New Face, Old Raiment

Vatican Spring? Don't bet the basilica on it.

The Arabs, I was once informed by an orotund Christian Zionist, belong to a culture of shame. To the extent crime is stigmatized in Arab lands, it is more for the dishonor it imposes on family or tribe than the immorality of the crime itself. The west, by contrast, is a culture of guilt, where justice is defined and meted out under codes and systems that evolved from the Enlightenment. As cultures of shame and guilt are irreconcilable, I was told, there will never be peace until one side prevails.

It wasn’t the first time I had heard this interpretation of the global culture war. (A decade earlier, in Seoul, I was told by a U.S. businessman that South Korea’s own culture of shame was the root cause of its rampant corruption.) It thrives to this day, never mind that the criminals of Wall Street, Abu Ghraib, and Silvio Berlusconi’s Italy - to name just a few of the west’s own ecologies of shame - escaped accountability.

I thought of this while watching Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio emerge from the balcony of St. Peter's Cathedral as Pope Francis. The brand new, 76-year old pontiff will need a thick rug if he's going to pray away the mess that bedevils the Catholic Church. He inherits an ecclesiastical body wracked by endemic child abuse, murky financial deals - the Vatican Bank is becoming to global finance what the Bank of Credit and Commerce International was during the Cold War - the recent resignation of a cardinal who by his own account demanded sexual favors from his acolytes, and revelations of bitter power struggles at the very top of the clergy.

Predictably, the mainstream presscovered the conclave in Rome as part Byzantine pageantry and part Kentucky Derby, as if it really matters who will succeed the retired Pope Benedict XVI, a.k.a. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, whose enabling role in the Vatican’s industrialized buggery is well known. Nor has there been much talk of the church’s rap sheet generally. The international community has imposed boycotts and staged interventions against governments guilty of genocide, anti-Semitism, misogyny, homophobia and racism. The Catholic Church has a history of all these things. (The Crusades are estimated to have killed some 200,000 Jews, Muslims and Christians from the Rhine Valley to the Levant.) Just this week, the Vatican partnered up with Iran and Russia to block a United Nations communiqué aimed at stemming violence against women because it would prevent governments and religious groups from shirking their human rights obligations for the sake of culture and liturgy. If the Vatican were a publicly listed corporation, its shareholders would have demanded an extraordinary general meeting and voted out its board of directors a decade ago.

Can an institution so corrupt, opaque, factionalized and intellectually inbred survive meaningful reform? In Bergoglio, whose positions on gay marriage and abortion would make him an ideal Republican Party candidate in the South Carolina congressional race, the Vatican has chosen a new face in old raiment, perhaps the world’s most extravagant empty suit. Would any of the Vatican's leading antediluvians change what the Ratzinger imperium did so much to entrench? As with the Soviet Union (and BCCI, for that matter), there may be little left of the Holy See if ever the rot were once and for all swept away. What exactly props up the Catholic Church? Its sole growth market, Africa, is one of the most dynamic economies in the world, with per-capita income levels poised to rise inversely to rates of illiteracy and fertility. It’s only a matter of time before Africans realize they’ve been sold the same bogus wares pedaled for the last 1,200 years from France to the Philippines. (To be fair, at least the Vatican was smart enough to explore new constituencies; for an example of an institution even more hidebound and self-delusional than the Catholic Church, see Republican Party, above.)

One wonders what Jesus Christ, a Palestinian Jew who never presumed priestly authority, might think of Vatican pretensions to evangelize in his name. Like the concept of hell, there is no precedent for a priesthood in the early church nor a meaningful reference to it in the New Testament, as author and Catholic gadfly Garry Wills argues in his latest book. (To the extent that a clerical elite existed, it was remarkably egalitarian. Sixth-century cave renderings in central Turkey depict St. Paul saying mass alongside a woman, in this case St. Thecla. The fresco is believed to have predated New Testament admonitions, retrofitted as Paul’s own, that women should be silent in church and by implication barred from the priesthood.)

All of this begs the question: Does the Catholic Church, the product of eastern as well as western mythologies, derive from a culture of guilt or shame? Its inability or unwillingness to reform itself suggests a failure of institutions as profound as its transgressions. So much for guilt. On the other hand, the cavalier way in which it laundered sexually abusive clerics by shuffling them from one post to another reveals a defiance of shame. So far-reaching are the church’s sources of criminality their provenance defy classification.