Gregorian Reforms on the U.S. Church.

But ISTM that if you want a heirophantic church you are either in or out; either it works the same for everyone or it doesn't. If you the Pope are going to tell everyone that they can't say mass in Latin then they can't say Mass in Latin.

What's the point of having all those rules about papal supremacy and doctrines of faith when if it comes down to doctrinal "correctness" vs. getting butts in the pews you let the doctrines slide?

Lisa said...

Ael shares a common situation and "reconciliation".

I'm with you, Chief: You're either in or out. There's no pussyfooting on this issue. There is no room to say to say this or that concordant doesn't accord with they way we understand it.

If one quibbles, one must become a David Koresh, or a Jesus II, and start one's own religion. That's the way these things work, after all.

Believe, or no. Or become a New Ager and think you're God.

FDChief said...

Lisa: And the thing is that there are lots of religions that offer choices beyond Catholicism. It just seems to expose the worst aspects of human nature that so many American Catholics "want it all"; they want the grandeur, the history, the lovely liturgy, the candles, the santos, the priest and bishop in their robes, the portions of the doctrine they like...but they want to be able to ignore the portions they don't.

That's "the bells of hell go ting-a-ling for you but not for me" sort of religion, and frankly I'd sooner take an honest Arnulf-Amalric slaying them all and letting God recognize his own. At least then you'd know where you stand. With the cafeteria version there's no real rock there, it's Peter deciding he'd like a bit of transubstantiation with a smidgen of celibacy on the side but hold the blood libel, please.

At least when they're honest there's a sort of terrible grandeur to religions. I was quite honest - I consider my own lack of faith a sort of failing of the soul, a willingness to be small and humane rather than grand and terrible. People like me don't accomplish much. But then, we don't usually perform horrors, either.

But to accomplish the former you have to chance the latter, and the way the U.S. Catholics seem to want it you get neither.

Ael said...

Look, you can run *your* church the way you want to and they can run *their* church the way they want to.

I am not going to tell them what they HAVE to do and how their religion has GOT to work.

If you try, let me know how it turns out.

In my profession (computer software) there are well established difference between what one says and what one does. It does not pay to point out that there are fundamental incompatibilities between the words and the actions.

If you are rude enough to point out these differences, people think you are joking. If you continue to point them out, you are ostracised.

It is part of the human condition to believe in six impossible things before breakfast. Only fools and revolutionaries get much worked up about it.

FDChief said...

"In my profession (computer software) there are well established difference between what one says and what one does."

Yes, but in "thier" professions - religion - the two are supposed to be one and the same. Religion is supposed to be about eternal truths, right? It's God talking, either through your own conscience (if your a Prod) or through some sort of priest (if you're Catholic). That's why the Roman Church HAS all those rules and little laws an' stuff, right? Because that's what God tells you you're supposed to do.

I'm neither shocked nor even much exercised that people say one thing and do another. As you say, in your business, in our personal lives, we do it all the time.

But ISTM that if you're going to take the time and effort to rearrange your life to suit the dictates of a supernatural being - especially if you have lots of different choices of how that life gets rearranged - then welching on that committment seems pretty silly.

If you disagree with the Pope, why keep trying to "be Catholic"? There's a perfectly good Episcopalian right across the street that offers about 80% of the incense and 100% less Pope.

No big deal here. But it just highlights one of our more venal human foibles; a LOT of us hate it when we can't get to be special. We hate it when we have to just shut up and soldier. We hate it when we have to do those inconvenient things the Pope says in order to be Catholic.

We all want to be heroes on the cheap.

Lisa said...

"But it just highlights one of our more venal human foibles; a LOT of us hate it when we can't get to be special. We hate it when we have to just shut up and soldier. We hate it when we have to do those inconvenient things the Pope says in order to be Catholic.

"We all want to be heroes on the cheap."

--Really well-said. Commitment is so very hard for so many, isn't it? That's why the Lord loves a sinner, and all that blarney.

Do or do not, there is no try (fr. the wisdom of Yoda). And the film American Beauty nailed our frailty well: "You're ordinary" -- it was a devastating insult. And most are.

(Oh, and that was "concordat", not "concordant", ahem.)