synthetic zero

January 25th, 2009

Words cannot express the anger I feel about this story:

Pope Benedict XVI, reaching out to the far-right of the Roman Catholic Church, revoked the excommunications of four schismatic bishops on Saturday, including one whose comments denying the Holocaust have provoked outrage.

You know, I have great respect for the contemplative tradition in most religions, and the Catholic Church is no exception; they’ve produced or been associated with great mystics, both historically and recently, including the wonderful Thomas Merton, the keenly insightful and brilliant Simone Weil, and many others in their long history. But one has to wonder, at times, if this is because of or in spite of the Church itself. There are so many things wrong with the Catholic Church as an institution that it’s hard to know where to begin; perusing the Vatican website is an exercise in reading some of the worst, most ill-informed, and clueless theological and spiritual writings ever conceived by man. Time and again they replace true contemplative insight (which they supposedly revere in saints such as Teresa of Avila, though I can only conclude the vast majority of the officials in the Church have no idea, literally no concept whatsoever, what many of the saints they supposedly revere experienced or understood) with theology which substitutes muddled dogmatic thinking and outright horrific error for true contemplative insight. The inference one can draw from this is they believe that following rules and subscribing to “beliefs” without any basis can be a stand in for meditation, contemplation, and surrender, something which is not only wrong but horribly misguided and harmful to the world. Of course, they’re not alone among the world religions in making this mistake, but they have a certain arrogance, a false majesty projected by their feudal institutions and hierarchy, all the way up to the office of the Pope, which has all sorts of royal pomp surrounding it, even though the current occupant of that chair is perhaps one of the worst in a long time, though the office has a famously dark past, people who have either presided over or actively encouraged corruption. As an institution, its failings have not, as we all know, only been restricted to history, but they’ve continued even into modern times.

I was discussing all of this with a friend of mine a while ago, and she pointed out that, “at least they excommunicated the Holocaust denier” — and I had to give her that. Though the Church as an institution (and note that I am describing the acts of the institution, not the religion per se, though the religion makes great efforts to imply the two are one and the same, which is itself a crime) has had a very dark ancient as well as recent past, there have been positive things too — in addition to many blameless saints and mystics, who I referenced above, there were institutional advances, such as Vatican II. But with this move, Ratzinger has made a gesture which symbolically validates not only that Holocaust denier (in itself the worst aspect of this move) but the worst aspects of intolerance and dogma.

Dogma is the bane of spiritual life. It is not only a risk to spirituality and contemplation in any religion — it is the origin of religious and ethnic hatred, wars, oppression, and death. Sure, one has to live with a certain degree of dogma in any culture and society — it’s a natural and inevitable response, an attempt to replace the mystery and majesty of the universe with something people can grasp more concretely: bureaucracy. I don’t begrudge those who decide they must, for their own reasons, subscribe to some sort of dogma, but the arrogance of someone like Ratzinger, who is clearly someone who lacks any deep spiritual insight whatever, in not only promoting but elevating through the dint of his office, under the color of authority and the gilded majesty of the papal seat, in pushing for the rehabilitation of the least spiritually aware, the most damaging ideas, including but not limited to Holocaust denial… it’s simply disgusting. There are few things I get truly angry about, but abuse of authority is one of them. Ratzinger exhibits an unearned contempt for true understanding, he is using the position of his office to promote a narrow, rigid, and impoverished spirituality, to give it legitimacy; yet he has not earned the right. In Buddhism ignorance is a sin, but even worse is ignorance masquerading as authority and spread out over the world under its rubric … it’s hard to imagine a worse crime in terms of its long-term negative historical impact.

Meanwhile … in other awful news, the BBC has decided not to broadcast a charity appeal from notoriously controversial organizations such as Save the Children, Oxfam, and the Red Cross to aid Gaza. It’s hard to fathom such a bizarre and unconscionable refusal; they claim it is to preserve their “appearance of impartiality,” as though helping international aid organizations to relieve civilian suffering in Gaza is anything but a simple matter of human compassion. It’s one thing to want to be even-handed, but is the BBC so afraid of being critical, even indirectly, of Israel, that they cannot bring themselves to allow non-political aid organizations to advertise for help to support victims who no one, not even Israel’s supporters in this war, would argue are at fault for their own suffering?

As a meta comment: I was thinking a bit about the twin nature of my outrage for the day … on the one hand, outraged that a Holocaust denier, among others, was being rehabilitated by one of the most venal Popes in decades, if not centuries, and on the other, outraged that the BBC would attempt to thwart humanitarian organizations from helping victims of a military onslaught by Israel. My outrage is on both sides of the political divide when it comes to Israel and Jewish history, at least, but then again I have always found that the things I find the most disgusting, the most horrific, can be found on every side of nearly every political, ethinic, cultural, and religious boundary. Victims and the victimized can be found everywhere, committed by every group. Yet people tend to be rather one-sided in their ethical concern; they may rage against the “enemy” but not themselves, or sometimes vice-versa; but why not resist, loudly and strongly, crimes whether they’re committed by your side or the other side … crimes are crimes regardless of what side you’re on. I don’t believe, that at any given point in history, of course, that crimes are necessarily equally distributed — integrated over the long haul, however, one can find even the most virtuous nations, organizations, and individuals committing acts of thoughtlessness, oppression, all the way up to genocide and worse, and we, as human beings, ought to be prepared to see it in humans, including ourselves, regardless of where they happen to be on one side or the other of a geographical, political, ethnic, or religious boundary.

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