Sunday, February 12, 2012

Looking for fitzUrse

Last week I posted a comment about the late give-and-take regarding the unwillingness of the U.S. Catholic Church to accept the conditions of the U.S. Code regarding health care.

After I wrote that post the Obama Administration offered a deal to the prelates; you don't have to front up birth control to the people who work for you. But your insurer has to, under the terms of the law.

And, again, if you choose not to, you will not get the sweet and juicy federal tax breaks. You don't pass go, you don't collect $200.

And that the Church would be perfectly free to indulge their passion for telling the life-support systems for wombs (those things the rest of us not stuck in the 11th Century call, y'know, women) that the wombs belong to God, or, more specifically, belong to what the Church tells them God thinks. Which is pretty amazing, when you think about it, since I haven't heard God's opinion on the subject other than the ridiculous screed Humanitae Vitae, which even his fellow heirophants advised the Pope who wrote the damn thing was the religious equivalent of the first shot on Fort Sumter in 1861.And - not surprisingly or even notably - the bishops refused even this, since every time a sperm or an egg falls fallow Baby Jesus cries or something.

I really don't have a good handle on the political ju-jiutsu of all this. At least on the surface it looks like that the seculars might have snuck one through the wheelhouse of the religious, but it's hard to tell.

But I do know one thing.

Popes, prelates, mullahs, whatever you want to call them, have never given up their quest for control over everyone they can get their hooks into.

This isn't a bug; it's a feature. It's what religious - and most other human - organizations do by their very nature.The Catholic Church canonized a man named Tom Becket, away back in the 12th Century. You can read all about the man in all the usual places, if you want, but the Clif's Notes version is that he was killed by four men who worked for the man who was then King of England, Henry Plantagenet, second of that name run the island kingdom by 1170.

And the reasons he was killed were, when you strip away all the verbiage and bullshit, pretty much the same things the present-day Catholic bishops are trying to pry out of the hands of the U.S. government; control of what people can do.

In Becket's time the issue of real contention was also a legal one. The Catholic Church insisted that it's employees (and keep in mind that the 12th Century Church was the Microsoft AND Goldman-Sachs of England - probably more people worked in some capacity than for any other organization in the place) were outside the civil and criminal law of their country. A priest who raped his altarboys (and who could imagine that would happen..?) couldn't be arrested and tried in a court of law. He could only be hauled before the bishop's court, where he would be tried and sentenced by another cleric.And who could think that would be a problem?

Henry, who, for all his faults, was a genuine legal reformer who did more for codifying English law than anyone had or would for about 500 years, found this intolerable.

I would have, too.

He appointed his chancellor, Tom Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, in hopes that having a made guy as the head Jesus-pesterer in England would help bring his church around to a more reasonable position. Instead the Church captured his guy, who became as big a pain in the ass as his predecessors.

The story goes that one day in December 1170 Henry was so pissed off with his former pal that he snarled something about being damn sick and tired of people who seemed to think they had the right to give their king the finger, which motivated four of his tough guys - Reginald fitzUrse, Hugh de Morville, William de Tracy, and Richard le Breton, to saddle up and head out to have a little talk with Archbishop Tom.

To say that things didn't go well would be putting it mildly. The boys ran into Becket in his cathedral and told him flat out that he was ordered to report to his king.

In the spirit of the U.S. bishops, Becket told Henry's boys to talk to the finger.

Concluding that conversation wasn't getting anywhere, the guys went outside, got their toad-stickers, and proceeded to open up Becket's head like a tin of canned tuna.This didn't work out well. The dead priest became a martyr and saint, Henry had to eat humble pie, the four mechanics ended up buried somewhere in the Holy Land, and the Roman Catholic Church continued its merry way as an immense political force in English politics for another three centuries until it ran into an altogether harder Henry who smashed it for good and all.

In a particularly telling move, Henry VIII had his hard men smash up the old theocrat's tomb shrine and huck the bits into the trash. All that remains is a spot on the floor of the cathedral nave.So nothing really changes, does it? Religion and hierarchical religious corporations like the Catholic Church will ALWAYS try to pull as much power as they can into themselves. This has nothing to do with holiness or "salvation" or whatever the P.R. handout reads. It's about people and how some types of people want power, whether they are priests or politicians.

The difference being, of course, that politicians are just that, and speak with no more authority than their own gravity. A politician that talks like a gibbering idiot is usually recognized as a gibbering idiot and treated with the sort of deference given to gibbering idiots.

But gibbering idiocy is often indistinguishable from religious exaltation, and the latter is utterly irrefutable. A politician that demands you cut part of your genitals off will get treated like a poop-flinging monkey by most sane people. A prophet or pope or preacher?

People might well end up doing that sort of crazy thing.

One of the truly fundamental principles of the United States is that you're only allowed to pester people with your whacko religious ideas to the degree and extent that your powers of persuasion allow. The U.S. government, by its constituative documents, is forbidden from allowing - much less encouraging - one religion or other to enshrine its prejudices and preferences into civil or criminal law. For the good reason that the United States is supposed to be a land where the public forum is open to people of all religions, or none, and the moment you let the pope's nose into the lawbook that freedom is doomed.

This does not, has not, and will not prevent prelates of various sorts from trying to do this. Repeatedly, patiently, relentlessly, mercilessly.

Which is why the steps of the Capitol must, must always be guarded by fitzUrse with his naked sword in his hand.For that pious, humble, saintly man Tom Becket is the black enemy of public freedom and always will be.


Lisa said...

Always about power, for all our pretense and piosity.

Very well-said.

Leon said...

And land, the church owned a lot of real-estate. And in a society where land = wealth, it made them very rich. I suspect they also paid no taxes on it as well.

So just speculating here (middle ages religion not my specialty) but you've a tiny elite (bishops and other high-ranking god-botherers)who probably are about as religious as Pope Alexander (aka Rodrigo Borgia, yes those people) on top of a bunch of average-paid yet still ferverent types (parish priests). And they own great tracts of land and want to pay no taxes. Wait, this is sounding very familiar...

Ael said...

I dunno Chief.

Yes, the Catholic Church is an extremely old, extremely successful human institution. And, as you mentioned, it behaves exactly like all other human institutions.

I don't agree that there is a fundamental difference between politicians and bishops. They both can be dangerous and it doesn't matter whether their followers wear brown robes or brown shirts.

Leon said...

Sirrah, I will for once defend those damn politicos from your infernal slander!

While they may be self-serving, conniving, malodorous, greedy, shallow, pig-headed, short-sighted, immoral, rapacious, greedy (did I already say that?), egotistical, self-absorbed and generally unpleasant. I will defend them in that they mostly sought relations with interns (of legal age), staffers, prostitutes (of both sexes) and strange men in airport restrooms.

They usually avoided altar boys and other children.

If I had an internet glove, I would consider flinging it, sirrah, at your face. As long as you were a parapalegic who can't pick up a pencil much less a sword.

FDChief said...

Leon: One thing Becket did as chancellor was came all hard on the bishops over the monies due the crown. Plantagenet thought he would continue this when he became a prelate, but like a good attorney he was able to switch immediately to his new client's side and was a hard a man fighting against the Crown as he had been for it.

Ael: No question that quasi-religious political authoritarianism is a bad thing for people in general, whether it comes out of the Bible or "Capital". But for me the crucial element that makes it really pernicious is whether the source is debatable or not.

When the jackboots come with a cross, or a crescent, or a star, or, hell, a Buddhist wheel on them it becomes damn deadly difficult to get them off your neck because you're arguing not with a Hitler but with God's Own Trademark.

That was the real evil genius of Communism; it made a religion of its ideology, realizing that if you indoctrinated people with faith instead of politics you made not voters or adherents but converts and crusaders.

So I will always be more fearful, more suspicious and therefore more violently antipathetic of any attempt to allow religious or quasi-religious elements into U.S. politics

FDChief said...

I don't think it has anything to do really with who's bonking who; the pedophile priest thing is a nasty side-effect of a celibate clergy without a wholesome way to exercise an immensely powerful side of human nature. But that's not what I see as the problem with clerical politicking.

I would argue that the problem with religion-as-politics is two fold.

First, if you let it in if makes for terrible politics.

When you make your Federal Reserve policy on what God says, how the hell do you argue that? If I had to pick the single hugest problem in U.S. politics as it already exists it would be that the Right had chosen to put its faith in a semi-religious sort of magical thinking. So we no longer have to explain, argue, or debate why tilting federal commerce, labor, and trade policy to favor the rentier portion of society rather than the workers is good; it's because the Magical Free Market says so!

And the second is that religion CANNOT be democratic. It's the very essence and nature of religion. Do you get to debate with God? How well does that work?

Religion HAS to be - from the clerical standpoint, not as an individual exercise in conscience but as a profession - a very strict top-down sort of business. The cleric stands closer to God than the layman.

So...despotic politicians? Bad, very bad.

But prelates - whether they are despotic by nature or not - are by the very nature of their calling despots. Benevolent despots, hopefully, but despots by trade. You cannot separate the two, no matter how lovely the man or woman who sits in the curile chair.

Hence my fear of theocracy, and the point of this post.

Ael said...


You *way* overestimate the power of rational argument, especially where it collides with self interest.

You deal with powerful bishops in the same way you deal with powerful princes - everything has to do with the constant jockeying for position in the greased pole contest that is human politics.

Deeply held religious beliefs can morph as appropriate. Look at the Mormon church and black priests as an example. I further expect that the Catholic church will abandon celibacy for priests and ordain women sometime in the future.

FDChief said...

Ael: Agreed - which is why our Constitution is dead set against princes and we should remember that princes of the Church are princes all the same.

Like I said; hierarchical religion is not a discussion group. If you take your religion seriously you accept that God says it, I believe it, and that settles it. That's not an acceptable attitude for a democracy and never will be. I noted above that one of our most serious current problems is not just that rational argument is over-rated but that in a hell of a lot of cases we've abandoned rationality all together.

I'd love for all religions to adopt the attitude towards individual liberty and conscience of the Society of Friends. But until then I restate; religion is the opiate of democracy and must, MUST be kept within the church doors.

Individuals get to debate, act, and vote their religious principles. Prelates get to preach from the pulpits. The moment that any of the above try to enact their doctrine into public law they need to be whacked about the skull with something sharp and pointy.

FDChief said...

"The moment that any of the above try to enact their doctrine into public law they need to be whacked about the skull with something sharp and pointy."

Let me revise that; the religious get to TRY...but the moment that any elected or appointed official LETS them, the official gets the axe.

No exceptions. We've let WAY too many religious and social prejudices get enacted into law in this country. We need fewer, not more, and this issue wouldn't be a bad place to start.

Ael said...

While your constitution may be against princes, your country sure has a lot of em. (or what would call the Kennedy's, the Bush's, etc. etc.)

I also note that you earlier expanded the concept of religion to include communism. This, of course, means that anyone who *believes* in something being right or wrong is under immediate suspicion once they start advocating for it.

Luckily for us, those in power seldom worry about right and wrong and are driven by the demands of the current political situation.

FDChief said...

1. The U.S. has always been an oligarchy; that doesn't mean that it has "princes" in the sense that the term applies to the princes of teh church.

2. Communism is a religion. A hell of a lot of the GOP as currently constituted is a religion. The Democratic Party is a political party.

Here's my criteria. First, when you stop requiring even a modicum of factual evidence and logical linkage in developing your political views, you're a religion. And IMO you should be put in severe jeopardy of being barred from the political process in a genuine democracy.

And, second, there has to be a willingness to play by the secular rules. One thing the neo-con Right seems to love to say whenever the need to arrest and imprison some poor mook without trial is "the Constitution is not a suicide pact". I believe this is true, but not in the sense they use it.

Neither a Roman Catholic theocracy nor a Communist dictatorship of the proletariat would voluntarily yield power if defeated at the ballot box. They don't want to play by the rules. The modern GOP is nearly as bad; it's becoming obvious to me that they refuse to acknowledge an electoral defeat as the repudiation of their policies rather than some sort of political dirty trick.

And that's where is disagree that "those in power seldom worry about right and wrong". Look at the mania for "austerity" in Britain and the EU in the face of the Lesser Depression, look at the constant demands for "reform" of entitlements or the mania for privitization here in the U.S. GOP despite pantsloads of data in all these cases that their "solutions" and ideas are not just bad but the worst possible course of action.

That's because they're not really acting on the "demands of the current political (or economic) situation" but because Pain Is Right' because austerity is What We Need and suffering drives out inflation or deficits or some such shit when as Charlie Pierce loves to repeat, "Fk the deficit; people got no jobs, people got no money."

Like I said - our problem isn't that we have too much popular revolt but too little; we've already let the princes of commerce and the princes of religion have waaaay too much space in the public square. We - the little we, the common folk - would be a damn sight better off if we showed them the rope and the nearest lamppost.

We won't, but we would be.

Ael said...

I agree that that there are differences between princes of the church and the princes who rule the USA. The church is not a hereditary oligarchy (by design).

I further agree that we have too little popular input into the decisions inflicted upon us.

When you hear nonsense debates about dancing entitlements on a pin or the number of devils in a welfare reform, the important thing is to realize that the actual topic has no meaning whatsoever. Rather positions taken and arguments launched are simply a matter of moving poker chips/ chess pieces around the board, tracking alliances and defections.

The *actual* policy gets written in a backroom by the winners a few minutes before the final (purely formal) vote (which isn't supposed to change anything (but it does) and is only slowly disclosed to the public (who isn't looking anyway except for perhaps a few wonks/historians who can put things together months (or more likely years) later.