Monday, May 26, 2014

Pope Francis In Israel-Palestine



When it comes to public relations, Bimi and the Knesset just got smacked in the face with a 2x4 by Pope Francis.  No matter how the American Political Party members who call themselves faithful Catholics try to shape it, the Pope just set an agenda here that has as much power as the Vatican's war on Bolshevism last century.  Even as Peres and Netanhayu tried to parlay themselves and act as though they were lecturing John Paul II on international relations, it was clear that this is not the same old Israeli-Vatican song and dance.  The Pope intentionally positioned himself in front of English language graffiti on the Bethlehem section of the Separation Wall because, considering he comes from South America, he knows what roll Washington plays in this abomination and how the voting Catholic population of the US thinks about Palestinians, be they Catholic, Druze, or Muslim.
What Netanyahu hates to concede but knows is that there is a snowball's chance in hell of him winning this one with the Catholic Church.  Francis's predecessor, who was an advocate of essentially the same logic as this Pope, was hindered by two things, his nationality and his inability to keep his ruby slippers out of his mouth when he tried to answer simple press questions with doctoral dissertations.  Francis, however, knows how this game is played, he survived the Dirty Wars in Argentina and knows the line between the notions of 'Catholic Social Justice' and 'Liberation Theology' quite clearly.  He's a fighter, he wasn't in the Hitler Youth, and his ministry to the poor in his homeland makes clear this legitimate conversation is pretty immune from the anti-Semitism canard being hung around its neck.  Norman Finkelstein has headlined his blog with NETANYAHU THREATENS TO NUKE VATICAN AFTER POPE IMPLIES PALESTINIANS ARE NOT 'WILD WEEDS' and provides a biting article that someone has already asked about originating in The Onion.  The Reuters videos are just a sampling of the press coverage, while this picture is becoming emblematic of the trip for many:

The New York Daily News is rather cynical, predictably I suppose, but the quotation from Dershowitz is especially annoying.
“There is no moral comparison between Bethlehem and a place of death like the Warsaw Ghetto,” said Harvard Law Prof. Alan Dershowitz, author of “The Case For Israel.”
Dershowitz said he supported the Pope’s visit on the whole, but that the Holy Father “should not have allowed himself to be used in that way.”
Especially notable is how Dershowitz tries to use the title of 'Holy Father' to imply Francis is a gullible frump in a white cassock.  This is a hang-over from the papacy of John Paul II, who could create a moral wave to end Communism in Poland but also was considered bizarre and medieval when addressing the real questions of sociology and health, especially in terms of homosexuality, women, condoms, and AIDS.  Francis has tried, seemingly despite his press handlers from the Vatican, to re-orient the fundamental outlook of his Church and end the pre-occupation with opposing the historic progression of modern society.  This is not anything akin to revising Canon Law, far from it, but reducing the reliance on it is fundamental.  The most important thing created by the John Paul papacy was a thick Catechism, issued in 1995.  His CATECHISM OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH, full of cross-references, footnotes, annotations, and sidebars, was a novel instruction manual for living in accordance with the Catholic side of the Culture Wars, full of gloom and doom about abortion and homosexuality but failing to even devote a single paragraph to the factors involved.  Catholicism ceases to be a mystical experience and more an existential parody.
It's ironic to juxtapose the schedule of Francis with John Paul's historic trip in March 2000, especially in considering how much of a PR slam-dunk it was for the Knesset.  The Polish Catholic who saved his Jewish best friends gets off the plane and kisses the ground, they take him to Yad Vashem, he prays that God forgive the Catholic Church for anti-Semitism at the Wailing Wall, it was a field day for the press.  Certainly John Paul was also compassionate for the Palestinians, he met with Arafat, but he was much more cautious because of the connection between the PLO and the USSR, which that Pope was determined to see destroyed.
By 2000, the USSR was gone, Yugoslavia had just been abolished, the Rwandan genocide had been a Catholic-majority scandal where prominent clergy members were charged with war crimes, and 9/11 was still a year away.  That Papal visit also included photo ops like this:

Severely affected at this point by Parkinson's disease, he looked plain awful in comparison to when he was the poster child for anti-Communist Polish labor unions and was voiding taboos to hug children with HIV/AIDS.  Here he looked out of place, manipulated into posing with Chief Israeli Rabbis that would certainly not pose with Francis at another Wall, and out of his element.  By this point, he had been effectively cut out of the peace dialogue by Washington, Israel, and the PLO, so this was simply a stunt.  After the Polish Pope went to Jerusalem and played nice with the Israelis, the press followed a typical line about how much Papa had done to heal the schism of anti-Semitism.  Of course, one could mention here a large digression on the Semitic nature of Palestinians as well as Jews, but the point is that it was much more a media circus that the Israelis ate up with glee.  Now we have this Pope giving Bimi and Peres public heart attacks.
However, it is also important to recognize what Pope Francis is not.
There was an understandable early reaction to this Pope, because he is both from Latin America and a survivor of the Dirty Wars, that framed his election to the Throne of Peter as akin to when the United States elected Obama as the first African-American President.  The notion of identity politics is common to both men because they are effectively leaders in the post-Cold War world.  In contrast to the past century of Popes dedicated to opposing Communism and its Modernist cousins with clerical 'Anti-Modernist Oaths' and the Second Vatican Council reform implementations, Francis is taking over from these Cold Warriors and working to upend the the institutionalization and the bureaucracy that has led to money laundering at the Vatican Bank and shenanigans akin to GODFATHER, PART III.  So he is annoying the vested interests of the Bank, which does get him some notice.  He also has effectively tried to set an example of cooperation with contemporary atheism and religious plurality, publishing a dialogue with a prominent Italian freethinker.  
But, just like Obama has proven to not be what he was HOPEd for, a harsh wake-up call will need to smack Catholics in America sooner rather than later.  Francis is still going after North American nuns who refuse to toe line with taboo topics, he has excommunicated a priest for performing gay marriages, and he is firmly against reproductive rights expanding in Latin America to include abortion and contraception.  Furthermore, the notable silence on a recent UN report that pinned the tail on the donkey with regards to several Papacies being responsible for covering up child rape is truly problematic.  
The UN has a longstanding and tremendously bizarre relationship with the world's smallest city-state, one where the Vatican has signed treaties but merely 'observes' while also reinforcing population control programs that have been seen as problematic, to say the least.  Indeed, the UN has faced active resistance from Cardinals representing the views of the Holy See when formulating policies about the availability of abortion on demand, free contraception, and other information about family planning.  The Holy See officially opposes any efforts to promote the use of birth control in any form in the classroom.  The Holy See officially opposes any effort to teach the provision of abortion as a fundamental human right of women over their own bodies.  The Holy See opposes any effort by governments to normalize the practice of homosexuality in any form.  The Holy See refuses to acknowledge gender as a legitimate construction of identity and its plastic nature, refusing to allow for the existence of the trans person and instead insisting sex and gender are permanent and united.  These are not casual pot shots, they are the realities of Pope Francis's Papacy, truly without spin.  This sort of reality needs to be grasped when watching news coverage of this Pope, he is a litmus test of American hopes and projections of their aspirations as much as a figure in and of himself.  Even the game of identity politics is given less meaning when one realizes that Francis is not an indigenous South American but the son of an Italian who emigrated to Argentina to flee Mussolini's rise.
Of course, Fascism and Argentina are quite the tango partners, and Francis's survival during the Dirty Wars has raised a few crass eyebrows.  In my own judgement, it seems clear that Liberation Theology was used by the junta as a codeword for Communist, and Francis was perhaps caught in the middle of something truly beyond his grasp, John Paul I even had condemned the junta in his short reign.  But legitimate secular debates about any leader of a city-state, no matter how they are elected and by whose divine intervention, do have to bear nuance.
Is Francis Che Guevara in a cassock?  No, he's the exact opposite of that notable Argentine.
Did Francis just make a slam-dunk by tacitly and implicitly granting recognition to both the State of Palestine and the reunited Fatah-Hamas coalition?  Yes, perhaps despite what every pro-Israeli conservative and Republican Catholic will say.  They will say he's ineffective, out of his league, maybe even doddering, there were previous notes in the press he might be too ill to take the trip in the first place.  But, just like calling Jimmy Carter anti-Semitic for titling his book PEACE NOT APARTHEID, it's just not going to stick, it's simply one of those untenable accusations that no one is going to buy if Bimi tries selling a whopper like that on CNN and Fox News.  If you look at the Church's PR scheme in America, anti-Catholicism and things like Al Smith's run for the Presidency still carry some emotional brevity in debates, especially in rebuking critiques of dogma.  The Church has been very aggressive in asserting a right (whether real or not) to a kind of moral authority in the public square, and it has been integrated into the public dialogue as a figurehead, it is quite often a Catholic bishop or priest will be seen on television debate panels arguing moral questions, especially in Republican media.  So this is a unique occurrence, but it also can't be seen as the be-all end-all of other issues involving the Catholic Church.

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