Sunday, April 10, 2005

Burying Caesar

I've been trying to wrestle my thoughts about the Pope's death into a coherent shape for the last week. Not being Catholic, I don't owe the man any more respect than that paid to the average schmoe I never met, if that. There's a lot of talk about how the Pope helped the poor but you know what? There are still poor people in the world and the Pope still lives in a palace. Frankly, I never liked the man very much.

Pope John Paul II was a bone fide son of a bitch who was the figurehead of one of the most repressive institutions in history. Karol Wojtila was a nice man, good with children and animals, tolerated Bono and was said by his friends and admirers to have a cracking sense of humor. That both people happened to inhabit the same body is an all too-common occurrence, and it is a misfortune of greatest concern that these inconsistencies must be glossed over by those looking to judge a man by his shoe size or sum him up neatly. Trying to reconcile these inconsistent facts is hard. I don't want to demonize the guy. He tried to do what he thought was right by his faith and followers, It just turns out that he failed miserably on several occasions and his followers, all umpteen million of them, didn't quite have the guts or the faith to call him on his tragic and deadly mistakes.

But for some reason, we're now supposed to forget, or at least not mention these shortcomings. It's more than just the custom that one does not speak ill of the dead.1 But I'm not sure what other factors, not being mentioned, we're supposed to be accepting on faith, and that's what I've been trying to figure out this week. So has Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon:

I'm tired of feeling forbidden to speak ill of the dead right now. Pope John Paul II was ultimately a wicked man, and he was wickeder still for thinking of himself as righteous. Two simple things were at hand for him to promote that would have done enormous good for his flock--the condom to stop a disease that kills and contraception to make poverty more manageable. On top of that, his complete refusal to expand the church's view of women as anything more than helpmates and breeders certainly damaged the status of women in this world and may have damaged the overall well-being, as it's a well-known fact that in order to best improve a society, you improve the lot of the women in it. And, as Steve Gilliard has been pointing out, the pope and the entire Catholic church infrastructure bears responsibility for the molestation of children by priests--not because it happened so much, but because they tried to hide it and avoided dealing with it.

I think the reason the media-tamed populace fawn over the Pope is because, even though we fought a war for independence form the whims and injustice of royalty, a large portion of the population still has this fairy tale fixation on Kings and Princesses. The Pope is basically King of the Catholics.2 He was popular because he always smiled and looked so good in those fancy robes and stately hat. Just like Princess Diana, only without the messy divorce and love affair with a Muslim.

Maybe this is Disney's fault, giving us saccharine visions of princesses to feed to our children, never mind the horrible state of affairs of your average Disney peasant (and even worse state of affairs for real world peasants. Fuck em, they're only poor.) Basically, we're willing to overlook the Pope's massive, nearly genocidal faults, because he's rich and the talking heads on the TV screen tell us he was a nice guy, never mind the facts to the contrary. More than that, even though he was a celibate misogynist and homophobe, many Americans would trade places with him in a heart beat. Because it's good to be King.

1. This is an old custom, going back to our collective primordial days, when the fear of death was so pathological, it gave birth to religions. You don't talk bad about the dead, so that when they go a haunting, they leave you be. And to win points with the Big invisible Man what lives in the sky.

2. Hobbes (the philosopher, not the tiger) described the papacy as, "nothing other than the ghost of the deceased Roman Empire, sitting crowned upon the grave thereof." Which is as fine a definition I can think of as any. The Pope; all Popes, now and forever, are the shivering shade of Caesar, traveling the world, smiling at the peasants and inspecting the troops on the edge of a dead empire.


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