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As Madrid prepared for the Catholic Church’s World Youth Day in August 2011, many people, including 120 priests, were raising objections to the Pope’s visit. Rev. Federico Lombardi, a spokesman at the Vatican, said at a briefing at Rome that the protests were not very surprising. Dismissing the objections, he said, “It’s part of life in a democratic country.”  I contend that there is a certain arrogance in this statement. Would the spokesman use the same statement regarding protests against apartheid, for example?  Oh, well, what can you expect; there are always protests. To be sure, the frequency of protest does indeed rarify the impact of any particular protest. Surely, however, the gravity of the causes differs. Exterminating the Jews, for example, should not be treated as of similar importance as saving some bird species, yet both causes could be expected to eventuate in protests.

In the case of the Pope’s visit to Madrid for the youth festival, priests who work with the poor objected to the “lavish $72 million celebration.” That some of this sum would be paid with tax dollars even as Spain was in an austerity program affecting the poor had more than some people shaking their heads at the priorities of the Vatican and Spain. It was not as though the Pope had not visited the state. In fact, Esther Lopez Barcelo, a youth coordinate for a political party, observed, “They still can’t tell us how much the pope’s visit cost two years ago. Every time he comes here, the figures become opaque.” Cost-containment is obviously not a priority at the Vatican.

To be sure, having more than a million visitors in Madrid could be expected to benefit both local business and the government’s coffers, though it is doubtful that the spending by the youth would match the increased municipal expenses such as trash removal. In short, Spain—one of the PIGS in the E.U. in terms of the debt crisis—was in no position to host a church’s youth day. The Pope’s home region of Bavaria in Germany would have been a better pick, considering the state of the German economy.

For the Catholic Church, the Vatican’s dismissiveness of the protest signed by 120 of its own priests plus others rings of the sort of heartlessness in ignoring someone. It is the sort of heartlessness in someone who has no qualms about enjoying himself even as he knows that some people nearby are suffering. There is a fakeness to such a smile that involves willful blocking of something that is not convenient.

In a broader context, the Vatican’s indifference regarding objections to its lavish spending was amid a trend since 1979 away from social justice and human rights and toward a hypertrophy in abortion and stem-cell protests. I wonder, by the way, whether “It’s all part of life in a democratic country” could also be used by pro-choice groups to dismiss pro-life rallies? Furthermore, I wonder if the Vatican would object to that use of its statement?  Would the Vatican be willing to contend that using a human stem-cell in research is more objectionable than diverting religious and public funds from the poor in a time of need?

On the Church’s “own turf,” one could point to Jesus’ use of the five loafs and two fishes to feed the multitudes. Furthermore, one could recount the saying attributed to Jesus about the rich man getting into the kingdom of heaven being like a camel getting through the eye of a needle. Surely, profligate spending for a festival as the poor are suffering from austerity-program cut-backs is hard to square with Jesus’s teachings. Higher human love (caritas), and especially selfless divine love (agape), manifest justly in terms of universal benevolence (benevolentia universalis). Leibniz, for example, based this justness of this obligation on the fact that we all share in being—God is perfect Being. Augustine based the justness on caritas applying even to one’s enemies (as opposed to merely one’s friends—Cicero’s amicitia).

Similarly, John Rawls points to the unfairness involved in knowing beforehand where one is situated in benefiting from the benevolence. Under a veil of ignorance concerning one’s station, it is only fair to see to it that the least fortunate position benefits. Practically speaking, one never knows if one will someday occupy such a position. For a person (or organization) to ignore the poor while using funds that those people who are barely surviving badly need (from the state)—particularly when one knows one’s station (i.e., as not poor)—is to add selfishness and a hardened heart to the unfairness. This is not exactly a station of the Cross. Rather, it pertains to the lofty, who are justly brought low, rather than to the lowly, who are to be exalted.

To refuse to take part in the exaltation of the lowly by ignoring the obligation of redistributive justice, particularly as arrives at a festival as the star of the show, reflects on one’s underlying attitude toward the teachings attributed to Jesus (or Gandhi, for that matter) as well as the ethical principle of basic fairness. It is, in short, to practice hypocrisy, if one represents a Church in the name of a simple carpenter who may well have gone from meal to meal.

See Suzanne Daley, “Catholic Clergy Protest Pope’s Visit, and Its Price Tag,” New York Times, August 16, 2011.

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Hanna Rosin has written a piece called, “Did Christianity cause the crisis?” in The Atlantic (vol. 304, issue 5, pp. 38-48).  She describes the current prosperity gospel, which, it seems, contributed to the sub-prime mortgage collapse and ensuing financial crisis.  Unhinged from their economic realities, many evangelical Christians who had hitherto only been able to rent decided to go for huge houses because “nothing is impossible with God,” and “God makes the true believers wealthy.”  These Christians could cite 2 John 2: “I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health.”  Unlike the Christian emphasis on virtues such as self-discipline and industriousness that characterized the evangelical titans of the Gilded Age such as John D. Rockefeller, the modern evangelical relies on grace as a kind of spiritual luck applying to risky financial activities.  Little attention was paid to the predatory mortgage-lending industry, which would make contributions to the megachurches for each congregant who signed up for a sub-prime.  Hence pastors preached the believer’s right to the good life as if Jesus had been a friend of money (ignoring what he did to the money-changers).   In any case, the irrational exuberance of the housing bubble may have had in it a component of irrationalism from religion–people taking leave of their senses (and their responsibilities) and being utterly blind to it under the subterfuge of a divine sanction. 

Stepping back to grasp the phenomenon from the perspective of the religion, it strikes me that the too close a friendship between Christianity and the good life eviscerates the distance between the faith and the world.  In other words, the Kingdom of God penetrates the world rather than acts as a check or alternative.  No longer are the last first and the first, last.  No longer is there an eye of the needle for the camel–rather, the doors are wide open.  And no longer must the rich man walk away from his treasure to follow Jesus.   God and mammon effectively fuse,  adding power to self-centeredness by clothing it in gilded robes.   This is particularly evident in the preachers–the scandals alone, such as that of Jim and Tami, attest that something has been amiss.   In other words, there is something downright odd about a minister or pastor living in luxury: Christianity become too convenient for its own good. 

Stepping back even further: Is it inevitable that a religion goes through a life-cycle of sorts during which it becomes decreasingly distinct and increasingly feckless vis a vis the world?   If so, are we witnessing perhaps the final centuries of Christianity?

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The Church of Scientology has been convicted of fraud and fined nearly $900,000 in Europe.  According to the NYT, “the case was brought by two former members who said they were pushed into paying large sums of money in the 1990s, pressed to sign up for expensive “purification courses” and harassed to buy a variety of vitamins and other forms of pharmaceuticals, plus electronic tests to measure spiritual progress. One woman said she had been pressed into spending more than $30,000.”  Meanwhile, in Florida, “the longtime head of Scientology, David Miscavige,” has been investigated for ruling “the church through a ‘culture of intimidation and violence,’ including physical assaults on his aides.” 

These cases raise or demonstrate two lapses to which religion has been susceptable.  In particular, there has been a tendency to blur the line between marketing and the profit-motive and proffering an alternative vision to the world in which we live.   The source of this temptation could be the typical presumption that religion is an institutional phenomenon.  Worship is assumed to be corporate, or communal, and some sort of organization of offices or titles typically ensues.   Such artifacts are all too human, and, I submit, unnecessary and even counter-productive to the achievement of religious experience. 

The second, related, issue is the tendency to vaunt religious functionaries.  This proclivity provides those persons with the temptation to infringe on other people’s personal boundaries.   Behind the excessive praise is the tacit assumption that people differ significantly in a religious sense with respect to God.  That is, coming to view one person as a savior of sorts assumes that he or she has a stronger religiosity such that following him or her could lead one to God.   This assumption runs up against another view–namely, that as human beings, we are all in the same boat as finite beings.  In this alternative view, no one (or several) of us has a monopoly on religious truth.  For one person to seek to authoritatively announce religious truth to another is dogmatic (as well as highly presumptuous).    In other words, among human beings, we can only differentiate ourselves so much with respect to any “inside track” to God.  We all see dimly, with different shades being a far cry from any black and white distinction.   In other words, the distance between Ghandi and a sociopath is dwarfed by the abyss between humanity and God.   Nothing against Ghandi; I’m simply stating that it might be wise to put our hero-worship in some kind of broader, more encompassing, perspective.

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/28/world/europe/28france.html?_r=1&scp=2&sq=scientology&st=cse

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