Man Without Qualities

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Christopher Hitchens Loses It

Christopher Hitchens says in his recent Slate article:

(1) [The Pope] is chosen for life, by God himself ... That would be news to the College of Cardinals, who waste a lot of time and effort thinking they are actually choosing Popes. It has always been my understanding that the Pope is chosen by the men in the College of Cardinals as much as they choose anything else. Isn't the Catholic Church pretty big on the consequences of free will? Could Mr. Hitchens be confusing Catholic doctrine with something of his own invention, but akin to the protestant doctrine of "double predestination?"

(2) [Being Catholic] means that you have to believe that the public agony and humiliation endured by the pontiff was ... part of some divine design - a belief which Mr. Hitchens presents as patently absurd. Of course, that belief is not nearly as absurd as the notion that the public agony and humiliation endured by the second person of the Christian God himself was also part of some divine design. Is that just picking?

(3) The next vicar of Christ could hardly be expected to perform his sacred duties knowing that there was a still-living vicar of Christ, however decrepit, on the scene. Mr. Hitchens is entitled to his opinion, but the Catholic Church clearly does not agree. It's rules specifically permit and provide for the resignation of a Pope - and Popes have resigned in the past (although not in a long time).

(4) John Paul II ... exerted enormous force to change the politics of Poland. ... He behaved much better on that occasion than he did when welcoming Tariq Aziz, one of Saddam Hussein's most blood-spattered henchmen, to an audience at the Vatican and then for a private visit to Assisi. In a stunning conclusion to his parable in Matthew 21:28-32, Jesus tells the chief priests and elders that "tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the kingdom of God before you" - and stirred up quite a big fuss by speaking and meeting more than a bit with the worst elements of society. Of course, Jesus never condones or excuses the immoral behavior of tax collectors, prostitutes or anyone else - but he certainly didn't deny people face time (or "audiences") just because those people had lived a sinful life and not repented. Jesus even spent considerable time speaking with some thoroughly unrepentant chief priests, elders, Scribes and Pharisees. Here again, Mr. Hitchens is entitled to his own beliefs that one is ill-advised to follow Jesus' example. But the Pope may not think that his job description gives him as much leeway as Mr. Hitchens grants to himself.

(5) Terri Schiavo's parents were in court ... instructing their lawyer to ask a judge to consider the church's teaching on purgatory and hell, and the state of the late Ms. Schiavo's soul. The Vatican is actually a foreign government, recognized as such by an exchange of ambassadors. Are we expected to be complacent when its clerical supporters try to short-circuit the U.S. Constitution with pleas of this kind? Mr. Hitchens is suggesting that "we" (who's in that "we", anyway?) may safely be complacent when the "clerical supporters" of a sect not dominated by something that is "actually a foreign government" (say, Baptists or Muslims) ask American courts to take their beliefs into account. Is that right? Can "we" be "complacent" when some "clerical supporter" of the Anglican Communion - which is led by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is appointed and paid by the British Parliament - speaks up in this way? What about "clerical supporters" of the various officially state-established Lutheran churches of Scandinavian countries? And if Mr. Hitchens is really determined to resurrect the old "divided loyalty" canards, why stop with Vatican-paranoia? - where does the State of Israel figure in Mr. Hitchens' considerations?

(6) [I]t seemed quite probable that Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston would have to face trial for his appalling collusion in the child-rape racket that his diocese had been running. ... [But] Cardinal Law isn't going to face a court, now. He has fled the jurisdiction and lives in Rome ...

Mr. Hitchens is at liberty to believe what his language suggests: that Cardinal Law ran a "child-rape racket" as organized crime syndicates run prostitution rackets. But even the Cardinal's most severe critics (of whom I was aware before Mr. Hitchens escalated the rhetoric) argue that the Cardinal was guilty of horribly bad judgment, intellectual dishonesty and gross negligence. The Cardinal counters that he believed that known pederastic priests could and would reform - yet another tragic triumph of hope over experience.

Gross negligence can be criminal in some cases, of course. But "negligence" is generally defined in terms of a serious disregard of a proper balancing of costs and benefits. In a criminal context that would likely require a court or jury to itself review the value of the spiritual benefits the Cardinal says he thought he was advancing. Mr. Hitchens seems to believe that some court or jury should do exactly that: determine the value of the church's goal's that Cardinal Law says he included in his calculations, including, presumably, those concerning purgatory and hell. Or perhaps I am mistaken, perhaps Mr. Hitchens believes that American criminal law should assign a simple value of zero to all of those religious goals, and just refuse to allow this cleric to "try to short-circuit the U.S. Constitution with pleas of this kind." Such a position on Mr. Hitchens' part at least would be consistent with his posture of outraged pre-trial conviction of this hapless cleric and his approach to the Schiavo matter. Of course, reading the First Amendment as imposing a mandatory zero value to religious goals in cost-benefit calculations relating to charges of criminal negligence, therefore all but outlawing organized religion, would not be most people's reading of that provision.

I am unaware of any theory under which Cardinal Law (or anyone else) can avoid indictment because he has "fled the jurisdiction." In fact, people outside this country are frequently indicted. Remember Marc Rich? His indictment specifically notes that he fled the country and did not return. In fact, people who have never set foot in this country can be, and have been, indicted in the United States. Mr. Hitchens is free to believe what he suggests: that Cardinal Law would (a la Mr. Rich) refuse to return to the United States if he were indicted, and that the Vatican would refuse to order Cardinal Law to return to the United States if he were indicted. But, personally, I wouldn't bank on either such eventuality.

(7) Maureen Dowd ... put it best of all. No comment necessary. But Mr. Hitchens should know by now that if one is advancing a position - any position on any topic - that one finds Maureen Dowd to have put best of all, one should understand that one's position is almost certainly wildly off track.

(8) Actually, the Kennedy brothers were part of a Catholic cabal which imposed another Catholic cabal on the luckless people of South Vietnam. It's impossible to read the history of that calamity without noticing the filiation between the detested Diem dynasty in Saigon and the Kennedys, Cardinal Spellman, and various Catholic Cold-War propagandists from Luce to Buckley. However, there's no proof that the Vatican ordered this ... I will take Mr. Hitchens at his word that it's impossible for him to read the history of the Vietnam War without "noticing" that it was all about nested Catholic cabals. But it is an odd kind of "impossibility" to be sure, since not a single serious account of that war has made such an allegation and neither of the presidents most involved, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, were Catholics. (Here's one such history that the miracle of Amazon technology allows one to search online. For some reason no occurrence of "Vietnam" in Modern Times seems to correlate with an accusation of the recursive Catholic perfidy Mr. Hitchens finds so impossible to miss. On the other hand, Mr. Hitchens may want to read some rather unflattering mention in this book of Lytton Strachey and his misdirected assault on various Emminent Victorians, including Cardinal Manning.) This "impossibility" seems to say more about Mr. Hitchens' mental state than it does about the history of Southeast Asia. And, yes, there is no proof that the Pope ordered the Kennedys to wage the Vietnam War, just as there is no proof that Mr. Hitchens is actually from Pluto - is any needed? In a somewhat different vein, there is no proof that Mr. Hitchens dropped a large dose of LSD before writing this article for Slate. This Slate article is evidence, yes. But not conclusive proof.

By the way, the term "cabal," of course, originally derives from Kabbalah, the mystical interpretation of the Hebrew scripture - but took on its present insidious meaning from a group of ministers chosen in 1667 by King Charles II of England (including Clifford, Arlington, Buckingham, Ashley, and Lauderdale), whose initial letters coincidentally spelled Cabal! Now there's a "coincidence" people like Maureen Dowd and the version of Mr. Hitchens on display in this Slate article would no doubt find of unbounded meaning and interest.

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