Note from Peachfront: When you’re writing big picture stories, it’s inevitable that you’ll confront perhaps the biggest questions of all about religion, God, and the meaning of it all. Here’s a new post from Roger about one of his influences.
I’ve kept up an interest in the Catholic Church because, despite being raised Protestant and drifting toward either Atheism or Paganism depending on the era and day of week, I went to a Catholic secondary school because in the very Catholic-founded city of New Orleans those are the schools with the best reputation for providing a secular education. And it’s a common thing here; many of my classmates were also nominally Protestant, and while the school required us to study Catholic doctrine in religion class they had a standard procedure for excusing non-Catholic kids from the actual religious rituals which were sometimes performed. And for all its often noxious superstition and history the Church is one of oldest continually running institutions created by mankind.
As anyone who cares about the news at all certainly knows by now, Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected to the Roman Catholic Papacy this year, taking the Papal name Francis after St. Francis of Assisi. Not only is this the first time in 1,100 years a Pope has taken a name never used by a previous Pope (that being Pope Lando elected in 913 CE), it’s also the name of the founder of an order that was once nearly kicked out of the Church for its aversion to the trappings of wealth.
But picking his name was just one of many first things Francis has done in his first few months in office which has turned the Papacy upside-down. He eschews the Papal residence (“But there is room here for 300 people!” he is said to have exclaimed when he saw it) living instead at the same Vatican residence where he stayed as an electing Cardinal during the conclave. He doesn’t use the Popemobile. For the Easter ritual of washing feet, instead of the traditional male priests he serviced twelve juvenile prisoners, two of them shockingly female. He expresses surprising respect for people of other religions and even atheists.
All in all Francis has quickly brought two interesting questions to bear, each of which is interesting to ponder:
- What makes Pope Francis tick and why is he doing these things?
- Did the Cardinals know what they were buying into, and how are they taking these affronts to their deep tradition?
1. What makes Pope Francis Tick?
Francis is not a progressive, as numerous progressives have complained after looking into his relatively standard and sometimes even atavistic attitudes toward sexuality and his lack of fire confronting some existing Church scandals. And this is to be expected because if Francis possessed a drop of progressive blood in his entire body he never would have gotten within a thousand miles of the conclave.
Francis is in fact very deeply conservative, so conservative that he actually places the values taught in that fat book the Christians peddle over the traditions of the ancient and bloated organization that just elected him to lead it. He is all about meekness and caring for the poor, and has been for long years before his election. Even in Argentina he lived modestly eschewing the Cardinal’s mansion, took public transportation, and mingled with the poor. He seems to consider this an essential part of his calling, since you cannot help the poor if you do not know or understand them.
Despite his flaunting of tradition, Francis has pursued his calling with a typically Franciscan modesty though. He has criticized capitalism as a form of idolatry and supported unions as a necessary instrument for the poor to stand against those oppressing them, but he has not done so with the fire of 70’s-era liberation theologists. Instead of giving fiery speeches he leads by quiet example.
Long story short I think Francis is actually that creature who sometimes seems as mythical as Hobbits, a Christian who actually follows all those words in the New Testament that so many Christians seem to prefer to ignore and who lives by them, for real.
To anyone raised in a Christian framework Francis isn’t really all that hard to understand. He is deeply devoted to following the example of Christ, devoted enough to flaunt tradition in a role of leadership. But he is still deeply invested in some of the Church’s antisexual attitudes, and he is not going to go so far as to cry for armed revolution or to openly defy those whose power over him he acknowledges.
The much more interesting question is:
2. How the hell did this guy get to be Pope?
It’s important to understand that not only did Cardinal Bergoglio get elected Pope, he very nearly got elected pope in 2005. He was a frontrunner in that conclave which went on to elect Cardinal Ratzinger / Pope Benedict XVI. That conclave required an historic number of balloting rounds and it’s said that Bergoglio, as a frontrunner, pushed to end the deadlock by imploring his own supporters not to vote for him.
Back in 2001 one of the very first things I wrote for kuro5hin was The Fish Goes Away, an essay about certain odd things the Catholic Church had been doing in the 1990’s and a theory of why they had been doing those things. The theory I offered, to a bit of a hostile reception, was that the Church has an occult tradition including the Kabballah and astrology which the Protestants, having split off at a level not privy to these secrets, did not take with them. And this occult lore was generally regarded by those who knew about it as a powerful and dangerous weapon best kept private for the use of a privileged few.
At the time of Jesus’ ministry things like astrology weren’t considered secrets, although they would be part of what we might today consider a college-level education. It was a relatively recent thing that Hipparchus had discovered the precession of the equinoxes. It is this phenomenon that is responsible for that awful earworm about the Age of Aquarius. But in the time of Jesus of Nazareth, it was actually the Age of Pisces displacing the Age of Ares. The idea that the the point in the sky that doesn’t move as the night progresses itself moves would have been a big thing for those early thinkers to contemplate.
My theory is that the early Church did not, in fact, choose a fish (the “Ichthys”) as its symbol because of an acrostic. Someone very well educated decided that the teachings of Jesus were in alignment with the coming era of Pisces and that the Romans had been ascendant because they were more in alignment with the fading age of Ares. But as the Church actually did replace the Roman Empire, growing into a powerful and hierarchial organization, such ideas were made secret and reserved for the use of Popes and royalty. The true meaning of the Ichthys was buried, though the symbol was kept because of its secret power.
Bear in mind that this is no judgement about whether astrology actually works. The more important question is whether the leaders of an ancient and very conservative organization think it works. And I would have to say, if you believe in transubstantiation, believing that God writes his will in the sky is a really small additional step.
So if you will take a little leap with me and suppose that the Church aligned itself with the Age of Pisces in a fairly central way 2,000 years ago, you probably have heard at least one earworm song suggesting that the Age of Pisces is, like, over. And I think this has a lot to do with some of the weird stuff the Church has been doing since the 1990’s.
Things have been going sour for the Church since the French and American revolutions, but the last 70 years — all in living memory for our new Pope — have been truly traumatic. Everything about the late 20th century could not have been better designed with deliberate intent to convince an astrologer that this Age of Aquarius stuff is for real. Everywhere in life mechanism and algorithm are displacing living flesh and feeling. In the language of astrology, influences of air (thought) replace those of water (feeling).
One can read a similar transformation into the passing of Ares (fire, passion, power) to Pisces (water, feeling, reception) in the first few centuries CE. In those days early Christians probably saw their beliefs validated as they really did displace the former pagan order. But today their heirs see themselves on the wrong end of a similar transition as humans and their institutions look away from feeling and emotion to a new focus on engineering, logistics, and machines.
I’m sure the current Church leaders are unpleasantly aware of the lack of mercy their ancestors showed toward the remnant representatives of the old order when that transition occurred. I suspect the Vatican II conference was the Church’s first overt attempt to confront the oncoming Aquarian age. The modernist reforms adapted in the early 1960’s would probably have been welcome much earlier but only in a world where heretics had powers like nuclear weapons and intercontinental bombers and the relatively new science of propaganda could such reforms be seriously considered.
And for a generation that was pretty much the Church’s reaction to the changing world. And it was a very major change; it’s hard to overstate what a big deal it was to have the liturgy in the ordinary person’s vernacular language instead of the mysterious and scholarly Latin. For nearly two millennia the Church had jealously hoarded all means of religious power for its own actors, requiring lay persons to go to priests, who had to go to bishops, who had to go to Cardinals, who had to go to the Pope before their words might reach God. Vatican II admitted that a direct communication might exist between even laypersons and the divine. While not going nearly as far as the Protestants did in that regard, it was seriously subversive to millennia of Church teaching.
But ultimately, it wasn’t enough.
As the world continued to move past the Church they started doing some very startling things, like apologizing to Galileo (hey, 400 years too late is better than never, right?), apologizing about the Inquisition, apologizing about being a little too cozy with the Nazis (that possibly being an early attempt to schmooze with the Aquarian thing, the Nazis being very Aquarian), and issuing a portrait of the “New Jesus” that was rather Native American looking (though still not looking, for some reason, very Jewish).
That brings us to 2001, when I wrote The Fish Goes Away for kuro5hin. And it’s gotten worse. Quite a bit worse, in fact.
Cardinal Ratzinger attempted to deal with the ongoing disconnect between the Church and reality by taking a firm stand. This posture ended up, perhaps most horribly for the Church elders, with an exploding pedophilia scandal reaching the Pope’s own inner circle. The requirement of clerical celibacy was originally created to prevent children of priests from inheriting what might otherwise be Church property, and justified in terms now hard to retract. That this might attract pedophiles and homosexuals has been a blowback the Church has always had the power to cover up in the past. But not so much today, and the Church has other vulnerabilities that loom, most particularly their relationship with the increasingly secular Europe within which their seat of power is located.
And so now we have Pope Francis, almost a man-child who walks beside the Popemobile as he lets an autistic child play in the seat reserved for his own divine posterior. There must be many people within the Church who thinks Francis brings something important to the position, perhaps even his predecessor who stepped down making room for his ascension. I think the thing Francis brings is a connection to the poor, who probably seem likely to be very numerous in the coming materialist-capitalist aeon. Francis will teach them to exist in a new world where they don’t have their own nation-state, fancy robes, or gold baubles to trumpet their faith. I think it is dawning on a lot of these guys that this is now their future, not just because of the forces of history any lay person can see but as their own divination system warned them.
Their oracle warns them that in the future Catholics worldwide may have to live like those in post-Henry VII England as a persecuted minority, hiding not only from the atheist and capitalist rulers of the new order but from those new and aggressive heretic offshots of their own faith such as the Mormons and Evangelicals. Pope Francis is a person who would face the knowledge of such a future with dignity, determination, compassion, and hope.
And this is what I think his colleagues are hoping to learn from him.
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