The road show is over. The spectacle flamed up and subsided, a Roman candle of demonic sanctimony. Think of it as pre-game warm-up for the main event: the global climate summit in Paris, November 30 to December 11. The Vatican is partnering with the Obama administration, at the U.N. and later in Paris, in magnifying state control over a free society and tightening the screws on the developed world. This, in the name of saving the planet from the production and growth of those very means by which the poor can raise themselves out of poverty.
Our obligation to charity—caritas—is bound to the truth of things—in veritate. There is little truth in the aggressively promoted patchwork of contested science and hysteria that fuel apocalyptic prophecies. Yet the Vatican and Our Man in Havana militate against the imagined enemy of climate change while an actual, advancing one slaughters the faithful in its path.
Catholics are doubly burdened. The intellectual squalor of our secular administration is mirrored in a preening Vatican faction that adds moral indigence to the equation. The modern state is exempt from any mandate to lead us toward a transcendent end. That is the work of the Church—an unsurpassable, crowning mission addressed to the poor and the prosperous alike. But this pontificate makes an idol of The Poor, an abstraction by which it justifies its own rancor toward the developed world. It gives evidence of a mind fed on tracts by statist ideolaters who muddle distinction between the material and the transcendent. Worse, it squanders the moral authority of the Church on an unholy alliance with corrupt or rent-seeking regimes that relinquish their own responsibility for the conditions of those they govern. It is an ominous confederacy that denies moral agency to all but the West.
Does there exist anything more Western than a self-flagellating urge to indict the West? A guilty son of the European stock that was once the pride and driving force of Buenos Aires, Francis resents the West’s affluence, scorns its freedom, curses it. He will scald it however he can. Pascal Bruckner, writing two decades ago, anticipated the vanity of Western self-hatred lurking in this pontificate:
Evil can come only from us; other people [i.e. the poor; the Third World] are motivated by sympathy, good will, candor. This is the paternalism of the guilty conscience: seeing ourselves as the kings of infamy is still a way of staying on the crest of history.
I cannot not help but wonder if this week-long showcase of misdirected sermonizing, and often ambiguous pieties, signaled the de-Christianization of the Catholic Church. Were we witnessing the descent of Catholicism into one more “ism,” an ideology using language onto which an audience could project its own meaning? After Cuba, the non-stop showboating, pageantry, and preachments in the wrong places took on the look of a Faustian bargain between the Vatican and cynical brokers of worldly prestige—an exchange of truth (including that of the gradual but ongoing diminishment of poverty) for power.
H. L. Mencken understood the world better than our bien pensant hierarchy: “The urge to save humanity is almost always a false front for the urge to rule.”
On the eve of Francis’ address to the joint session of Congress, I wrote an essay for The Federalist. Permit me to repeat a portion of it here:
Ideolatry, the idolatry of fixed ideas, is as rampant in the Vatican as in any other directorate. And just as dangerous. Even more so. Because the pope commands deference from the world’s peoples, the present object of his worship—from climate change dogma to the antagonisms peculiar to an anti-democratic Leftist elite—disfigures the faith of billions. It becomes a golden calf festooned with Gospel quotes.
. . . There comes a moment when deference glides into collusion. At that point, we all become Good Germans. Fascist-friendly. Trust in respected authority curdles into a thing entirely different—a willed blindness to something dark in the particular voice commanding assent. Decent and dependable, we incline toward the beckoning circle of connivance.
It was not necessary to listen to a scrupulously written, edited, and rewritten product scripted for media consumption. Not a single word of it could annul Francis’ assent to celebrate Mass under a triumphal image of Che Guevara:
Something in me gave way at the sight of an exultant image of Che Guevara overseeing the altar in Plaza de la Revolución, approved site of the papal Mass in Havana. A sadistic, murderous thug looked down on attendees in an obscene burlesque of Christ Pantocrator. Under the gaze of a butcher, and amid symbols of the regime, Jorge Bergolio joined his fellow Argentine in service to the calamitous Cuban revolution. The entire spectacle played like a farcical inversion of John Paul II’s presence in Warsaw’s Victory Square, in 1979, and in stark contrast to the message he brought to Cuba in 1998.
[The Federalist essay in its entirety is here.]
Marc Thiessen, writing on September 22 for the American Enterprise Institute, compared the homilies of the two popes. His essay, ”In Havana, Pope Francis is no John Paul,” notes the number of times John Paul used the words freedom (17 times) and justice (13 times). Francis did not use either word even once. Thiessen quotes generously from John Paul. He closes with this:
Pope Francis said nothing even resembling this during his Cuban visit. He is not expected to be so reticent during his visit to Washington. But then, as the [Washington] Post correctly notes, “it takes more fortitude to challenge a dictatorship than a democracy.”
Even without a TV it was impossible to completely avoid the flood of images we swim in. Screens are everywhere. One other image touched an unwelcome chord. MSNBC scanned the crush of spectators at the airport in Philadelphia, almost everyone with an arm raised to hold a camera phone over head. An innocuous gesture in itself, viewed en bloc it recalls the old Fascist salute, parodied this time by the grip on a camera. In the wake of Francis’ newly released motu proprio, the analogy struck me as having a discomforting purchase on reality.
We do not need a Leni Riefenstahl or a Ministry of Popular Culture any more. We have the promotional tentacles of a 24/7 media doing their job. CNN Newsource hawked its Pope Francis Visit Coverage Plan to other stations at $350 for 5-minute window or $300 per media feed:
CNN Newsource is giving you a front seat to the historic trip of Pope Francis to Cuba and the U.S. in September. Whether you send a crew to join us on location or book a live shot with a CNN correspondent, CNN Newsource gives you the flexibility to book a bundle of shots or onsite services at discounted pricing. Contact your Newsource Sales representative today for details.
Circus-as-news is the bread and butter of the 24/7 media bubble that passes as an organ of information. Time Warner Cable dedicated its own local news channel to the papal visit. If that was not enough, The New York Times reported:
The papal channel will be available to Time Warner’s subscribers in New York and more than two dozen other markets around the country, 15 million households in all. It will also be available online and on the TWC News app. In addition to showing the events, with on-the-scene commentary and analysis, the papal channel will feature a special edition of NY1’s nightly call-in show and a daily recap show at 10 p.m., recounting the day’s events.
Some commentators, anxious for something nice to say, mistook waving, cheering multitudes as proof that Americans are still a religious people. Yes, we are. But the adulation of crowds testified equally, perhaps more, to the strength of celebrity culture and its susceptibility to media promotion. Here was yet another once-in-a-lifetime experience. (Experience is the magical marketing word of the day.) In short, excited throngs are as much evidence of the efficacy of media-perfected techniques of mass mobilization. This is what we once called propaganda—a therapeutic massage which includes valorizing treacle from the amen corner.
How much the supremacy of God in Christ had to do with the sponsored product remains moot.
Maureen Mullarkey is a painter who writes on art and culture. Her essays have appeared in various publications, among them: The Nation, Crisis, Commonweal, Hudson Review, Arts, The New Criterion, First Things, The Weekly Standard, and The Magazine Antiques. She was a columnist for The New York Sun.
She also keeps the weblog Studio Matters [www.studiomatters.com] She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @mmletters.