You’re such a delicate boy in the hysterical realm… The Spectre of Catholicism in Folk (A)Theology

You make the whole world want to dance…

So we have a new Pope and he’s totally a Jesuit.  A Jesuit.  From the Society of Jesus.  Didn’t Dan Brown say something about Jesuits?  Weren’t Jesuits another name for Opus Dei, the Illuminati, and the Reptile Lizard People?  Wasn’t Tony Abbott advised by an influential Jesuit?

For an institution as old and as influential as it is, it is strange that the Catholic Church is so poorly understood and so often misrepresented.  Misunderstandings and misrepresentations of theology are understandable; theology is difficult and popular culture has neither the time nor the inclination to grasp its subtleties.  It’s why Dawkins can sit on Australian television guffawing about Cardinel Pell’s grasp of human evolution, while simultaneously making stupid comments about how Catholics understand the concept of the soul.  Knowing about science is Important, but knowing about theology is a Waste of Time (especially, it seems, for people who write books with titles like God Is Not Great and The God Delusion).

But misunderstandings and misrepresentations of the Church itself seem less understandable. Perhaps it’s because of the huge amount of anti-Catholic propaganda circulating the place.  Perhaps it’s because the Catholic Church has a history of not being entirely open about its wheelings and dealings.  And perhaps it’s because people just like to think the worst about large organisations and powerful individuals.

When Pope Benedict XVI declared his intent to resign, social media went into meltdown.  ‘The Pope?!  Resigning?!  Can the Pope resign?!’  I had a rather testy exchange with Alan Fisher, a senior journalist with Al Jazeera, when he added to the noise of ‘Oh, wow!  How is this even happening?!’  His role, I argued, was not to be as ignorant as the average punter, but to be a source of information for the average punter.  He disagreed, figuring that the media was supposed to be a mirror of public reaction or some crap.  But when the media appears to be mystified by the mysteries of the Church, how is the ordinary public supposed to keep up?  (More cynically, I think they feign mystification in order to hype up the news: ‘The Catholic Church acted in a way contrary to ignorant public expectation; this is extraordinary news!  Click here!  Retweet this!  Linkbait!  Linkbaaaait!’)

But problems with Pope Benedict XVI’s image went further than mere astonishment at everything he did.  He had significant image difficulties.  This shouldn’t have been a problem, given that he was a man of substance — but when the wider world gets its information in 2-second bites, looking like Emperor Palpatine did more to influence public perception than anything written in an encyclical.

Perhaps that’s a bit unfair.  It also appears to be true that the wider world wants nothing more than a non-Catholic Pope.  ‘This Pope is anti-condoms, homophobic, and believes in the resurrection of Jesus?!  Way to stay in the Dark Ages, Catholic Church.’   It is strange to compare the Pope with the Dalai Lama; while the Dalai Lama is homophobic and occupies a weird place in Tibetan politics, he gets the benefit of being a smiling, goofy-looking Asian.  Pope John Paul II was an Old, White Guy.  Pope Benedict XVI was formerly of the Hitler Youth or something.  And while the Dalai Lama occupies a fantasy role in the lives of hundreds of thousands of white Buddhists (who totally think it’s a philosophy and not a religion, and who think they can pick and choose the bits which affirm their affectations), the Pope is Catholic.  Horribly, horribly Catholic.

Somewhere in this space is the attitude that you don’t need to understand the Catholic Church in order to criticise it.  Child abuse!  Anti-condoms!  Dan Brown!  But it could also be that we feel it’s not possible not to know something so omnipresent and influential.

The Church has a lot of problems to resolve, and it needs to resolve them quickly.  The problem of child abuse (and abuse in general) has a systemic and long-standing problem, and an academic Pope might not be the best person to address those needs.  But the problem needs to be understood before it can be solved: is the problem that there’s abuse within the Church, or that the Church knew about the abuse and did nothing, or that the Church knew about the abuse and covered it up, or that the Church suspected the abuse but had structures which tried to avoid addressing the issues, or &c.?  When the prevailing attitude is ‘Boo!  Catholics!’ it is difficult to nut out the problem of abuse.  I hope that the Catholic Church in Australia engages with these questions.  Given some of the people responsible for engaging with the Royal Commission, I think that there’s a good chance of that happening.  In fairness, although the Catholic Church has had some of histories finest apologists, the Church itself has never been sufficiently apologetic for its past and current crimes.

But part of the solution has to be a reengagement with the community.  The Church has become like an estranged father, shadow looming over the community as it tries to rebel.  The image problems, the conspiracy theories, and, now, the questions about what it means for a Jesuit to be CEO of the Corp are symptoms of the disconnect.

And this is all said by a devout and practicing atheist.  A healthy, open, and connected Church is in the interests of everybody, not just Catholics.  I hope that Pope Francis is capable of the task.