Vatican 1, Beatles 0: Why the Church still wins after forgiving John Lennon

Vatican 1, Beatles 0: Why the Church still wins after forgiving John Lennon

Why does the Catholic Church repeatedly get itself into trouble by issuing official condemnations on pop culture? Isn’t it just digging itself deeper and deeper into a hole of cultural irrelevance?

It took the Vatican 522 years to admit “mea culpa” on the Spanish Inquisition, and 359 years to come around to admitting Galileo was right about the whole Sun and Earth thing. However, it looks like the Church has tightened up its “oops, we’re an ancient bureaucracy and take forever to admit we were wrong” process by forgiving John Lennon only 42 years after his “more popular than Jesus” comment sparked outrage among Christians.

Lennon’s absolution should give hope to other pop culture icons that have been on the receiving end of the Church’s wrath in recent years, including Sinead O’Connor (tore up picture of the Pope on SNL) and Dan Brown (author of The Da Vinci Code).

But let’s stop and Overthink ™ this for a second. Why does the Catholic Church repeatedly get itself into trouble by issuing official condemnations on pop culture? Is the Church just digging itself deeper and deeper into a hole of cultural irrelevance?

Make the sign of the cross and genuflect before reading on.

Thou Shalt Not Overthink

Any conversation on this topic inevitably goes back to the supposed list of Banned Books that the Church maintains. First, to set the record straight:

  • Yes, the Church did maintain a list of Banned Books (the Index Liborum Prohibitorum, for the Latin scholars out there). The first version was issued in 1559.
  • Yes, it did contain notable works of the Western Canon by Sartre, Rousseau, Voltaire, Bacon, Milton, Locke…you get the point; the list was ridiculous by modern standards.
  • The list was abolished in 1966 by Pope Paul VI. Abolished, as in, “suppressed and no longer enforceable under canonical law.

Some of the reasons were practical: enforcement of such a list might have been easy in the 16th century, when the total volume of printed books was relatively small, but impossible in the age of cheap and widespread printing (to say nothing of the Internet. Can the Vatican please condemn MySpace? The whole damn thing? Kai thx). Others were more philosophical and in line with the Church’s gradual (yet painfully slow) modernization process. Believe it or not, the Church has made efforts to reverse some of its anti-intellectual practices beyond issuing long overdue apologies to folks like Galileo. The Vatican has its own Observatory, and no, they’re not looking for cherubim and seraphim with their telescopes. Catholic universities routinely teach from books that were on the list. And the Vatican has consistenly defended Darwinian evolution in the face of fundamentalist Christian efforts to spread creationist beliefs.

So we’re all agreed that the church doesn’t have a list of banned books anymore and, at least in some areas of science, is in step with the modern world. But what about…all that other stuff? John Lennon, Sinead O’Connor, and The Da Vinci Code are only a few examples of targets of thunderbolt condemnations from the Holy See in the late 20th/early 21st century. The Last Temptation of Christ, The Golden Compass, Beverly Hills Chihuahua (okay, maybe not, but I’m sure if the Pope saw it, he found it unpleasing to God), and numerous other works have all gotten the Vatican Condemnation treatment recently. In other words, the Church isn’t fully out of the “Thou Shalt Not Read/See/Listen” proclamation business.

To understand this behavior, first we need to understand what kinds of cultural works get the Vatican seal of disapproval. Not everything which depicts distasteful or morally objectionable content does. Superbad (teen sex)? Saw I, II, III, IV (sadistic torture)? Get Rich or Die Trying (where do I start…)? Nary a peep from Rome. The Vatican is smarter than that. Though the Church routinely and vocally states its positions on a variety of moral issues, it saves its pop culture condemnation ammo for what it perceives as the biggest threats: those that attack the foundations of the Church’s authority.

The Power of Pop Culture Compels You

His Action Figure Holiness.

His Action Figure Holiness.

Remember that the Catholic Church regards itself as Christ’s one true representative institution on Earth because it can trace its line of Popes back to Peter and Jesus H. Christ himself: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). So upon this rock the Church was indeed built, and in spite of thousands of years of missteps, popes that were bad dudes, and policies that would be considered war crimes today, this concept still holds very strong in the Church’s perception of itself. In other words, the Church cares very much about its back story, and anything that undermines this back story, even just a little bit, could plant millions of seeds of doubt into the minds of Catholics who will start questioning the Church’s authority on issues one by one until there’s nothing to believe in anymore.

The Da Vinci Code and The Last Temptation of Christ are all the most direct examples of these sorts of threats. Both challenge the validity of the Church’s origin story: Christ’s celibacy, divinity, etc. Other targets of the Vatican’s wrath are less direct attacks, yet still meet two important thresholds. The first is undermining central tenants (as described above), the second is notoriety. One guy standing on a street corner passing out literature isn’t going to plant those millions of seeds of doubt. Only the popular culture has that sort of power.

Let’s go back to two of the other examples cited above and examine them through these criteria:

  • Sinead O’Connor: You can’t tear up a picture of the Pope. The Pope is Jesus’ successor and representative on Earth. If you tear up the Pope’s picture, you’re tearing up the Church, and if you’re tearing up the Church, you’re tearing up Jesus. And if you’re tearing up Jesus…you know where this is going (specifically, to a special circle of hell reserved for heretics). As for notoriety, SNL has both an audience and cultural cachet large enough to get on the Vatican’s radar. Condemn this? No-brainer on the Vatican’s part.
  • The Golden Compass: though the movie contain none of the direct attacks on the Church that the books (The Northern Lights) did, the Magisterium of the movie has all of the faults that most modern critics of the Church like to point out: it demands total obedience and unwavering faith in order to preserve its own authority and societal influence. The A-list actors (Daniel Craig, Nicole Kidman, Ian McKellan, etc.) gave the movie more than enough pop culture weight for the Vatican to take notice, in spite of its poor box officer performance (the Vatican newspaper even called its poor box office receipts “consoling.” Holy Schadenfreude, Batman!).

Imagine There’s No Heaven (for those who deny Jesus)

Finally, we come back to John Lennon and his “more popular than Jesus” comment. What was it exactly that he said that caused 42 years of unforgiven condemnation?

Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. We’re more popular than Jesus now…I don’t know which will go first, rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right, but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.

I keedeeng!!!

I keedeeng!!!

Lennon later said his words were meant in jest, and that he’s “one of Christ’s biggest fans,” but the damage was done when that comment spread throughout all of Christendom. Rock ‘n’ roll might outlast the Church? Remember that in 1966, rock ‘n’ roll had been in existence for about 10-15 years, while the church was 1,966 years strong and counting. Also remember that The Beatles in 1966 commanded a cult of personality that any religious group would have been rightly jealous of.

So put yourself in the 1966 Vatican for a moment.  You can even imagine yourself wearing robes and a pointy hat, if you’d like. Are you there? Good. You’re charged with maintaining the Church’s influence over its flock, which has held strong for thousands of years. Recent years have brought about massive cultural change which has caused many to start questioning the Church’s authority, but mostly through pop culture which only indirectly poses a threat to the Church via its real or supposed loose moral standards. Now along come The Beatles. You’re worried because The Beatles command the sort of unwavering loyalty and obsession that the Church used to, before this whole “modernity” thing started to catch on. The center of cultural power has made a significant shift away from Rome towards the record players and TVs in living rooms around the world. If that weren’t bad enough, those boys from Liverpool just claimed that they were more popular than Jesus and that rock would outlive the Catholic Church! This is a serious threat! Bring out the Vatican Condemnation Issuer, before the Beatles start their own Church!

Okay, take off the robes and the pointy hat now. It’s 2006, not 1966. The Church has finally come around to forgiving John Lennon, but only because the threat has passed. The Beatles still have plenty of fans, but no longer do they command the cultish devotion that they used to. But in 2006, though, it seemed like Dan Brown did, and the Church correspondingly turned its attention to him. Remember when every time you rode an airplane, it seemed like every single passenger was reading The Da Vinci Code? Shouldn’t all of those passengers be reading the Bible instead? The Da Vinci Code was undoubtedly a cultural phenomenon. It was threatening to get bigger than Jesus. Time to condemn.

Conclusion: Got To Get Christ Into My Life

The Church will likely continue to condemn pop culture works that it deems both threatening to its authority and well known enough to cause damage on a wide scale. Why is that? Doesn’t it realize that it’s digging itself deeper into a hole of cultural irrelevance?

The answer? No, it’s not digging itself deeper into a hole of cultural irrelevance; in fact, it’s reinforcing its cultural relevance by issuing these condemnations. When the Vatican condemns, people listen. Most dismiss it, but plenty of orthodox Catholics take it seriously, and such condemnations reinforce for them the Church’s absolute moral authority and the strength it brings to the fight against modern cultural evils. The Church probably knows it’s alienating its moderate-liberal members a little bit (or a lot) when it condemns a work of pop culture, but the Church sees this as win-win. To keep the moderates/liberals in line, the Church aims to reinforce its authority and remind moderates that the parts of the faith they hold onto have seriously deep roots. Assuming they still consider themselves practicing Catholics, they’re already holding internally conflicting views of the church’s teachings and authority. They can simultaneously scoff at the condemnation of The Da Vinci Code while appreciate why the Church needs to combat what it sees as heresy in the popular culture. The orthodoxy needs to be reassured that the Church still takes itself seriously. Win-win.

Back to the Vatican apology for John Lennon: how does this fit into the strategy outlined above? Doesn’t the backtracking go against the “defend the authority” rule? A little but, but more importantly, the Vatican knew it had won this battle against Lennon. The Church has survived the following 40 years–not without serious and near debilitating crises, but it’s still here and will be for the foreseeable future. But rock music? I have my doubts:

Hannah Montana: if she’s not bigger than Jesus now, she soon will be.

[The Author is in fact a practicing moderate/liberal Catholic, in case there was any doubt.]

29 Comments on “Vatican 1, Beatles 0: Why the Church still wins after forgiving John Lennon”

  1. fenzel #

    Psh – Mr. Lee, don’t you know that it is unacceptable in bourgeoise discourse to say or write anything that so much as lends nuance to mainstream contempt for the Catholic Church?

    Go back and rewrite this with less substantive analysis and more jokes about the Pope looking like Emperor Palpatine and maybe the Internentsia will deign to grace it with their presence.


  2. lee OTI Staff #

    Sigh. Fenzel, you’re right. Maybe I should also include some LOLPopez for good measure.



  3. fenzel #

    I like John Lennon. He’s alright. But Beatles fans are thick and ordinary.


  4. Gab #

    Pet Peeve of mine: “The first is undermining central tenants (as described above)…” You meant “tenets” right? AHEM. Sorry, it drives me nuts when I see “tenants” instead of “tenets”- the professors in my politics department went ape-shit whenever they graded a paper with this mistake; and it happened to them a lot because our program was so theory-based (meaning lots of opportunity for using the word “tenet” when describing the theories being used in a paper or discussion).

    Clarification: _The Golden Compass_ is the North American title for _The Northern Lights_, the first book in the _His Dark Materials_ series by Phillip Pullman. The Vatican didn’t have to directly go after the books if it went after the movie, which I find really interesting, since the movie was toned down as compared to the books: Hell (SPOILER!), they literally KILL “God” in the third book. But by attacking the movie and alluding to “Pullman’s world” when doing so, the Vatican opened the door for more devout Christians, Catholic or not, to directly assault Pullman’s novels and bring out their “attacks” on God and religion. This is both similar and different from how it attacked J.K. Rowling. Similar in that it took the movie(s) for it to be brought up by the Church because the movies brought the books to a whole new level in the hierarchy of the pop culture; but different in that the movie(s) led to direct condemnation of the books themselves, not just Rowling’s “world.” I find the latter intriguing, since there were already tons of right-wing Christian groups condemning Harry as the Anti-Christ and saying the books promoted witchcraft and “Christmas without Jesus” and the like well before the movie series was started up; so it makes me wonder why this difference occurred, and I think it probably has to do with how the _Harry Potter_ series is still astronomically more popular than _His Dark Materials_, so its influence is much greater.

    If I lived in a bigger town with more and better options, I’d probably be “a practicing moderate/liberal Catholic,” too. As it stands, the whopping three options at my current disposal are all rather unfriendly and unimpressive, and they’re also not as progressive as the one I went to in Vegas (while still practicing). Anyhoo, those internal conflicts are exactly why the Church is able to move on and retain legitimacy and authority: they enable it to be progressive and embrace things like science and moralities declared heretical in the past. As with any political party or regime, it is the ones thinking outside the box that eventually bring change, so the moderate/liberal Catholics consistently bring the Church out of the age of its origins and into a (more) modern era. The combination of their loyalty to and scrutiny of the Church are why it has lasted so long.


  5. lee OTI Staff #

    Oy. Mea cupla. Tenets it is. (Yiddish and Latin together? talk about heresy!)

    By the way, I should have mentioned that this article is concerned mostly with pop culture denunciations that come straight from the Vatican, not just from any random Catholic Church pulpit. The distinction is an important one, since Vatican condemnations carry a bit more weight than Fr. O’Mally in St. Louis.

    It should also be noted that many bishops and priests have sharply criticized Obama, Catholics who voted for him, and Catholic politicians who supported him (Joe Biden, e.g.), saying that they’re putting their souls at risk and shouldn’t receive communion, etc. However, the Pope himself hasn’t gone down that route yet; instead, he sent early congratulatory word to the President Elect:


  6. fenzel #

    The Phillip Pullman situation is kind of atypical, because I think one thing that really irks people about these condemnations from the Vatican is that they seem to pick fights with random people who aren’t really trying to undermine the church’s authority or cause trouble, even when they’re offering alternative takes on religion.

    That’s not Phillip Pullman. Phillip Pullman has actively courted controversy and spoken about the fact that his books are deliberately anti-religion (specifically anti-Christianity and anti-Catholicism). He wishes the movies had been less whitewashed. He has absolutely no problem with being in a fight with the Vatican. In fact, it’s pretty much what he’s been going for over the years, somewhat to the chagrin of his publisher. This doesn’t make him a bad person at all, but it definitely puts his work “in play.” He’s not a civilian.

    Phillip Pullman neither needs nor wants anything resembling an apology from the Church. This is totally different from J.K. Rowling, who is basically just trying to do her own thing and gets dragged into these fights that are all about publicizing the religions and their stances and not about her books.

    The Church going after Rowling is like George Bush just criticizing some random African guy for not being American enough. The Church going after Pullman is like Bush going after Obama. It’s pretty much both their jobs, the other guy is fine with it, it’s what they want to do, and it’s all part of the game.

    Here’s one fun quotation from a Pullman interview that’s pretty recent and captures his style on the issue (and I found it in like ten seconds, he has lots of this out there):

    “But in fact my reaction to the word ‘spiritual’ is even a little more strongly felt than that; I even feel a slight revulsion. I’m thinking of those portraits of saints and martyrs by painters of the Baroque period and the Counter-Reformation: horrible grubby-looking old men with rotten teeth wearing dark dusty robes and gazing upwards with an expression of fanatical fervour, or beautiful young women in sumptuous clothes with wide eyes and parted lips gazing upwards with an expression of fanatical fervour, or martyrs having the flesh ripped from their bones as they gaze upwards with an expression of fanatical fervour – gazing at the Virgin Mary, or a vision of the Cross, or something else that’s hovering in the air just above them. And you know that what they’re seeing isn’t really there; that if you were there in front of them, you wouldn’t see the Virgin sitting on a little cloud six feet above the floor; all you’d see would be the rotten teeth or the sumptuous clothes or the torn flesh and the expression of fanatical fervour. They’re seeing things. They’re deluded, in fact.

    So the word ‘spiritual’, for me, has overtones that are entirely negative.”

    This doesn’t mean you should demonize the guy or even avoid the books or movie for one reason or another (except if they are awful, which may be the case for unrelated reasons involving Nicole Kidman and a CGI polar bear), but he wants to be part of this specific controversey more than John Lennon did, and certainly much more than J.K. Rowling has ever said she did. So I wouldn’t try to defend him too much against allegations of being anti-Christian or anti-Catholic. It’s like accusing the Yankees of being anti-Red Sox.

    And on the bishops, yeah, JP IIs interests lined up with those of Reagan pretty closely on foreign issues specifically related to Eastern Europe, but generally speaking, the Vatican and the GOP disagree on a lot of stuff (war, diplomacy, death penalty, guns, immigration, unfettered private enterprise, social welfare – pretty much everything other than marriage and abortion).

    American bishops who go really hard for the GOP aren’t following the Pope, they’re just being political opportunists. Which is not the end of the world, because a bishopric has always been a form of political office.

    But in a time when the Church is totally reeling from a PR perspective and is losing people, influence and resources in America, it’s pretty dumb to just start kicking people out left and right.

    I mean, sure, these bishops who demonize Democrats more than they tend their flocks are bad people, but more importantly, they’re terrible managers. And right now, the Church is shorter on competent management than it is on moral benevolence (although both are always scarcer than is ideal).


  7. stokes OTI Staff #

    The Obama metaphor doesn’t work, unless you think that Obama self-identifies as an enemy of America. Calling Obama anti-American is like calling C.S. Lewis anti-Christian. He’s not an innocent bystander, true, but it’s still kind of a dick move, since everyone is playing for the same team.

    Pullman is more like, say, Kim Jong Il. Except instead of having access to nukes, he has access to an even greater weapon: children’s minds!


  8. fenzel #

    Another interesting Pullman quote from the same interview, in case there’s any doubt in your mine that Pullman is specifically anti-Catholic much more than he is specifically anti-Christian, which he is in turn much more than he is anti-religious.

    “As for Narnia – I’ve expressed my detestation for that series on several occasions and at length, so I won’t say very much about it here, except to note something that some commentators miss when lumping Lewis and Tolkien together, which is this: that Tolkien was a Catholic, for whom the basic issues of life were not in question, because the Church had all the answers. So nowhere in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is there a moment’s doubt about those big questions. No-one is in any doubt about what’s good or bad; everyone knows where the good is, and what to do about the bad. Enormous as it is, TLOTR is consequently trivial. Narnia, on the other hand, is the work of a Protestant – and an Ulster Protestant at that, for whom the individual interaction with the Bible and with God was a matter of daily struggle and endless moral questioning. That’s the Protestant tradition. So in Narnia the big questions are urgent and compelling and vital: is there a God? Who is it? How can I recognise him? What must I do to be good? I profoundly disagree with the answers that Lewis offers – in fact, as I say, I detest them – but Narnia is a work of serious religious engagement in a way that TLOTR could never be.

    I leave it to others to say whether, or in what ways, HDM resembles or doesn’t resemble HP or Narnia or TLOTR.”

    I mean, I hate to just use ad hominem attacks, but anyone who thinks that the Chronicles of Narnia are more sophisticated than the Lord of the Rings in addressing big questions of religion and ethics is a Hell of a lot more deluded than the figure in any 17th century work of sculpture.

    He looks at the Lord of the Rings, which has a really complex and somewhat obscure cosmology and a lot of figures who stand in for moral and spirital authority in complex relationships with one another, and then he looks at Narnia, where God is literally a talking lion, and his response is – “In the Lord of the Rings, all religious questions are settled, but in Narnia, the question of ‘Who is God?’ is compelling and vital.”

    Mmaybe he means a lion is compelling and vital in the sense that it is an animal that can compel people by roaring at them and clawing at them and making people GET IN THE CAR!!, but I mean, come on. COME ON.

    And also, Tolkien and Lewis were both professors at Oxford at the same time, as well as being close personal friends. I sincerely, sincerely doubt that being a mackerel snapper so hamstrung Tolkien’s perspective that he’d be incapable of considering the things that his colleague and buddy spent his much of life’s work talking about borders on racism.

    Pullman is a hack pundit with a chip on his shoulder. He is driven by his own personal perspective, which only remains useful insofar as much as it entertains. He neither requires nor deserves intellectual defense from pretty much anybody.


  9. fenzel #

    @stokes – The point isn’t whether or not Obama self-identifies as anti-American. Bush could call him a Martian; it doesn’t matter (or, say, a Muslim terrorist). The point is whether there’s an implicit understanding between the GOP and the Republicans that both sides are going to engage in attack politics, that neither of them are aspiring to the truth, at least in reference to each other.

    Ethically, I think we owe private citizens (and non-citizens) a certain minimum of honesty and civility that is far greater than the honesty and civility that politicians either ideally or pratically offer each other during electoral campaigns.

    As much as we wish politicians could be honest (or pretend that the people on our side are honest and everyone else are dirty liars), political campaigning remains a different sort of discourse from just talking to each other, and part of what makes it permissable at all is that the people involved share certain expectations, among them the perhaps unfortunate reality that, as much as they’d like to treat each other like human beings, it just plain doesn’t work in this instance, so they’re going to try not to take it personally.

    While the Catholic Church ought to aspire to a greater degree of truth than your average politician, especially when dealing with private citizens, when you’re dealing with people like Phillip Pullman who are writing propoganda and looking to pick fights, the level of discourse changes, the mutual understanding (this isn’t personal, it’s just business) steps in, and it becomes less ethically problematic to launch attacks against one another.

    When people impune the Catholic Church for doing this, there’s a certain inherent hypocrisy that mirrors Catholic hyopocrisy in the same intance – “You should behave much, much better than average people, because that is the unrealistic expectation you set up for yourself in regards to others.”

    On the church’s side, the hypocrisy is claiming infallibility (which is a 19th-20th century perversion of thousands of years of wisdom and needs to be stricken from the record) and then engaging in a normal sort of discourse in line with rules that everyone else generally abides by and accepts. On the critic’s side, it’s holding the church accountable to a moral high ground at the same time that you deny that moral high ground exists.

    For example, there are lots of organizations around in the 1400s that did far worse things than the Spanish Inquisition. Few of them are ever held to account for them – because the Catholic Church is held to a higher standard. And in a certain context, that standard makes sense. If you think the Catholic Church is a morally elevated institution, the Spanish Inquisition is really really bad.

    If you don’t think of the Catholic Church as a morally elevated instition, it’s pretty much just average and doesn’t deserve special condemnation – certainly not against the actions of other contemporary institions that were far more heinous in the destruction of human life and liberty, such as, say “The Spanish Monarchy,” “The Hongwu Emperor of the Ming Dynasty,” “The Grand Duchy of Moscow,” “England,” or “Pretty much anybody during the time period who blundered through the bloody business of running a country.”

    This doesn’t excuse the Church’s actions, but it does help get to the heart of the matter – which is that people are in constant intellectual combat with each other over a whole lot of issues contemporary and historic, and while it is good and courteous thing to give people the benefit of the doubt, we often underestimate the degree of tacet endorsement we all must give to the notion of multiple discursive contexts in order to live as we do and believe the things we believe.


  10. fenzel #

    Obviously I mean the GOP and the Democrats, not the GOP and the Republicans. The GOP and the Republicans ought to have a great many implicit understandings :-)


  11. fenzel #

    And one more thing before I step away from this thread for a while —

    I’ve said a lot of cynical things about how discourse works — for the most part, I mean them in a more practical than an ideal sense. We should all aspire to do better in our own lives. And I definitely think that remaining unconditionally involved in something like politics without interruption poses a variety of considerable ethical problems that are not easily resolved. If you think something is wrong, and that wrong is endemic to a given system, by all means, be very careful about when you choose to get involved with the system and under what circumstances, but also understand that nobody’s perfect.

    After all, as Gandalf said (in a book where, reportedly, “nothing was in question because the Church had all the answers”), “Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”


  12. stokes OTI Staff #

    @fenzel – “The point isn’t whether or not Obama self-identifies as anti-American.”

    *Your* point isn’t. That doesn’t mean it’s not significant.

    Democrats and Republicans are opponents, yes. And we take it for granted that they will say crap about eachother. But it’s one thing for someone to attack Obama for being liberal (i.e. a democrat, which he is) and another to attack him for being anti-american (which he isn’t). We’ve come to expect both from our political discourse, but that doesn’t mean that they’re equivalent. The second tactic betrays a fundamental lack of respect, not only for your opponent but for the people you’re trying to convince.

    When someone criticizes Obama for being liberal, they’re basically saying “Here’s this characteristic that this person has – I’m now going to try to convince you that this characteristic is the worst thing anyone could possibly be.” Calling him anti-american, on the other hand, isn’t saying anything. It’s like saying he’s a big stupid doody-head. The first has a place in a rational argument, the second is demagoguery.

    Applying this to Pullman: I agree with you that calling him anti-Catholic is no big deal. He IS anti-Catholic. This is part of a rational discussion. There are also other things one could say about him which would amount to simple name-calling.


  13. stokes OTI Staff #

    Also, not to pick fights or anything, but I question the basic premise of your point about the Spanish Inquisition. Do you really associate it with Catholicism? I never have, and I suspect that the world at large agrees with me. As a historical phenomenon, the Inquisition *was* Catholic, and it was *not* confined to Spain. But as a cultural symbol… well, they don’t call it the Catholic Inquisition. You know? If I was going to associate it with a religious group, it would be with Moslems and Jews, that is, with the torturees. (That is, it derives its special meaning from the torturees. Call it Medieval Atrocity, S.V.U.)

    But now I’m curious. Other people reading this, do you feel like the inquisition is a uniquely Catholic event?


  14. Gab #

    fenzel: Whoa, don’t just toss Lewis aside like that. Sure, ok, God does literally walk around in his books. But. You forget the whole “every god is the same” theme in his books, too. That’s huge. I mean, it totally undermines any ideas about a “true faith” ANY religion would have. And come on, if you made your own religion, wouldn’t you create a deity that was a pacifist BUT with the capability of totally pwning the opposition *just in case*? FSM notwithstanding, Aslan is a pretty Protestant vision of what God is/ should be. After all, isn’t it Protestantism with the sort of tongue-in-cheek response to Catholicism that goes, “Same religion, half the guilt,” or something like that? Or was that Anglican? Or Lutheran? (Sorry, politics major, not religion.)

    And I still think Pullman wasn’t really as directly/blatantly attacked as Rowling because she was and still is vastly more popular, as is the franchise that resulted from her books. I mean, as you said, he directly and intentionally goes after religion, yet the Vatican criticizes HIM indirectly by talking about “Pullman’s world” and “Pullman’s characters;” meanwhile, Rowling isn’t *trying* to undermine religion, but “Rowling does suchandsuch,” according to the Vatican. I’m not sure how else to describe the distinction, but I think it is significant. They still think Pullman is small potatoes because he, his books, and the movie that resulted from those books are not as popular as Rowling, her books, and the movies that resulted from THOSE books.

    In terms of discourse, political AND religious discourse are all about Platonic Forms, just as any written doctrine, be it political, religious, or otherwise. Words and morals are said (or written) and sound great (for the most part) in theory, but in practice they are lost or tainted, and, realistically, seeing that original form is just impossible because of human nature and how the world works. A pastor will preach about morality the same way a political candidate will lecture about change, meaning they say lots of pretty stuff about it, but then their institution or party doesn’t actually do it, or does it badly. “Christian compassion” during service, but then absolute intolerance of anything remotely “other” as soon as service is over; bi-partisanship during one debate and then voting along party lines for party lines’s sake five minutes later. That’s why communism has never worked. That’s why religion doesn’t work. That’s why Congress doesn’t work. And even if the people doing the talking genuinely believe in what they say, they can’t make it happen perfectly. And, both religious and political figures use these soapbox speeches and orations for what comes down to the same reason, a struggle for power and a desire to convince others to think as they do (because if they genuinely believe their way is best, they’ll want everyone to agree so society is best; and if they’re consciously thinking of power, then, well, they’re after power). Whether it’s a secular or theocratic position of power, the motivations are similar, if not fundamentally the same. And hell, even the discussion here comes out of that struggle for power. It isn’t that anyone here is (consciously) trying to one-up the other (or ARE we… ;p), but rather picking apart each others’ arguments in order to make our own look better and thus seem “right.” Right= might, right? Right. POINT: Whether it’s intentional or not, what is said in discourse isn’t the same as what actually happens in the real world. [I probably could have just used that last sentence, but I love hearing myself talk and circumlocuting (yes I made that word up) to the point of excess…]

    Signing off. For now… Muahaha.


  15. Gab #

    So much for signing off.

    No, I don’t think the Inquisition was just a Vatican thing. Isabella and Ferdinand asked the Pope at the time for permission to do it, and when he tried to stop them because it got too hardcore, he was subdued by… political pressure. It wasn’t a religious thing, it was a political thing under the guise of cleansing in the name of the true faith and all that BS. Same with the Crusades.

    Ok, signing off for real. It’s bed time.


  16. Michael #

    The article seems to be reading some kind of grand strategy for Vatican commentary on culture, and I doubt there is one. I’ll agree that Catholics, including those in the Vatican, are more likely to be critical of things that are widely known and contrary to what the Church teaches. It makes sense for us to be. I’ve heard people express the mind boggling belief that Dan Brown’s fiction is historically reliable.

    But often the media reports that “The Vatican” did this or that and makes the opinion of some anonymous Vatican person sound like it is an official statement of the pope. So one reporter at a “semi-official” Vatican newspaper made a comment *in the entertainment section* about John Lennon’s comment, and it’s inflated in the press to “Vatican forgives Lennon.” It’s the same nonsense that happened with Harry Potter: there have been articles saying the Vatican condemns it and articles saying the Vatican applauds it, when in fact there is no official Vatican position on the books and never has been. It’s plausible to me that at some point, someone in the Vatican made a comments about O’Connor’s picture-tearing being obnoxious, or cautioning Christian parents about Pullman’s books. And it’s fine to report/blog on these things, but I just think people need to be careful not to ignore the context of the statement being looked at and precisely who said it and in what capacity – official or otherwise – they were acting in.


  17. lee OTI Staff #

    Michael, thanks for your comment. You’re right in that the Church probably doesn’t have a “grand strategy” of such, and that the forgiveness of Lennon was probably overstated in the media, but I would also point out that although the L’Osservatore Romano is only “semi-official,” it is *the* semi-official” paper of the Vatican and that the Vatican Secretary of State has called the paper “an instrument for spreading the teachings of the successor of Peter.”

    And when the paper publishes a long editorial calling _The Golden Compass_ “the most anti-Christmas film possible,” I think it’s within reason to say that the Vatican is condemning it.


  18. Gab #

    I don’t think separating the commentary from people in Vatican City from the “official Vatican position” is quite fair in the context of public discourse. Unless the Vatican “officially” counters (or backs up) what someone says, it is by default taken as its position.

    Analogy: During the political campaign season, if someone from a candidate’s team makes a comment in a paper or on the news, it is immediately tied to that candidate. And unless the candidate comes out and says, “NO!”, it is accepted as their campaign’s position/opinion/whatever.

    Same thing with the Vatican.


  19. Matthew Wrather #

    It’s a fair point that the Vatican is not a monolith, and the various congregations and offices are not always at one. (For what it’s worth, the Church seems to be at pains to de-emphasize this fact.) But I agree with Mr. Lee that “L’Osservatore” probably reflects fairly the opinion inside the Vatican, if not the official teaching position of the Bishop of Rome.

    For what it’s worth, the obsession within some quarters of the church with the opinions of the pope is fetishistic and a subtle form of idolatry.

    I’d also point out that the US Bishops DO maintain a list of “morally offensive” films:


  20. lee OTI Staff #

    @Matt, to that point, one could argue there’s a continuum of generality when it comes to saying that “the church” thinks this and “the church” thinks that. On one end of the spectrum you have a local bishop who says people who vote for Obama are going to Hell. In the middle you have something like the US Bishops’ list of morally offensive films. And finally on the other end, you have the “L’Osservatore” and words from The Pope, the Vicar of Christ, hisself.


  21. Matthew Wrather #

    Right, exactly, that’s the point I was attempting to make — the Catholic Church is a huge, complex organization, with various levels of bureaucracy and varous leaders with various spheres of authority. And not everyone agrees with everyone else about everything.

    Of course, and this was my other point, the institution itself is often at pains to de-emphasize this fact…


  22. Gab #

    It’s like a political party.


  23. Michael #

    @Lee – Your point about L’Osservatore is well taken, I’d just add that although it is “an instrument for spreading the teachings of the successor of Peter,” it would be a mistake to think that anything in its pages is by virtue of that fact a teaching of the magisterium of the church. I don’t think you’re making that mistake, but people (most obviously reporters) frequently do. And I think your article glossed over some distinctions. Like you and Matthew said, there are different levels of authority in the church. I’m not trying to be overly restrictive as to what can be attributed to the church: your example with The Golden Compass is fair, but still, a reader who didn’t know much about Catholicism and who then concluded that “The Golden Compass = bad” is preached with the same authority as “Christ rose from the dead” in terms of Catholic teaching would be mistaken. And because Catholicism is frequently misunderstood (often by Catholics) I think it pays to be as precise as possible. (The linked Galileo article did a decent job at that, actually – partly making up for the flip comment the link was contained in!)

    @Matthew – I agree with you for the most part, although you could go too far. The size and complexity of the Church and the variety of opinion that can be found among its members does mean that views expressed by those members have to be put in their proper context. Things are said by “the church” to varying degrees. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean there is no offical position of the church and that everything is ambigious or up to personal opinion. There is an authorative hierarchy where the buck stops. But questions of pop culture are rarely important enough to make it that far.

    @Gab – I don’t entirely agree. Political campaigns are puny compared to the Church and have a lot less going on. In any case it kind of depends who you are talking about – the equilavent of a VP candidate or a campaign bus driver. It’s reasonable to think that a conferance of bishops, for example, express the opinion of the Church. L’Osservatore less so. Some Priest In The Vatican, even less.


  24. Gab #

    Michael: To that extent, I think there is heavy weight in who says it and where. In both a political party/campaign or a religion (and any religion, not just Catholicism), a small side remark by a higher-up at a fundraiser or public event of any sort has the capacity to be just as prominant as what a janitor says to a reporter. I agree, a lot of it also has to do with the media and misinterpretations, even by people that identify with the group, be it a religious or political affiliation. I wasn’t saying political campaigns and the Catholic church are *exactly* the same (I was, after all, raised Catholic, so I do have some inside-experience) (although you’re right, even people within can misunderstand, and I don’t claim perfect perception), but I couldn’t help but notice the parallels in how the discourse plays out in the public (and I’m a politics nerd, among other things, so I see political theory in everything). One major difference, for example, is how much more frequently political candidates must come out and refute what “their” people say during the election season(s) as compared to the Vatican doing the same thing- and I think this is related to the established _authority_ of the Church versus the fleeting and mutable nature of a campaign: the Church is the one setting rules for its members, while a campaign is trying to romance the constituency into *becoming* a member.


  25. Pseudonym #

    thank you for this article – now that i know The Golden Compass was frowened upon by the big boys, i’m going to watch it again! i think twice for good meassure:):):)

    I believe I understand the concepts you are talking about here, and I do agree… Church is a biggest swindler of them all, but at the same time it is a long lasting system, and as such it defends itself from within… So, it is not a big surprise that that something aledgedly spiritual would be so concerned with worldly matters – such as “the Earth is round” or clims or actions of any of the phicsical entities – it is after all just a matter of selfpreservation, inherent in the nature of every system, be it church, or a fungal colony…


  26. Tom Buckner #

    Let me throw in a good word for Sinead O’Connor. People really turned on her for tearing up the Pope’s picture on SNL. But put yourself in her shoes for 15 seconds. She is a freethinking woman from a country where the Catholic Church is almost an unelected arm of government. Now imagine a hypothetical female pop star of Afghani birth tearing up a photo of Mullah Omar. Nobody would bat an eye (in this country).


  27. Nicole #

    “Remember when every time you rode an airplane, it seemed like every single passenger was reading The Da Vinci Code? Shouldn’t all of those passengers be reading the Bible instead?”

    I really never thought of it that way. If God really wanted to avoid the mass response to The Code, what would help as much as taking out an airplane full of its followers?


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