Saturday, July 9, 2011

New York Times Editor Reviews Bad Evil Popes Book

Update- I have added thoughts to why the Church has these disagreeable bad people in it at times at the bottom or "Is the Church like the Post Office".

One could question if there is a need for another "Bad Popes" book but Catholic Church fan (sarcasm) Bill Keller executive editor of the New York Times thinks it deserves attention as he does a book review on it. I actually think the market might be better served by a "bad" Leaders of the Protestant Reformation book but that might not be that sexy in sales.

Keller makes a rather bold statement in his review:
"The popes who achieved greatness, however, were outnumbered by the corrupt, the inept, the venal, the lecherous, the ruthless, the mediocre and those who didn’t last long enough to make a mark. "

Really? I am not sure if that's Keller belief or the book's author, or both but that is a rather sweeping and I think very false statement.

As any Catholic convert can tell you one is confronted by the few "bad" Popes issue and one often has to deal with the issue in apologetic. So been there done that and therefore I doubt I will be buying this book. However from what I can tell it suffers from some major bias and defects from the quotes that are given such as:

.......By the time we reach the 20th century, about 420 pages in, our expectations are not high. We get a disheartening chapter on Pius XI and Pius XII, whose fear of Communism (along with the church’s long streak of anti-Semitism) made them compliant enablers of Mussolini, Hitler and Franco. Pius XI, in Norwich’s view, redeemed himself by his belated but unflinching hostility to the Fascists and Nazis. But his indictment of Pius XII — who resisted every entreaty to speak out against mass murder, even as the trucks were transporting the Jews of Rome to Auschwitz — is compact, evenhanded and devastating........

Piux the XII was of course lauded at one times in editorial pages of the New York Times, then slammed and now hardly given any credit as the rehabilitation of his reputation is now occurring.

I would love to see how "evenhanded" this account is in the book. It's not clear to me if the author or indeed Mr Keller have thought through what would have happened if Pope Pius XII had decided to go the martyr route. One suspects the thousands of Jews that were hidden in the Vatican, on the Papal estate where Jewish women were giving birth in Pius XII bedroom and in numerous Catholic properties around Rome are rather glad that the Pope did not decide to go out in a flame of glory .

Update- The whole bad Popes thing got me think of a favorite post of mine that Rod Dreher did

In taking stock of Chesterton's Catholic apologetics, though, Gopnik finds the great man to have been not much more than a hack. Again, Gopnik:

In these books, Chesterton becomes a Pangloss of the parish; anything Roman is right. It is hard to credit that even a convinced Catholic can feel equally strongly about St. Francis's intuitive mysticism and St. Thomas's pedantic religiosity, as Chesterton seems to. His writing suffers from conversion sickness. Converts tend to see the faith they were raised in as an exasperatingly makeshift and jury-rigged system: Anglican converts of Catholicism are relived not to have to defend Henry VIII's divorces; Jewish converts to Christianity are relieved to get out from under the weight of all those strange Levitical laws on animal hooves. The newly adopted faith, they imagine, is a shining, perfectly balanced system, an intricately worked clock where the cosmos turns to tell the time and the cuckoo comes out singing every Sunday. An outsider sees the Church as a dreamy compound of incense and impossibility, and, overglamorizing its pretensions, underrates its adaptability.

A Frenchman or an Italian, even a devout one, can see the Catholic Church as a normally bureaucratic human institution, the way patriotic Americans see the post office, recognizing the frailty and even the occasional psychosis of its employees without doubting its necessity or its ability to deliver the message. Chesterton writing about the Church is like someone who has just made his first trip to the post office. Look, it delivers letters for the tiny price of a stamp! You write an address on a label, and they will send it anywhere, literally anywhere you like, across a continent and an ocean, in any weather! The fact that the post office attracts time-servers, or has produced an occasional gun massacre, is only proof of the mystical enthusiasm that the post office alone provides! Glorifying the postman beyond what the postman can bear is what you do only if you're new to mail.

Boy, does this feel familiar to me, and I can see now (from my own experience) why converts tend to wear on cradle believers (and vice versa: little exasperates a convert more than a cradle believer's apparent inability to get excited about the Amazing Wonderful Church). Again, I can't discern the justice of Gopnik's judgment re: Chesterton's writing, because I've never read enough of his apologetics to know. But this feels right to me. It also gives me insight into why I don't have and never had that convert's glow about Orthodoxy. I didn't believe when I left it that Catholicism was a jury-rigged makeshift system, nor did I believe that Orthodoxy was a uniquely fabulous thing. I'm glad not to have those illusions about either faith, but it does take some of the romance out of the thing.

Well let me say I don't go that far. I like Chesterton a great deal and the Church is a tad more than the Post Office. It is the Bride of Christ warts and all. However that Italian view has some merit too it and a viewpoint I take a tad when things go off the rails.


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