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No doubt the Pope is wishing his household priest had quoted Woody Allen in his homily instead of the anonymous Jewish friend whose mention of antisemitism has caused such a firestorm within a conflagration. But then humor is kind of hard to insert into an Easter service at a time of deep humiliation and hurt in the Catholic church.
At least we still have Maureen Dowd writing about "unholy week," keeping up the drumbeat despite the Vatican 's attempt to exorcise her.
The "little church" I'm thinking about is not, obviously, the Vatican, which, despite its loss of the Papal States centuries ago, despite the anachronism of a religion endowed with a Secretary of State and a legion of nuncios (priestly diplomats) and other trappings of temporal power, still invokes the Pope's "head of state" status. Usually this is good for protocol purposes, though it's unlikely that, as the head of a church of a billion or so people, the Pope would ever get anything less than regal treatment when visiting foreign leaders. Now, though, the head of state moniker will serve to avoid having to be discomfited by lawsuits.
No, the "little church in the wilderness" is figurative, my way of commiserating with the millions of Catholics out there who would feel rather uncomfortable amidst the gilt, the crimson, the ever-so-worldly ostentation of Vatican City. I've pictured above, for literal purposes, a church we once found while hiking in the Dolomites, but my "little church" is everywhere and anywhere, with normal people whose good priests and nuns tend to their parishes.
Beyond the current furor over the pedophilia, and whether or not you think that the priestly condition of celibacy has ceased to be viable, there is the general direction of the Vatican under this Pope. Consider what an eminent Egyptian Jesuit has to say:
The great progress made over the last half century is on hold at this time. Facing this almost devastating situation, the church's leadership... minimize[s] the seriousness of the situation and console[s] themselves by focusing on a resurgence of the most traditionalist factions...
Father Henri Boulad wrote the above in July 2007. If the situation was already "devastating" then, what would he say now?
The progress he's referring to was the great liberal reform of Vatican II, over which Pope Benedict has the same reaction as right wing cultural warriors in the US over the Sixties. Just like conservatives in the US would like to erase the Kennedy-Johnson era and start history with Ronald Reagan, so too would Pope Benedict XVI overturn the work of Pope John XXIII (Vatican postage stamp, right). As Father Boulad wrote, in the early Sixties Pope John XXIII "tried to reverse four centuries of stagnation, but there is an impression that the church is gradually closing the doors that it opened at that time."
When Father Boulad refers to "traditionalist factions" encouraged by Pope Benedict, he's referring to such reactionary organizations as Opus Dei, whose heroes include Spanish fascist leader Francisco Franco; the St. Pius X Society and its Holocaust deniers; and the Legionaries of Christ, recently caught up in its own sex scandal and whose list of American apologists, according to Tim Rutten's recent article in the Los Angeles Times
reads like a who's who of the conservative Catholic intellectuals who, in recent years, have insisted that Catholicism and membership in the Democratic Party are all but incompatible.
This is the world of "traditionalist factions" beloved of Pope Benedict. Beyond concerns over tone-deafness on pedophilia, Catholics in "little churches" around the world must be sick in the stomach over where the Pontiff is leading them. Back to pre-Vatican II? That's much too recent. How about back to the Middle Ages?
* Woody Allen in the Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations