Wednesday, October 01, 2003

Flinging Pebbles at Vultures

I love Mark Shea's blog, especially all the great media stories he collects and posts for the continual amusement of the contra mundum crowd called "Catholics." This time it was his observations about what he so aptly called the cawing of inane vultures, namely this wonderfully fresh and novel story about Our Frail Pope. I like answering these stories, I don't know why, but here it is. The story's in blue, my comments in black.

The pope is never sick until he's dead, goes an old Roman saying. So it was that after one commentator reported in August 1914 that Pope Pius X had a cold, the official Vatican newspaper issued a furious denial.Less than 24 hours later, Pius was dead.

. . . . all without the courtesy, the gosh-darned decency, to give the media at least six months to milk the pope's health for all it was worth, like the death of little Nell. And now, the Vatican seems determined to deny the world's video ghouls the opportunity to make their own magnificently-saccharine soap-opera, complete with CNN's breathlessly updating us about how nothing's changed since the last update, reports read by Brian Williams trying his best to look somber and yet rakishly attractive . . .

Given the Vatican's legendary secretiveness . . . .

Yes, legendary secretiveness: Why, Pius X is actually still alive, but John Paul II's been dead these past 15 years! And nobody knows it, not even the sleuths at Newsday!

"it is not surprising that many Catholics were stunned Tuesday when one of John Paul II's closest advisers acknowledged that the pope was "in a bad way" and the faithful should pray for him.

We were stunned, but only because for the past 10 years the secular media's been chanting "frail pope . . . frail pope . . . . frail pope" like the witches in MacBeth -- watching the secular media get within a planetary diameter of the truth was stunning.

For Catholics already disconcerted by images of an ailing, 83-year-old pontiff unable to lift his head,

Does anyone else get the creepy feeling that not a few gloating powers and dominions hang out in America's newsrooms? I'm not cowed or disconcerted by the image of an eighty-three year old man, who has carried the world on his back for twenty years, suffering from Parkinson's disease. Now the mind of a secular pagan, to whom sexuality and physical youth is the only valuable form of beauty, might well be thrown into confusion at the same sight. But he should never make the mistake of thinking that Catholics see men and women in the same way as an American journalist. After all, we also see men and women as being human all the time.

"and forced to consider what that might mean for the future of their church, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's remarks ratcheted up the anxiety by several notches."

While readers still weeping in darkened bedrooms over Newsday stories about the end of the "Bennifer" are far more stable and connected to reality: They worry about things that really matter, unlike those childish Catholics who are frightened for their papa.

"The big question on Catholics' minds is who's running the show," said one lay Catholic on Long Island who asked not to be named.

Because he's the brother-in-law of the author, and he's going through his fourth divorce and can't be bothered with pesky questions about whether he last attended Mass before they canceled The Rockford Files or started airing Friends.

In fact, the decline of the once-vigorous pope poses potentially unprecedented questions for the 2,000-year-old church.

Thank you; it is a 2,000 year-old Church, isn't it. Kind of a comforting thought, all those unprecedented questions of the past. How does God become a man? What belongs to Ceasar? What are we supposed to do with all these ravening barbarians? Suppose Catholic monarchs could send a Catholic sea captain to China by having him sail West? What if satanic communist regimes took over half the world? Yep, we're sure flummoxed by anything unprecedented or unanticipated.

At a time when modern medicine can keep the body alive far longer than the mind can function well, many worry about what would happen if John Paul became mentally incapacitated or, worse, lapsed into a coma without having either resigned or delegated his authority.

You ever wonder why the media doesn't write stories about the "frail and paralyzed Christopher Reeves, whose condition has caused many observers to wonder if he can go on stumping for the need to revive Mengele's research on twins"? It's funny, how people's visions of nobility can get them to overlook irrelevant physical handicaps . . . .

While the church has elaborate rules for papal elections, it has virtually no provisions for determining how, or under what circumstances, a living pope might be deemed mentally incapable.

Not so! Just ask the National Catholic Reporter or America! They have provisions galore! And what's more, they've been practicing!

"The U.S. Constitution has the 25th Amendment that tells us what to do if the president becomes disabled," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of America, a Catholic monthly, who has also written several books about the Catholic hierarchy.

Ah, so you did ask! The brother-in-law came in handy at last -- America and Playboy are the only magazine subscriptions he's kept current!

"The Catholic Church has nothing like that. As long as the pope can communicate, he could resign. But if he can't do that, we're in real trouble. It could cause a real constitutional crisis in the church."

Of course, the problem with asking Jesuits at America about the Catholic Church is that, well, they tend to confuse the Catholic Church with America. In America, a "constitutional crisis" is a situation not susceptible to solution by a written compact publicly agreed upon by equals. A "constitutional crisis" means chaos, disorder, an anything-goes state of affairs. It always means bad and uncertain things, like the Confederates firing on Fort Sumter, the Nixon tapes, Seven Days in May, or (gasp!) five pro-life justices on the Supreme Court.

In the Catholic Church, however, we have the Code of Canon Law. It's decreed by the Roman Pontiff. That's it, the Pope decrees it and -- poof! -- it's law, without so much as a courtesy heads-up to the editorial staff at America. It provides: "When the Roman See is vacant or entirely impeded nothing is to be innovated in the governance of the universal Church; however, special laws enacted for these circumstances are to be observed." Codex Iuris Canonici, Can. 335 (1983). From the Catholic Encyclopedia:
The promulgation of a law must not be confounded with its publication, the object of the first being to make known the will of the legislator, of the second to spread the knowledge of legislative enactments among sujects bound to observe them. . . . The Church has long exacted the promulgation of a law by a special act of the authorities: Leges instituuntur quum promulgantur, a law is not really a law until it has been made known, says Gratian (Decretum Gratiani, pt. I, c. 3, dist. VII). . . . The Constitution Promulgandi of Pius X (29 September, 1908) determined the ordinary method of promulgating pontifical laws, namely by the insertion of the text of the law in the "Acta Apostolica Sedis" . . . However, the pope explicitly reserves the right to determine in exceptional cases another method of promulgation.
-- Catholic Encyclopedia, "Promulgation."
Does Rev. Reese, who's qualified to comment because he's got a doctorate in political science from the University of California at Berserkeley, wanna bet there's "special laws enacted for these circumstances"? Probably not -- rumor has it that he still owes a few sawbucks to the older members of the Humanae Vitae office pool.

And history offers few precedents. Only a handful of popes have resigned or abdicated in the past millennium, and none of them for reasons of health or age. The most famous was Celestine V, whom Dante relegated to hell in his "Inferno" after that pope stepped down in 1294 because he felt incompetent.

You better smack that intern upside the head, Carol. Just because he went to Haaaahhhhvahhhhd and studied sexual constructionism in Rennaisance literature, doesn't mean he's aware that the relevant part of the Divine Comedy treats of cowards, the lukewarm, and the indifferent:
He thus to me: "This miserable fate
Suffer the wretched souls of those, who lived
Without or praise or blame, with that ill band
Of angels mix`d, who nor rebellious proved,
Nor yet were true to God, but for themselves
Were only. From his bounds Heaven drove them forth
Not to impair his lustre; nor the depth
Of Hell receives them, lest the accursed tribe
Should glory thence with exultation vain." . . . .

When some of these I recognized, I saw
And knew the shade of him, who to base fear
Yielding, abjured his high estate.
Clement V? Perhaps. But Dante didn't say, and there is another recognized candidate -- Pontius Pilate, who yielded his imperial estate through fear of the mob, and thus allowed the Crucifixion. Anyway, the possibility of resignation was investigated and established as legitimate in Clement V's time, and it's provided for by the current Code of Canon Law. I realize that typical Ivy League graduates think life ought to be run according to Kerouac, Ginsburg, and Eminem, but contra your intern, we don't run the Catholic Church according to Dante (or Carol Eisenberg, thanks be to God.)

And while other popes have had health problems while in office -- Pope Clement XII was blind and conducted most of his 18th century papacy from his bed -- there are few reports of popes who served while mentally incapacitated.

I think the power, or throne, or whoever's been given charge of the media may be depressed. The old man won't die, so he's got to come up with a fallback plan and get everyone gloating over the Pope's incipient senility.

"In the bad, old days, they would just bump him off, or put him in a back room and run the church without him, and no one would know the difference," said Reese. "But today, because so much authority has been centralized in the papacy, there could be a real crisis."

Eager though the editorial staff of America may be to think that euthenasia has a papal sanction, I'm not aware of a Pope who was put to sleep because his life just wasn't worth living any more. Popes got bumped off for solid, traditional reasons -- like greed, ambition, politics -- not because of some modern "Death Before Depends" mentality.

"If the pope became mentally incapacitated, for instance, and top Vatican officials deemed the See of Rome "impeded," as they say in church law, the election of his successor could become contested by some factions within the church, Reese said.

Gee, Rev. Reese, where did "impeded" come from? I thought the Catholic Church hadn't given an ounce of thought to the possibility that something besides death and resignation might separate a pope from the performance of his duties. You just said so, "In America we have the 26th Amendment, which lets the cabinet kick a senile old coot out of office. We've gotta have that in the Church, or us Jesuits will have to don the grey habit and fire on Fort Bruskewitz!" Oh, sorry, that was the draft copy -- darn interns, gotta stop hiring Christendom grads -- but still, it sounds to me like there's actually a law, and so there's actually no looming, incipient, impending CONSTITUTIONAL CRISIS that can set us at liberty to run through the streets of Rome, burning encyclicals and hanging prelates. Darn!

"Suppose the people in Poland decide they're not going to acknowledge a successor because they think that John Paul is still the pope, even if he's paralyzed and confined to bed," Reese said.

Gosh, Rev. Reese, that's a brilliant question, just as we'd expect from someone with a Ph.D. from Berserkeley. Here's another one -- Suppose Jesuits in America decide they're not going to pay attention to a damn thing the pope says, even though they know John Paul is neither incompetent, dead, nor deposed? I didn't notice the Church crashing into oblivion. Did I oversleep or something?

While it is rumored that John Paul has prepared a resignation letter to be used in the event he ever becomes incapacitated, the Vatican has never corroborated that.

And of course it should because your continual prattling ought to be having some effect, for all the time and ink you've put into it. How dare the Vatican deny Newsday the opportunity to yet again raise the war-chant -- "frail pope . . . frail pope . . . can't hold his head up, nope, nope, nope" --- and write giddy stories about terrified, sheep-like Catholics on the verge of running their cars through storefronts and playgrounds all across America because the pope's radiopathic control of their minds has suddenly lost half its normal amperage?

"For such a letter to be legally valid, moreover, he would have to be of "sound mind," not just when he wrote the note but when it was eventually dated, wrote the late Rev. James Provost, a canon law professor at Catholic University, in an article published three years ago in America, the Catholic monthly."

.. . and the whole Catholic magisterium, as far as Newsday's concerned. Let me see how this dreadful fact plays into Rev. Reese's nightmare scenario. For the letter to be valid, it would have to be signed and dated while the Pope is in his right mind. And since the Pope has not only issued Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, but has never contradicted Humanae Vitae . . . . . yeah, I could see why Jesuits would be worried about stuff like this.

For now, all indications are that the pope is lucid despite his physical infirmities and that he has no intention of quitting.

"For now, all indications are that this story is a worthless piece of gibberish written to tantalize, provoke, and otherwise disturb morons into buying copies of Newsday."

"As recently as several weeks ago, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls minimized John Paul's limitations, saying they "don't at all hamper the way he performs his duties." And many consider his continuing papacy a testament to his courage and faith, as well as an inspiration to all Catholics who deal with aging and disability.

Except, of course, to Terri Schiavo's family and the bishops of Florida.

"But regardless of their admiration for the pope, some are now openly calling for a mandatory retirement age for the papacy, as now exists for bishops, or even a fixed term of 10, 15 or 20 years."

. . . . or removal upon conviction for "high crimes and misdemeanors" like Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, Humanae Vitae, approving the formation of the Legionaries of Christ, or canonizing Josemaria Escriva . . . .

"It's time to have a term of office for the papacy so we don't have a senile pope who's in office, but nothing can happen at the Vatican because no one wants to open their mouth because they don't know who the next king will be," said Dean Hoge, chairman of the sociology department at Catholic University in Washington, D.C."

No one, that is, except Dean Hoge, who's chairman of the sociology department at Catholic University and ipso facto more interested in the welfare of the Church than a bunch of pasta-eating eunuchs who're so dumb they still think theology is the Queen of Sciences.

A few -- but only a few -- publicly criticize the pope for not stepping down.

Sigh. So few, so few! Can't use the brother-in-law again, gone to that well once too often. . . . nope, not her -- she left the novitiate and joined an ashram somewhere and I don't have the number . . . . . the dog's at the vet . . . . I know! I know! He'll come through! He never fails anyone . . .

"If John Paul had announced he was retiring a few years ago, he would have said to the world, 'No person is indispensable, not even the pope,'" said the Rev. Richard McBrien, a theology professor at the University of Notre Dame.

Thank [ ] for Richard McBrien! Without him, reporting on the Catholic Church would grind to a halt, and news anchors would lose their mouths like Neo did in The Matrix. There wouldn't be a single modern gripe about the Catholic Church -- ranging from complaints about the Church's teachings on sex all the way through complaints about the Church's teachings on sex -- that could be "legitimized" by the sight of McBrien's head croaking out the dead pseudo-pieties of 1968. And as usual, McBrien has gotten it wrong. Every person is indispensable -- even the pope. Even this pope, no matter how much some folks would like him to be the pontifical equivalent of Terri Schiavo.

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