13 August 2007

Enlightened Despotism and Liberal Religion

Consider the conundrum posed by the phenomenon called “Enlightened Despotism” – on the one hand, if you’re going to have a despot I suppose you want him at least to be a nice guy so that things are at least not as bad as they could be (death squads are at a minimum, habeas corpus suspended only on alternate Tuesdays, etc.). But on the other hand, if life under said despot isn’t really so bad, then the likelihood that he’ll be overthrown is incredibly small, whereas if he were a brutal, ruthless, bloodthirsty dictator, then although life under him would be completely unbearable, it is precisely this unbearability that would precipitate his timely overthrow. Hence the dilemma: is it better to live with an attenuated, weak evil that people are willing to tolerate, or is it better in the long run to have a strong, virulent evil that pushes people to eradicate it altogether?

Now, what if I told you that the Enlightened Despot was none other than modern Religion itself? Let me explain. Liberal religion essentially started (in the west) with the Protestant Reformation and continues until today: it has come to welcome all or most changes to the zeitgeist – feminism, LGBTQ, civil rights, human rights, and so on – and strives ardently to make these modern forms compatible with an ancient system of beliefs by a series of ad hoc quasi-intellectual band-aids we call ‘theology’.

On the surface, there’s nothing I can object to here, because one of my biggest quarrels with religion is that it is so characteristically intolerant of the modern ethical zeitgeist – and if the religion is willing to bend to accommodate it, there should be no problem, right? Well, the trouble with this ‘liberal religion’ is the same with the enlightened despot: it is a series of concessions that keeps the people complacent and the dictator in power. In the case of religion, liberal theology prevents the modern middle-of-the-roaders and skeptics from walking away entirely, keeping them instead under the umbrella of the religious to perpetuate the flawed first premise. Many of the modern religious are actually humanists, but because the theists in power are willing to bend over backward, ideologically, to make their superstitions jive with the zeitgeist, when push comes to shove the moderates are more willing to throw down on the side of religion than of their ideologically more-closely related atheo-Humanists.

Have you ever wondered why there are so many more openly ex-Catholics running around than ex-Protestants? It's probably because Catholics, traditionally, have been theologically stricter, more hierarchical, etc, etc. Until Vatican II made Catholicism into ‘Protestantism Lite’, Protestants had been the only ones to sell out consistently to the changing times, resulting in the curious phenomenon of the so-called "mainline Protestant" who largely subscribes to the belief that some kind of Deist divinity is completely compatible with all the bounty that Science has to offer. Because Protestantism has historically been willing to compromise, not only is it staying around longer but its logical contradictions are getting ever more glossed-over, sugar-coated, and justified. It is now much harder for the average Joe to think his way out of Protestantism than it would be to think his way out of Catholicism. Even the most ‘modern’ Protestant denomination still posits a God: otiose, uninvolved, disinterested, incompetent, natural, or cosmic – however you want to slice it, there is still a God at the center. And because it has adapted itself to still be palatable to the modern person, mainline Protestantism is like a cockroach - it can withstand countless atom bombs of reason and skepticism because it has evolved (oh, the irony!) defense mechanisms against intellectual challenges. Not so with traditional Catholicism. Catholicism, with its smells, bells, rosaries and saints, is somewhat like a bacteria that refuses to mutate: because it refuses to change, it hasn't developed the mechanisms to thwart the things that try to kill it.

Which is why I have such mixed feelings about a recent piece of news my mother sent me a few weeks ago. Apparently Pope Benedict recently decided to lift the sanctions on the Tridentine (Latin) Mass. The Mass had been all but outlawed by the church since the introduction of the vernacular mass after the Vatican II council over 40 years ago. Until now, the decision to permit the conducting of a Latin mass rested in the hands of the local bishop - but with Ratzinger's new decree, that prerogative now rests in the hands of the individual parish priest, and thus many people are predicting a huge upsurge in both the number of Latin masses offered and the numbers of people attending them.

Now, in general, the idea of reactionism bothers me. I’ve always hated the new happy-clappy guitar-playing feel-good vernacular Catholic Mass – even when I was still a Catholic – but what’s done is done, and even though it should never have happened in the first place, it says something rather dangerous about a religious community that would willingly revert to the Dark Ages for an hour every Sunday morning after having lived under rather silly but nevertheless earnest liberal theology for the past four decades.

But after greater reflection, I wonder if it might be possible that this bull will ultimately be beneficial to the cause of organized Humanism? On the one hand, if indeed the Latin Mass becomes more widespread, modern Catholics will probably get even more disaffected because the theology and ritual will be getting stricter. Returning to the Enlightened Despot analogy, the more assertive and dogmatic the religion is, the more likely people are to become disaffected and leave altogether. So score one for Ratzinger for alienating Catholic moderates – I approve wholeheartedly.

But more than this, if the mass is in Latin, that also means the reintroduction of all the cultural and ritual aspects of Catholicism that people are so fond of - the sense of age, mystery, the incense, the rites, the incantations - and gets rid of all the bad things, like folk music and the fact that the people in the congregation can actually understand what’s being said. Perhaps the reversion to the Latin mass is not, as I might fear, a sign of the return of an increasingly authoritarian Church, but perhaps an unwitting admission on the part of the Vatican that it and its religion are otiose bodies, relics of the past. Perhaps this is the first step toward the creation of a Catholic Humanism - much like already exists in Europe - in which God has all but disappeared but the intense and distinct culture of Catholicism remains. Although on the one hand this measure might actually boost church attendance, the fact that the scriptures will be in a language that nobody understands and the rite will be reverting to an earlier form, it will start going back to the days when Mass was Theater. And if Mass is Theater, then that means that truly enlightened 'ethnic Catholics' will be able to come for the cultural pageantry and not be asked to check their minds at the door. People don’t realize it, but they can have their cake and eat it too.

It's a long shot, but I'm hopeful.

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