A Pope Is a Pope Is a Pope

Anyone with a modicum of liberal inclination in the media is now all worked up over the selection of Joseph Ratzinger as the new Pope Benedict XVI. Oddly, many of the same people who were rightly offended by the orgiastic news coverage that followed John Paul II's death are the ones now devoting their energies to slamming his successor -- a choice that unfortunately only reaffirms the already inflated assumptions of the importance of the papacy.

The source of much of this indignation is, of course, Ratzinger's long and well-documented support of conservative positions on homosexuality, contraception, abortion, and gender equality. That the criticism of his track record is well-earned does not, however, make it any less misguided. And here's why: it's based on a vastly exaggerated assessment of the papacy's power. John Paul II -- or the newly dubbed "rock star" pope -- was neither able to stop the war in Iraq nor the plummeting birth rates in his own backyard. Italy has the lowest birth rate in the EU, and not because its women practice the rhythm method.

In the past, liberals have been fond of attacking both the Church and its more visible emissaries -- be it the Pope himself or Mother Teresa -- of discouraging the use of birth control in countries that need it most, such as Mexico or India. Yet high population rates are more an effect of poverty and gender inequality than religious dogma. Change the socioeconomic equation, and cultural attitudes will inevitably follow -- with or without the Pope's blessing.

While the appointment of a liberal pope may well have been a cause for celebration, the victory would have been mostly symbolic. It is unlikely that the happy event would have led to a spectacular change in attitudes among less affluent Catholic nations in Africa, Asia, or Latin America. On the flip side, the winds of change are already blowing in some of these countries despite the ideological rigidity of the Catholic Church. As Kelly Hearn reports on AlterNet, in countries such as Brazil and Argentina, papal conservatism will likely do little to stem the popular tide in favor of more liberal policies on abortion and contraception. In the end it will be Lula and his supporters, not Pope Benedict XVI, who determines whether Brazilian women can choose to have a safe and legal abortion.

Arguments about the relationship between religious dogma and cultural attitudes at least include some measure of veracity. Sidney Blumenthal's rant on Salon blaming Ratzinger for George Bush's second term, however, relies almost entirely on hypothesis rather than fact -- especially since it is based on the peculiar notion that the same American Catholics who have no problem ignoring the Church on matters of fornication or birth control would somehow jump to attention when it comes time to pick their president. While it's true that Bush increased his support among Catholics by six points in 2004, he also improved his standing with almost every demographic since 2000. Why assume that the reasons for this spike among Catholics is any different than, say, the factors -- fear, terrorism, etc. -- that gave Bush a bigger share of the married women's vote? How can Blumenthal so confidently blame it on one strongly-worded directive from Ratzinger, when a recent survey clearly indicates that 72 percent of American Catholics prefer to rely on their conscience rather than the pope to make their decisions?

The underlying reasons for this leap of logic -- and more broadly, liberal rage at Ratzinger -- can be found in the same article's breathless teaser: "Cardinal Ratzinger handed Bush the presidency by tipping the Catholic vote. Can American democracy survive their shared medieval vision?" Quick, run for the hills! The vast right-wing conspiracy has now gone global. Ever since Bush's ascendance to the White House, the liberal obsession with the Christian right has grown in leaps and bounds -- so much so that it now looms large in our imagination as a gargantuan monster of comic book proportions, intent on swallowing us whole. This isn't to say that our fears are baseless, but in refusing to recognize the religious right for what it is -- a formidable, well-organized and -funded political force -- we run the risk of substituting hysteria for strategy, and therefore impotent wrath for effective action.

Effective action in turn requires paying more attention to the complexity of religious tradition and the diversity of its adherents. The Terry Schiavo debacle is instructive not in revealing the extremism of religious conservatives but rather the important differences within them. Contrary to our image of Christian conservatives as single-minded zealots, evangelicals were split right down the middle over the government's role in making life and death decisions for its citizens.

Even the latest salvo from right-wing groups, "Justice Sunday," is becoming controversial among Christians -- and not just progressive ones at that. On April 24, the unholy alliance of Bill Frist and the Family Research Council plans to telecast what promises to be a blistering attack on God-loathing liberals that expediently ties wild-eyed allegations of "judicial activism" to that infernal weapon of Satan, the filibuster. But before we go running off our mouth about crazy fundamentalists, it's worth noting a small news item that has received little attention. According to the AP state wire, Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor is under fire for taking on Frist and his religious buddies. A self-professed evangelical Democrat, Pryor slammed his fellow believers for their political offensive: "We have a responsibility as Christians to be the salt and the light and make rhetoric, not be so vitriolic and quite so divisive. These folks are entitled to their political views, but it's presumptuous for them to think they represent all Christians in America, or even all evangelical Christians."

And there is at least some evidence that Pryor is right when it comes to his own state. The same news report notes that the conservative Arkansas Family Council refused to sign its name to a planned attack ad aimed at Pryor and the other Democratic senator from Arkansas, Blanche Lincoln because it was "too confrontational." Like the rest of America, even evangelicals who support Frist's line think it's time tone down the rhetoric. That's good news for all of us who think a national dialogue will bring us closer to our goals than agonizing over the real and imagined sins of an old man in the Vatican.

So instead of getting our bile up, let's focus on the real news at hand: both the conservative wing of the Catholic Church and the right-wing Republicans are far more reactionary and unyielding than their own constituencies. The appointment of Joseph Ratzinger is a matter of concern not for liberals but the cardinals at the Vatican who have revealed themselves to be hopelessly out of touch with their own flock. The new pope isn't dangerous; he is just dangerously close to becoming irrelevant if he can't change with the times.

There's every reason to hope that the same is true of the Republican leadership. Be it on Schiavo or now with Justice Sunday, the extremist tactics favored by the Republicans may in the end alienate them from the very people they claim to serve. And it can't get better than that.

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