Friday, November 17, 2006

CATCH OF THE DAY

I’m rummaging through the net here. We have the Catholic bishops, in convocation assembled, coming out with an antiwar statement, sort of. Kinda curious, since they had published their agenda before they went in and it was mostly housekeeping. Then Robert Waldrop took them – rightly – to task for almost total collective failure to speak out against the invasion of Iraq, even when their reputed Boss in Rome spoke out against it (http://www.justpeace.org/). One of the prelates, from the Great State of Jawja, actually categorized the Pope as simply another foreign diplomat, and dismissed him thus. Now, suddenly, the bishops have barely unpacked their neat cone-hats and – presto – an antiwar statement (sorta).

I say sorta because actually they’re only calling for a “responsible transition” in Iraq. Curiously, it’s just a week after – at long damned last – The People generated sufficient political will and insight to rebuke the Incumbency, if not renounce all its works and all its pomps. And it’s just a day or two after the New York Times (a newspaper in New York) editorialized to much the same effect (www.truthout.org/docs_2006/111606B.shtml).

Pity the poor bishops. They’ve had a hard time of it. Not unprecedented. When Kirk Douglas led the slave revolt against Rome, bursting out of Capua with his self-liberated gladiators freeing slaves as they went, Robin Hood without any tights at all, the first official opposition he encountered were City Cohorts. The City Cohorts were units of Roman troops stationed permanently in the larger and medium-sized cities of Italy; they were big on parades, highly polished armor, and basically beating up – when necessary – on the urban poor and any obnoxious members of the peasantry. Not so different from some of their modern descendants. Overfed, picky, and a little leery of the dark, they were not the legions. They were not employed for such challenges as Spartacus flung at them, and they were speared flat in no time.

Thus the bishops. Raised to the prelacy at a time when the Catholic Church in this country was still coasting on the long-ago-earned laurels of its early missionaries and the remarkable energies of the immigrant generations of the late-19th and early-20th centuries, they were picked for their ability to hew to the doctrinal line and ‘administer’ stuff. The American Church having mastered the ‘Protestant threat’ back in 1960 and simultaneously proved its patriotic bonafides by its many youth sent off to the wars Great and Good and not so much so, its attention was now focused on in-house problems.

And they were and are legion. There are traditionalists who want Time turned back, women put back into Kitchen, Children, and Church (it works better in the original German), the gays outed and out, and some who doubt the validity of the election of every Pope since Pius XII died in 1958. There are ‘liberals’ who want the Church run democratically (defined as whatever seems The Thing To Do in the U.S. these days); womanists who want men out of the priesthood or at least themselves in, and the right to an abortion should the need arise; and a shrinking corps of priests, many of whom – serving out there in the bush – appear to Rome to have gone somewhat native.

Although a quarter-century ago the bishops had risen up, or been chivvied up, by some vigorous prelates, to majestically defy the early Reagan era’s facile brandishing of nuclear weapons, and not without success, yet since the fall of the Soviet Union – in which events the Polish John Paul II played no small part – they had been busy with the consequences of the Revolutions of the Identities as those storms roiled even the protected harbors of Church polity. The seas beyond were lost to view in the spume of the surf.

When the country started the long wrack of the sex-offense craze, such an ominous sea change was not noted in the protected fortress-harbors of the American Church. When the fundamentalist Ascendancy separated from the more modest, less alarming evangelical phase and assumed the characteristic trajectory and tactical movements of a vessel of war, this too was hardly noted.

There was a jolt in the early-90s when several priestly-rape cases made the news. They were treated from a purely internal point of view, the coincidence of the publicity with the nascent but now-clearly identifiable Ascendancy not even noted. For reasons variously prudent, cowardly, greatly uninformed, or just plain witless, each Cohort Commander – authoritative within his diocese – tried to deal with matters according to his own lights. The initiative quickly passed from them, although not before – individually and collectively – they had demonstrated no large ability. But within a year or so, the wrack had passed. They assumed that, having survived a frightening case of it, they were now inoculated and – ‘dues’ having been paid to the increasingly sensationalist culture – they would now be allowed to pursue their occasions, unmolested as it were.

That was not an unreasonable assumption: American society has been wracked by crazes of various nature since the first Great Awakening, and with the development of urban concentrations and various types of ‘press’ (including the dime novels, the crime broadsheets, and the ‘yellow’ press that brought on the Spanish-American War) these things came and went. That in the crucible of the culture wars of the post-civil-rights era these waves were becoming more intense and reaching further and further into the main ground of the culture and the society and the law, and were not dissipating even after receding … none of these facts were noted, much less evaluated. That there might be a number of interests served by their substantive discomfiture the bishops never even imagined. That these interests might exist both within and outside of the Churchly sphere equally escaped such notice as they ever took of matters.

Almost a decade went by. The sex-offender storm had retained its strength, though it had moved on from the territory of the Church; out of sight, out of mind. In New York, the patriarch of a family that had raised up a major newspaper retired and in the best tradition of the grand monarchies of yore, he let his kid take over. In time, said scion – having given the seasoned, experienced, mature professionals on staff more than a little scare – purchased a smaller paper. And as these things go, and have always gone, he appointed a satrap for the new province, one who wouldn’t outshine his master.

Said satrap needed to make his bones, however. Having faithfully hewed to the organizational line in the matter of supporting war in the East, he also needed to distinguish himself on his own. He would need a sure thing, and one that would have a wide support. He would need a target that would be fat, dumb, and happy in the run-up, and equally so in the stunning assault, such that victory would be a slam-dunk and he would be greeted as a liberator. Where he conceived of such a plan … who can say?

Thus in January 2002, the satrapy revealed that during the months leading up to and following 9-11, it had devoted the bulk of its limited investigative resources to exposing Catholic priests and sex-offenses. The Cohort Commander in Boston, one of the most prestigious among his peers, sallied out secure in the impressiveness of his burnished chariot and ceremonial armor, only to find that he was now assailed from within as well as from without. He was choppered out from the roof, without vowing to return.

When just last year the satrapy took a victory lap in an article reporting the contestable conviction of a priest who had apparently advocated sex with young boys in print, it published figures which – if one did the math – indicated that since 1940 .065 children – variously defined from birth to the age of military recruits – per year were in some form or other abused, molested, assaulted or raped by priests of the Archdiocese. The variety of verbs required is partly occasioned by the fact that such acts cover a gamut from an untoward comment – perhaps not even delivered in person – to aggravated and repeated rape. The curious obliqueness of the article leads one to think that the great majority of the cases were at the lower end of that spectrum. And if one totes up the number of interactions between a diocese’s priests and its ‘children’, and then the number of ‘abuse’ incidents, it looks like the percentage of incident-free events would surpass the US airline safety percentages. Most curious.

It is for a future historian to explore the coincidence of this type of investigating and reporting with the goings-on in the by-then deteriorating expedition to Iraq: WMD not found, elastic definitions of the offense, elastic definitions of the objective, elastic definitions of the enemy, elastic definitions of applicable law and laws, and – as a lubricant to smooth the intense frictions created by the foregoing – a stentorian insistence that the word of the government be taken without dispute, dissent or – most vehemently – further investigation. But we digress.

The bishops have spent the past four years in a rather early-Medieval way, each trying to protect whatever is within the walls of his fortress-city, risking the arduous journey to attend equally risky convocations, where nothing can seem to placate or appease their accusers, whose Desired Outcome recedes every year tantalizingly just over the horizon. Hardly surprisingly, Their Worships have not found the time or inclination to make significant pronouncements about – oh, say, the morality of American involvement in the world community. One – the afore-mentioned Jawja prelate – spoke only to demote his Pope to the status of foreign diplomat, and another – the one in charge of all the Catholics in the armed Services – broke radio silence only a couple of weeks ago, to issue what amounted to a Pentagoon talking-points lecture on how things are swell, if the media would only get on-board (see “Bishops Bomb” elsewhere on this site).

And so now, the elections having – as they say – ‘sent a message’, the bishops convoke yet again. And as afore-noted, although it wasn’t on their agenda, they suddenly issue a statement against the war (sorta). It’s anybody’s guess whether they got their notes from the Pentagon or the New York Times, but I’m sure that at this point they’d be happy to be allowed to sit at anybody’s table and not have … It … brought up.

And it woulda been embarrassing: a Vatican prelate made a speech on Tuesday making the unkind, but hardly inane, observation that within the lifetime of the same generation that saw the Berlin Wall come down the U.S. is putting a fortified border wall up. No doubt the Vatican, which has a habit of thinking things through and thinking ahead (those wily, inscrutable foreign diplomats!) quietly sent an advance copy over here by diplomatic pouch or fax. And over here such active folks as Robert Waldrop at Romero House has pointed out to the bishops that their silence does not speak well of them nor does it bode well for the Church.

(The vigorous and outspoken Archbishop Romero of San Salvador, one recalls, was killed by right-wing hit-squaddies in 1980 while saying Mass at the altar of his own cathedral church. That such a descent into Medieval massacre is an awefull signal of the increasing regression to debauchery of our modern world was lost upon the usually logghorreic Catholic traditionalists for whom by his concern for justice for his flock the Archbishop had apparently demonstrated to their own satisfaction that he was not validly an Archbishop; in this he joins a distinguished company of churchmen comprised, among others, of John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul II.).

But back to our American bunch. They want to get back into the mainstream and be allowed to sit at the table with the Macher (bless the Yiddish!) in this country; and they need to prove to Catholics here and to those foreign diplomats in Rome that they are worth their salt. Otherwise, even when eating alone they’ll face a thin gruel. So they issue a thin gruel of their own, suggesting that justice now requires that we act responsibly in Iraq and that in the face of that debacle we think deep thoughts. Hardly inappropriate sentiments, although the card and the flowers have arrived a couple-three years after the funeral. But then again, just as the whole earth is the grave of honorable men, so too every day marks the funeral of an honorable man; not a few of them members of the flock presided over by the Pentagon’s command-bishop. O tempora, O mores!

Meanwhile, back at the capitol, the House passes a bill that classes certain animal-rights tactics as ‘terrorism’. Now, that’s reely reely an elastic category! Unwashed, glaze-eyed animal-lovers, citizens all, are somehow in the same class as the beady-eyed Islamofascist suicide-bombers and Middle Eastern masterminds who perpetrated 9-11. Can Congress do this – I mean, to the language? Can you just – whoosh – pass a law and declare that birds are large mammals? Well, sure you can. For the purposes of legal fiction: like the one that a corporation is a person and has all the rights and protections of an individual human-type citizen. Or that Congress-members can read. Or think.

But seriously, this is another example of that elastic definition that was mentioned above and that has helped many another craze keep itself afloat. Slaves – it will be recalled – were not considered to have Constitutional rights, not being considered in any real way human, except when the State in which they were held in bondage was counting heads to qualify for Congressional representation, in which case – magick! – each slave was defined and counted as three-fifths of a white man. Have we matured intellectually since those days? Sex offenses, if we take the trouble to notice, can run a gamut from peeing in the park to multiple premeditated abduction-rape-cannibalistic murders of children by strangers (of which the vast majority of “sex offenders” are probably not at the high end of the scale; I have to speculate because curiously there aren’t any reliable figures on just what each of the country’s sex-offenders was actually convicted for). And you need not be physically present. Or commit a sexual act. The basic dynamic is that so long as the offense can be expanded to compensate for small or shrinking numbers of actual perps, then the Emergency can continue. And on the basis of that Emergency (see elsewhere on this site) some of the most fundamental pillars of Western Justice can be undermined or ‘reformed’. Following the same game-plan, later on, such an elastic definition can expand to cover the too-obvious lack of results in a failing, hugely misconceived, dishonestly begun war in the Middle East.

But then again, it was only a rhetorical exercise to propose that Congress-members can’t read. I think they most certainly can – most of them. In order to qualify as ‘terrorism’, the law continues, you have to do something that “causes a loss of profits”. Ah. As American as apple pie, and just in time for Turkey Day. We are regressing to the 1880s in so many respects: not only the Robber Barons and a prostitute Congress, but the increasingly obvious deployment of the Federal police power by the government in the interests of those who pay its Executives and legislators to play. Do they study the labor history of the 1880s to WW2 in school these days? This may be a great opportunity to get back beyond the gauzy, muzzy, mawkish aura of “The Good War” to the brimming, frothy, earnest and deadly serious stewpot of America before the smiling rigidity and willing conformism of the postwar National Security State. Democrats take notice.

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