April 05, 2005

Hackneyed Hitchens

How astoundingly cheap. Hitchens, of course, has made something of a cottage industry of playing enfant terrible and clueing us boorish masses in to how silly it is to hold affection for a Mother Theresa or Pope John Paul. But, alas, Hitchens can never quite land convincing enough blows when he aims for a giant. He could handle Michael Moore, which is relatively easy, but flounders with a Henry Kissinger or John Paul. After all, it's silly to pretend that the late Pope's legacy revolves mostly around a child abuse scandal in the Boston area, isn't it? Moronic, even. Still, it's hard not to remain at least an occasional fan--his expert skewering of Moore, while an easy target, remains a keeper. And much else in his oeuvre besides. But this little Slate offering was weak fare indeed.

Posted by Gregory at April 5, 2005 05:03 AM | TrackBack (90)

My first reaction was "how cheap"; my second was, "how perfectly, 180-degrees, wrong". The larger point Hitchens tries to make is there, all right, but points in the opposite direction.

Posted by: sammler at April 5, 2005 08:32 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Hate to disagree. Tasteless, yes, and cynically timed, but the pedophilia issue as it relates to this Pope's legacy is far from silly or moronic. His laissez-faire attitude in this regard remains utterly inexplicable and astonishing to me. To call it a "child abuse scandal" seems strangely understated, given the magnitude of the multiple betrayals of faith, of innocence, of vocation, of moral stewardwhip, and of simple responsibility involved.

I'm not lacking in respect for John Paul's many achievements. And yet, I will never forget when, at the very height of tragic anguish in his Massachusetts flock, the Pope chose to admonish young women for wearing crosses as jewelry. At best, he was seeringly obtuse on one of the most stunning moral & legal scandals which occurred on his watch.

Posted by: JM Hanes at April 5, 2005 09:10 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

JM Hanes.

First, lets look at the reasons behind the priestly pedophillia crisis.

1) After the Second Vatican Council, a wave of men entered the seminaries believing that the rules for celibacy were soon to be overturned. They were also led to believe by errant seminary professors and instructors that Catholic doctrine on "sexuality" would soon give way to a more nuanced approach that would be accepting of openly gay priests. See "Goodbye Goodmen". Almost all of priest perverts fell into this age cohort.

2) Bishops up until a few years ago were told by Medical and Psychiatric professionals that pedophiles could be a) treated and b) cured.

I ask you, what the hell was the Holy Father supposed to do?

Was he supposed to make personnel decisions in every diocese in the world? Was he supposed to check and double check every priest's file?

This was a failure of the Bishops, pure and simple.

It is funny, the same people who castigate the Holy Father for not taking a "strong enough stance" are usually the same ones who cry out for more "local control" or "collegiality".

Do you know how hard it was for the Pope to defrock openly Marxist priests who served in the Sandinista goverment in the 80's.....not to mention heretics like Robert Drinan.

The Pope traditionally has had three roles, priest, prophet, and king.

George Wiegel in his "Witness to Hope' writes of how uncomfortable John Paul II was with the kingly role (administrative).

Does the Catholic Church need a more kingly Pontiff now?


Does this mean JP II is to blame in any way for the pedophile scandals.


Posted by: singaporesling at April 5, 2005 11:38 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Whatever truth there may be to his attack on Cardinal Law is weakened by his distortions in the rest of the article. No Catholic believes that the Pope is chosen by God himself; rather, as we're about to see, he is chosen by the conclave of Cardinals, who ideally will receive guidance from the Holy Spirit. Terri Schiavo's parents were not asking the court to consider the Church's teachings; they were asking the court to consider that Terri would have followed the Church's teachings. Hitchens complains that "you have to believe that the public agony and humiliation endured by the pontiff was also part of some divine design." Well, yes, that's exactly what the Pope himself believed.

Posted by: Tom T. at April 5, 2005 01:25 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Hey, too bad you're not in London anymore, or you coulda been chilllin' with Hitch and Davey!

Posted by: praktike at April 5, 2005 02:40 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Tom T.,

"the conclave of Cardinals, who ideally will receive guidance from the Holy Spirit."

Ideally... How do you know these things? Hitchens hates religion and so do I. It makes people who should know better stupid.

The powers-that-be use religion to justify their actions, however immoral that might be, like a child-rape racket.

Hitchens didn't even suggest the possibility - nay, probability - that the child-rape racket is global.

Posted by: Peter K. at April 5, 2005 09:20 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

JM to what extent would you guess the Pope was actually mentally able to tackle the pedophilia issue as it unfolded?

I do not live in Boston but have been avidly reading the US national news on this problem. It struck me that the whole thing blew up after the Pope was seriously debilitated with Parkinsons.

I also am of the opinion (perhaps wrongly) that some of the latter pronouncements of the Pope were a little less credible--as if prepared by assistants without the benefit of his direct involvement. Possibly his strength to tackle certain issues too?

I do agree that the whole scandal will have profound ramifications for the US Catholic Church. But it does seem as if it is now being handled well by Law's successor. I have a feeling the Boston Archdiocese will in fact be rejuvenated in the long run....

And it certainly has estopped any notion of a US Pope--for at least a generation.

Posted by: Hepzi at April 5, 2005 10:26 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

i believe you were looking for oeuvre, not ouevre.

Posted by: matt at April 5, 2005 11:06 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

yes oeuvre. thax for finding the nit. it helps to have another set of eyes when any blogging taking place these days is post 11 PM. maybe i need a break!

Posted by: greg at April 6, 2005 01:00 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Hitchins is right again, just as he was right in his article a few days earlier re the Terry Schiavo spectacle.

The Pope had the power to right this horrible wrong and did not.

The Christian church has ceased to have moral believeability to any but the most psychologically dependent, the scientifically illiterate, and those who seek to prey on their fellow men.

The future is secular. An in it, pederast priests will go to jail.

Posted by: WilDaMan at April 6, 2005 01:05 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"Hitchens didn't even suggest the possibility - nay, probability - that the child-rape racket is global."

Yes, I'm sure the UN could tell us more about that.

"The powers-that-be use religion to justify their actions, however immoral that might be, like a child-rape racket."

The powers that be use whatever they get their hands on to justify their actions. This doesn't mean religion per se is immoral. Just that bad people can use and abuse it to justify their behavior.

"The future is secular."
Tell that to Islam.

Posted by: lindenen at April 6, 2005 04:12 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


It does seem quite possible that Pope was no longer really “in the loop” when the Boston scandals finally broke the surface, and great men have often been ill-served by those around them. Yet whether the fault lies with the Pope himself, or with his chosen surrogates -- and whether or not Christopher Hitchens is an opportunist -- the scale, and decades long duration, of the institutional failure at issue here cannot be glibly written off as an insignificant feature of the papal landscape now being eulogized.

There’s the violence itself of course, compounded by the inexplicable lack of direction from Rome, the lack of interest even, which left an abused, unenfranchised laity and a complicit clergy to muddle through as best they could. Aside from the simple, tragic, human injustices involved, I see nothing in this drama designed to lure increasingly independent American catholics back into the Vatican fold.

It hardly seems moronic, as BD characterizes it, to suggest that this will figure rather large in the Pope’s legacy here, once the pomp subsides, although its significance world wide may be considerably more modest. Assuming, of course, that the U.N. behavioral model does not apply. I don’t think that whether the Pope had other things, or nothing, on his mind will make much difference on that score, especially since -- as you note -- the aftermath is being addressed by Cardinal Law’s successor, with few, if any, discernable strings to Rome.

(Note to BD: the scandals were not limited to the Boston diocese, although the lion's share of press coverage was centered there.)

I have to admit, that the idea of an American pope, gave me an unexpected -- and welcome -- laugh!

Posted by: JM Hanes at April 6, 2005 04:35 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


1) Irrelevant, and more than slightly bizarre.
2) Even though this belief is not remotely relevant to the bulk of cases which have come to light, it does not begin to explain or excuse the stunning neglect -- nay the active, systematic, and repeated repudiation -- of the victims of these crimes.

Are you seriously asking what the hell a mere Pope is supposed to do about flagrant, pernicious, failures in his bishoprics? Apparently the answer is nothing much. And what might a mere Pope offer, if not owe, the violated? Nothing to speak of there either, apparently.

I’m sorry, but I just don’t see the kind of paralyzing psychic conundrum you describe; I gather, however, that you are not among those who are currently lauding the Holy Father for the moral clarity he has brought to issues large and small.

Posted by: JM Hanes at April 6, 2005 04:38 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

More Hitchens in the Mirror (2nd half of article)

THE passing of His Holiness The Pope is, in one way, none of the business of those who are not Roman Catholics.

If you do not believe that he was the anointed Vicar of Christ on Earth, and the holder of the Keys of Peter, you need not worry yourself at the thought of his Maker having subjected him to a long and painful and embarrassing dotage. (Even so, he fared better than his predecessor, who was un-chosen by Heaven only a few weeks after being anointed.)

However, the influence of the Catholic Church is such that it bears on the lives of non-believers as well. So how would a secular balance-sheet of this lengthy reign have to read? Decency and etiquette require that we begin with the positive.

Karol Wojtyla was something of a force in the liberation of his native Poland, which is now both democratic and independent for the first time in its history, and is able to look both Russia and Germany in the eye.

Moreover, he confronted one of the nastier elements in the history of Polish nationalism - the anti-Semitism of many Catholics - and denounced it in fairly unequivocal terms.

One might add to this his staunch criticism of capital punishment and his interventions during the war in Bosnia, where he spoke up for essentially humane and decent values at a time when many Croatian Catholics were tempted by fascism and tribalism. (His canonisation of the Second World War Cardinal Stepinac, who had been a sympathiser with fascism, is a blemish on this record, but then this Pope had an awful weakness for canonisation and pioneered the "fast-track" system whereby hundreds of rather questionable figures were beatified or sainted.)

It's easy to see why Pope John Paul might have wanted to pump up the morale of his flock with this mass production of holiness.

Under his stewardship, the most appalling scandal of all - the institutional rape and torture of children - was allowed to spread and also to be denied. One of those most responsible for the cover-up, Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, was hastily removed from American jurisdiction and given a sinecure at the Vatican.

The restoration of dogma was the other way in which the Pope sought to keep waverers in line.

Liberal theologians were purged and extreme propagandists like Cardinal Ratzinger were promoted. No discussion of birth-control techniques was permitted at any level, and the many victims of the Aids crisis in the Third World will long mourn the Church's teaching that condoms are off-limits. Or rather, they won't long mourn it, because they will be dead.

The equation of contraception with abortion seems especially perverse in this connection. The Church could command respect for its stand in favour of the unborn if it did not downgrade its own argument by denouncing family-planning devices as instruments of murder, and of the Devil.

The cult of the Virgin Mary, which alarms many serious Catholics by its almost idolatrous intensity, was given an enormous boost.

Highly dubious sites of pilgrimage, such as Fatima in Portugal, were promoted again and again, and the Pope publicly claimed that it was the Virgin who had steered the assassin's bullet, not away from his stomach (which it efficiently penetrated) but "away" in general from his more vital organs.

Apart from insulting the skilful doctors who actually saved his life, this statement appealed to the basest medieval superstition. To the outsider, the most glaring contradiction involves the Pope's attitude towards "family values" on the one hand, and moral candour on the other.

If the family is the repository of morality, why must it be that Catholic priests are expressly forbidden from finding out what its joys and pains might be?

More ancient Christian churches, as well as more recent ones, do not impose the forbidding condition of celibacy. But once it is imposed, it seems idle to wonder why the joke about the sex-crazed priest is one of the best-known jokes in human history.

B AD as it doubtless is to be a sex-crazed priest, it is far, far worse, at a tender age, to run into one.

Yet a church that could not compromise on divorce or civil marriage, or the limitation of pregnancy, ended up whining for "wiggle room" concerning offences against the innocent that no decent agnostic could contemplate without vague thoughts of incurring hell's hottest fire.

I wanted to throw up when I saw the Pope grant a fawning personal audience to Tariq Aziz, one of Saddam Hussein's coldest and vilest henchmen, on the very eve of the Gulf War. The fact that Aziz was one of Iraq's Catholic minority did not quite seem to cover his long record of crime and lying and sadism.

But the Pope frequently split differences of this kind in the Middle East, often appearing to think of political Islam as being, even at its worst, better than no religion at all.

Yet why should he not act in this manner? The Catholic church is a man-made institution, like all other "faiths", and one effect of this unduly protracted papacy has been to make that material fact obvious to one and all.

Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair


Posted by: Peter K. at April 6, 2005 06:06 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Hitchens is a guy to read when you feel like merciless criticism in fancy, witty writing. Otherwise, even when you agree with him, he's ridiculously over-the-top. He was over the top when he wrote for [i]The Nation[/i], he's over the top now that he supports Bush. As a polemicist, he's surprisingly dishonest. Like any pundit, he's right some of the time, but if you're interested in actual substance (rather than entertaining writing style) you're better off going elsewhere.

Posted by: Guy at April 6, 2005 07:09 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

As a great admirer of Hitchens I can say that his piece was indeed cheap, and small, and mean in every sense.

Of course the Church is facing scandal. Hitch's tired recitation of this scandal-- even to the point of quoting Maurren Dowd-- revealed nothing new, or interesting, or even well-said about that scandal.

More importantly, the black spots he highlights are no more significant in the broader scheme of John Paul II's life and works than Abu Ghraib is in the larger angle of the historic transformation of teh middle east. They deserve a footnote, not the entire remembrance.

I usually love Hitch's acerbic wit but in this case he merely comes across as a pygmy snarling in the shadow of a giant. Even Hitch realizes how lame it is to recycle the insights of such a lightweight as La Dowd, and apologizes in advance for doing so. I suppose we all have our off days.

Posted by: thibaud at April 7, 2005 09:48 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Mr. Hitchins, thank you a thousand times for pointing out what a terrible man J2P2 was. I aman Episcopalian and my church encourages contracrption, supports abortion and ordains women. Indeed we have several women consecrated as bishops. We have never had a pedophile scandal Yet J2P2 presumed,in his monumental arrogance, to try, with some success, to impose his version of moral behavior on all women, whom he oppressed at every turn. He said that my life was not as valuable as that of a ten-week fetus. Hesaid I was serving Satan by using contraception. He said that my miseries steming from a chronic disease were better in God's eyes than the destruction of a 12-celled embryo. He said that my gay friends were evil. He said that child abuse was a sin only after the scandal could no longer be ignored. (Did he just make up his mind in2002 ?) He rewarded the infamous Bernard Law with anappointment to some Vatican job. Obviously the atrocities perpetrated on small boys did not concern him. His death is certainly unlamented inmy mind.

Posted by: Elinor at April 11, 2005 02:06 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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