Saturday, December 29, 2007

Pope rejects ideology for its own sake

AT midnight mass in St Peter's, Benedict XVI conjured in his sermon with an image from the writings of Gregory of Nyssa, of the whole universe torn and disfigured by sin.

"What," the Pope wondered, "would he say if he could see the state of the world today, through the abuse of energy and its selfish and reckless exploitation? Anselm of Canterbury, in an almost prophetic way, once described a vision of what we witness today in a polluted world whose future is at risk."

At first blush, it seems as though he's talking about global warming. That's certainly the way Ian Fisher, the Fairfax stringer in Rome, framed his story about the event and construed those passing remarks in a sermon mainly devoted to the incarnation. "Benedict has spoken out increasingly about environmental concerns and the Vatican has purchased carbon offsets, credits to compensate for carbon dioxide emissions created by the energy consumed in the world's smallest state, Vatican City," Fisher's report said.

There are three problems with such a gloss. The first is that the line about selfish and reckless abuse of energy might be no more than a reference to the First World's consumption of dwindling oil reserves. The second is that the idea of a polluted world whose future is at risk could just as well be interpreted as an allusion to acid rain, contaminated waterways, general environmental degradation and the problem of nuclear proliferation.

The third and most conclusive objection is that we already know what Benedict thinks about global warming. He made a telling intervention during the Bali conference earlier this month, releasing a message prepared for World Peace Day fully three weeks earlier than scheduled just to emphasise the point. Whether some Vatican bureaucrat - who probably got the project under way in the dying days of the previous reign - has bought some tokenistic carbon credits is neither here nor there. What matters is what the Pope himself says.

He warned that "any solutions to global warming must be based on firm evidence and not dubious ideology ... Fears over man-made emissions melting the ice caps and causing a wave of unprecedented disaster are nothing more than scaremongering. While some concerns may be valid, it is vital that the international community bases its policies on science rather than the dogma of the environmentalist movement ... Humanity today is rightly concerned about the ecological balance of tomorrow. It is important for assessments in this regard to be carried out prudently in dialogue with experts and people of wisdom, uninhibited by ideological pressure to draw hasty conclusions."

It cannot have escaped the Pope's attention that carbon dioxide continues to build in the atmosphere but the mean planetary temperature hasn't increased significantly for nearly nine years. Similar misgivings about how well the greenhouse theory fits the available facts informed the views of his leading local representative, Cardinal George Pell. In February this year Pell wrote a column calling for caution over exaggerated claims of severe global warming. He said he is "deeply sceptical about man-made catastrophic global warming, but still open to further evidence. What we are seeing from the doomsayers is an induced dose of mild hysteria, semi-religious if you like, but dangerously close to superstition. I would be surprised if industrial pollution and carbon emissions had no effect at all, but enough is enough."

A reporter with a sharper eye for coded messages could have found one at least that was unmistakable in the text of the sermon and within the rest of the liturgy half a dozen actions that spoke far louder than words.

The Pope has long been concerned about the place of Gregorian chant, which after the Second Vatican Council has been more honoured in the breach than in the observance, even in Rome. He said: "According to the Fathers, part of the angels' Christmas song is that now angels and men can sing together and in this way the beauty of the universe is expressed in the beauty of the song of praise. Liturgical song - still according to the Fathers - possesses its own peculiar dignity through the fact that it is sung together with the celestial choirs."

On the face of it, this is a scholarly account of the Patristic view of what inspired plainchant and why it should continue to command attention. Another way of putting it would be to say that earthly worship and its distinctive music is both modelled on and hopes to prefigure the celestial liturgy. These lines serve to encapsulate a distinctive theology of beauty, most recently articulated by Hans Urs von Balthasar. It's also a signal that the Pope will be setting much higher standards in the selection and performance of church music, not least in St Peter's Basilica. The Sistine Chapel Choir, which has been going to the dogs for at least a decade and sang dismally on the night, has been put on notice. Its conductor, who has a marked preference for saccharine ecclesiastical pop, is widely reported to be departing in the next few months. Plainchant and polyphony are back in a big way, which is welcome news for everyone who loves fine music, regardless of whether or not they subscribe to any form of religion.

Recently there was another involuntary departure, that of John Paul II's favourite master of ceremonies, Piero Marini. He is a passionate advocate of modern liturgical style and music, and presided over a lot of gimmicky papal mega-masses designed to ingratiate the young. Another unrelated Marini, Monsignor Guido, has been appointed to replace him and the first midnight mass offered on his watch, broadcast to a potential audience of more than a billion Catholics and consciously offered as world's best practice, at every turn stressed continuity with tradition rather than novelty for its own sake.

Mindful of the fact that this is a column for the general reader, I'll try to locate some of the main changes, using themes in the culture wars as points of reference. A few weeks ago Franco Zeffirelli, an elderly film director, was asked to consult to the Holy See on aspects of media management. A man of the Left, at least in cultural terms, he rashly interpreted his brief as giving the Pope an image makeover and began by publicly criticising "his too sumptuous attire and trappings" and recommending the "noble simplicity" that was de rigueur after Vatican II. As an exercise in media management, it left a lot to be desired.

The first thing most viewers of the Christmas ceremonies would have noticed is that John Paul's faux-democratic armchair, which might well have graced a gentleman's library but looked ridiculous in a basilica, has gone. At mass and later in the loggia, Benedict sat on seats that were unmistakably thrones, and gilded ones at that, designed for his predecessors. He may have disdained the papal tiara, but he's quite comfortable with the symbols of presidential authority. Another indication of how much store the Pope and his master of ceremonies set by Zeffirelli's fashion tips was the papal headware. Until the 1960s, popes and bishops routinely wore a mitre decorated with jewels on major feasts. Benedict has restored the tradition, wearing during Christmas two different examples of the mitra pretiosa inherited from earlier popes, along with some of their elaborately embroidered vestments. It drives the so-called progressives to distraction, but like any sensible bishop he unapologetically dons his best to celebrate the birth of a king's son, let alone to greet the Prince of Peace. This is a pope who's meekly put up with a lot in his time and has now resolved never to wear liturgical polyester again.

I could - but won't - list the number of times when the Pope, celebrating the new rite, bowed or made symbolic gestures found in the Gloria, the Creed and the Preface in the old rite which the new rubrics seemed to have suppressed. Suffice it to say that all over the world people will have seen Catholicism's supreme lawgiver setting precedents he knows will be followed. Having restored the old rite to equal standing with the new, he obviously hopes that its more measured approach will inform the way the new rite is celebrated from now on. The choice to use a Latin version of the newer form of mass once again highlights the Pope's emphasis on continuity with tradition, rather than rupture, and his view that Latin remains something of a universal lingua franca.

Last but not least, there has been a long-running dispute over the most appropriate means of receiving communion, whether on the tongue or in the hand. Though to hostile observers this will seem an argument over nothing, at its core is the question of whether communion in the hand risks subverting a sense of the real presence and promotes the modernist misconception that mass is merely a community meal.

The Pope has often said that sudden changes in what is allowed in church are needlessly disruptive and distressing. Catholic viewers will have noted on Christmas Eve that distribution in the hand was permitted, particularly with all those cantankerous, grabby older nuns who project the attitude that it's their God-given right. However, everyone in the queue that was privileged to be given communion by the Pope received the host on the tongue, no doubt by prior arrangement. Pluralism still prevails perforce but it's safe to say there's now an officially preferred method of communicating. The modernist conventions ushered in after VaticanII, which seemed so well entrenched even three years ago, are falling like ninepins.
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