After JP2

I’m not a Catholic, but I certainly understand the importance of the Roman Catholic Church and the papacy to the life of world affairs. As John Paul II’s health has declined in recent months, I’ve begun wondering what his death will mean for us. His successor (who I’m desperately hoping decides to call himself Pope George Ringo, btw) will assume the reins at a moment of intense religious and political conflict, and will be in a position to exert substantial influence on these various crises.

My Communication, Technology & Christianity seminar has spent the semester examining the powerful and often conflicting ways in which Christian theology has shaped, driven, and/or stifled technological development through history, and as it turns out, we now find ourselves in the midst of the most heated face-off over technological innovation since the much-misunderstood Luddite Rebellions in England from 1811 to 1816, in which textile workers revolted against technological advances in their industry. That uprising bears a striking resemblance to our current situation, in fact. First, let’s understand what the term “Luddite really means:

While the term “Luddite” popularly connotes someone who is anti-technology, the actual rebellion was more critically aimed at technology which threatened the sanctity of culture (Rybczynski Taming the Tiger; Pynchon “Is it O.K. to Be a Luddite?”). Their reaction was not against progress – they gladly used the newest weaving technology available, and were “interested in innovation and technical improvements to make their work easier” – but were instead opposed to the dehumanizing dislocations of the industrial economy. (Smith)

The main body of our 21st Century Luddites are concerned not with cultural dislocations in their work industries, but with rapid advances in areas surrounding things like genetic research and reproductive technologies, and are largely organized around socially conservative church organizations and the neo-con political entities that feed on their energy and mobility.

The important thing to understand about the current moment is that history periodically sees extreme bursts of technical innovation – the tech curve will have proceeded at a moderate, but steady, more or less linear clip for an extended period of time, and then we’ll hit a critical mass and the curve will shoot upward for awhile. The onset of industrialism was one such instance, and the last couple of decades, in particular, represent another.

Now, change breeds resistance. Period. Humans have to adapt to whatever changes come along, and while we welcome the innovations that improve our conditions, even uniformly positive change results in a measure of stress. When X amount of change is spread out over a manageable period of time – call this Y – we adapt well enough that the culture can absorb normal levels of resistance without any major upheavals. However, when you cram 50X amount of change into 1/2 Y years, you also inherently compress the resistance that attends 50X innovation into 1/2 Y. The mathematically inclined among you can develop the formulae here if you like.

This is the moment in which we live, and it’s the socio-political context into which Pope George Ringo is about to step. Hyper-innovation. Hyper-resistance, stress, fear as our brains appear to outpace our souls.

A few years ago when England’s Prince Charles delivered the commemoration address at Harvard University’s 350th Anniversary celebration, he lamented that humanity’s intellect had advanced so tremendously while its ethical capacities had evolved so little. “In the headlong rush of mankind to conquer space,” he said, we must teach our children “that to live on this world is no easy matter without standards to live by” (quoted in Safire). In a 1996 speech devoted to the wisdom of genetic engineering, Prince Charles invoked Mary Shelley’s monster in opposing human intrusion into areas properly left to the Divine.

Given all this, I have asked some Catholics I know what they see as the prospects for the election of a progressively minded pope. The reactions have tended to be brief and direct: expect more of the same, if not even a swing in an even more conservative direction.

What I know of history and religious organizations explains how this might play out, even thought I see such a scenario as a Very Bad Thing Indeed®. Change is coming, and if history teaches us anything it’s that the forces of fundamentalism (and I use this term more broadly here to signify a general conservatism regarding the mission of Modernity) can occasionally slow the pace of Progress, but they can never win the battle. How long can they stem the tide, and how many casualties will be taken – these are the relevant questions. For this reason, it seems to me that the world would be best served by a pope who’s suited to lead the church through the stress of change, someone who can assert moral authority without resort to reactionary (and hence doomed) policies of denial. A leader who’s primary accomplishment is merely the piling up and reinforcement of anxiety will be remembered as someone who made things immeasurably worse for his followers.

Maybe there’s hope, though. A Friday USA Today article examined the “what next?” question and suggested that, despite the best guesses of the Catholics I talked to, Pope George Ringo (sorry, I just love the idea so much…) might turn out to be surprisingly progressive.

“History says that the opposite of what people are expecting is true,” said church historian Christopher Bellitto, academic editor at Paulist Press. “Whereas people are expecting a John Paul III or a John Paul II Jr., history says that the opposite will happen: There could be a reaction against the thrust of John Paul II’s papacy.

“Although the overwhelming majority of cardinals owe their red hats to John Paul II, they may be looking for a change,” he said. “There is an expression in Rome that goes, ‘There is nothing deader than a dead pope.’ “

We’ll see how the College of Cardinals is thinking in a couple weeks, I guess. Their choice, even if he turns out to be a brilliant, charismatic voice for change, won’t singlehandedly set our age of conflict to rest – he may rule over a billion Catholics, but his influence over American non-denominationalists (many of whom have been taught that Catholics are going to Hell anyway) will be indirect and incremental at best.

But it would be a helpful step.

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2 comments

  1. I hope you’re right that a new pope will take the Church in a new liberalizing direction. However, as one of your quotes leads into, John Paul II appointed about 90% of the Cardinals that will select his successor — and he chose people with similar views as himself. Maybe they’ll surprise us all, but I think we’ll see more of the same (especially with right-to-die and birth control issues being so forefront right now, and the great popularity of JP2). Old men tend to be stubborn and set in their ways, and liberal popes are very rare. John XXIII (I think that’s the number) was, relatively speaking, very liberal and chosen only because he was old and sick at the time and it was assumed he wouldn’t last the year, offering the Cardinals a little more space to select a better successor. He ended up surviving much longer and presided over Vatican II, a major liberalization of the Church.
    That was a fluke, I wouldn’t get your hopes up.

  2. This is what that USA Today article talks about – there have been several cases of all the cardinals being appointed by one pope and then going the other way. Fingers crossed, eh?

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