Shorter Pope Francis: I’m All About That Bass

This is a wonderful opportunity for me to gain your attention through the use of an – admittedly terrible – pun, but now that I have done so, I hope the reader will indulge me and allow me to explain my choice of title a bit later in this post.

The release of the much-anticipated Papal Encyclical “Laudato Si” today did not disappoint. In it, as there should be, is plenty of material to make everyone feel uncomfortable, in the ways we live our lives and in the ways we treat one another. It also reveals both a weakness and a strength of the present Pontiff as a thinker and a writer.

While a significant portion of the document reads like a journal article assembled by a group of graduate students, the more interesting turns and jabs in the Encyclical are not what most of us expected – certainly not this scrivener, anyway. To not be able to anticipate, as one reads, how Pope Francis is going to reach some of the conclusions he does, many of which were quite surprising, makes this more readable for the average person than most papal encyclicals. What one comes away with is the impression that whatever his views on the environment, the economy, and human relationships, the Holy Father believes that the malaise we see at present comes not from a single political philosophy or economic practice, but rather from a particular attitude, one which has severely damaged Western civilization in particular: selfishness. This encyclical is perhaps the greatest indictment of the “Me” generation, and all of its policies and excesses on both the right AND the left, which we have seen to date.

While major news outlets are falling all over themselves to quote the Pope’s writing on those aspects of ecology which they themselves support, they will at the same time be ignoring those portions of the encyclical which directly attack their views. Take for example that sacred cow of the left, “reproductive health”, i.e., the right to poison oneself – and indeed everyone else’s water supply in the process – with artificial hormones and other chemicals, so that one does not have children, alongside the right to kill unwanted children if they are conceived. The Holy Father offers no quarter to those who attempt to justify such policies based on environmental arguments:

50. Instead of resolving the problems of the poor and thinking of how the world can be different, some can only propose a reduction in the birth rate. At times, developing countries face forms of international pressure which make economic assistance contingent on certain policies of “reproductive health”. Yet “while it is true that an unequal distribution of the population and of available resources creates obstacles to development and a sustainable use of the environment, it must nonetheless be recognized that demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development”. To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues. It is an attempt to legitimize the present model of distribution, where a minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalized, since the planet could not even contain the waste products of such consumption.

Similarly, for those who believe that grinding up human embryos for pharmaceutical research, or aborting children who will be born with birth defects, are moral examples of the ends justifying the means:

117. When we fail to acknowledge as part of reality the worth of a poor person, a human embryo, a person with disabilities – to offer just a few examples – it becomes difficult to hear the cry of nature itself; everything is connected. Once the human being declares independence from reality and behaves with absolute dominion, the very foundations of our life begin to crumble, for “instead of carrying out his role as a cooperator with God in the work of creation, man sets himself up in place of God and thus ends up provoking a rebellion on the part of nature”.

Also:

120. Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties? “If personal and social sensitivity towards the acceptance of the new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away”.

And:

136. On the other hand, it is troubling that, when some ecological movements defend the integrity of the environment, rightly demanding that certain limits be imposed on scientific research, they sometimes fail to apply those same principles to human life. There is a tendency to justify transgressing all boundaries when experimentation is carried out on living human embryos. We forget that the inalienable worth of a human being transcends his or her degree of development. In the same way, when technology disregards the great ethical principles, it ends up considering any practice whatsoever as licit. As we have seen in this chapter, a technology severed from ethics will not easily be able to limit its own power.

Admittedly I did not engage in an exact word or paragraph count, but as I was reading the Encyclical it struck me that Pope Francis – that supposedly permissive, squishy-on-morality pope – spent more time castigating moral relativism, abortion, contraception, and embryonic stem cell research, than he did addressing the issue of climate change. Oh, and Mr. Limbaugh, for your edification, should this find its way to your desk (emphasis mine):

144. A consumerist vision of human beings, encouraged by the mechanisms of today’s globalized economy, has a levelling effect on cultures, diminishing the immense variety which is the heritage of all humanity. Attempts to resolve all problems through uniform regulations or technical interventions can lead to overlooking the complexities of local problems which demand the active participation of all members of the community. New processes taking shape cannot always fit into frameworks imported from outside; they need to be based in the local culture itself. As life and the world are dynamic realities, so our care for the world must also be flexible and dynamic. Merely technical solutions run the risk of addressing symptoms and not the more serious underlying problems. There is a need to respect the rights of peoples and cultures, and to appreciate that the development of a social group presupposes an historical process which takes place within a cultural context and demands the constant and active involvement of local people from within their proper culture. Nor can the notion of the quality of life be imposed from without, for quality of life must be understood within the world of symbols and customs proper to each human group.

So now, finally, I can explain my choice of title for this piece. Much to the annoyance of those of other tongues who try to learn it, the English language has many homographs, i.e., words which when written appear to be the same, but when spoken have completely different meanings and pronunciations. Some examples are “wind”, “project”, and “lead”. Such is also the case with the word “bass”, which has several meanings: I shall focus on two.

In the natural world of course a “bass” is a type of fish. Given his strident advocacy in this Encyclical about caring for God’s creation, the Holy Father is all about that fish. He is also all about the birds, and the flowers, and the trees, and those slimy “things which creep upon the earth” from the Book of Genesis in the Bible.

However “bass” is also the word we use to describe a deep and powerful voice, most often exhibited by men. We often associate it with men of significant socio-political stature, or who are advanced in years and wisdom, or even with God Himself. One can hardly imagine the voice of God the Father, when heard at the Baptism of Christ, as being that of a tenor in sotto voce, even though we can also recall the voice of God in that “still, small voice” heard by the Prophet Elijah.

Pope Francis himself does not have a particularly powerful speaking voice, in part due to his only having one lung. And yet some of the language which he employs in this encyclical is of a rather profound, basso profoundo, take-no-prisoners quality. It comes as quite a surprise from someone who has been characterized since the beginning of his papacy as some sort of mamby-pamby, soft-spoken NPR host.

Take a look here:

67. We are not God. The earth was here before us and it has been given to us.…Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations. “The earth is the Lord’s” (Ps 24:1); to him belongs “the earth with all that is within it” (Dt 10:14). Thus God rejects every claim to absolute ownership: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me” (Lev 25:23).

He’s quoting the Book of Leviticus at the end there, for those who do not know the abbreviation. LEVITICUS. Not a light-hearted romp through salvation history, that book – which should make some of us – myself included – very, very nervous.

Or this example:

75. A spirituality which forgets God as all-powerful and Creator is not acceptable. That is how we end up worshipping earthly powers, or ourselves usurping the place of God, even to the point of claiming an unlimited right to trample his creation underfoot.

Now perhaps it is just my point of view, but this does not strike me exactly as touchy-feely, wishy-washy, your-truth-and-my-truth stuff. In fact it is almost an echo of the preceding quote: God is God, and you most emphatically are not. Start acting like it.

For me though, the best example of how Pope Francis really is all about that bass appears in Paragraph 229. I would not have expected such a statement from such a pope, particularly given how he has been portrayed by the media on both sides of the political aisle since his election. In its directness and lack of sophistication, it is not going to convince any of the Holy Father’s more intellectual naysayers. In its rejection of the kind of solipsism which has become the sine qua non of Western culture, and indeed in its outright chastisement of what has happened to that culture, it is the kind of statement which one sometimes wishes one’s bishops would have the courage to say, and yet so often we are left having to say it for ourselves, as lay people:

229. We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it. We have had enough of immorality and the mockery of ethics, goodness, faith and honesty. It is time to acknowledge that light-hearted superficiality has done us no good. When the foundations of social life are corroded, what ensues are battles over conflicting interests, new forms of violence and brutality, and obstacles to the growth of a genuine culture of care for the environment.

Someone observed on my Facebook wall this morning that J.R.R. Tolkien, the deeply Catholic author of “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings”, would have loved this Encyclical. I would add, so would Pope St. John Paul II, Blessed Mother Theresa of Calcutta, and many others, who devoted their lives to advocating compassionate care for the world they were born into, and the people who live in it. Like them, Pope Francis is right to draw attention especially to the oppressed and the unwanted.

Now I must confess, gentle reader: I am still not a fan of this Pope. I find him tacky, unfocused, overly pedestrian, and lacking in grace. Yet this encyclical is quite a worthy shot across the bow of the moral relativism we ALL espouse to justify our selfishness. You cannot make short-term profits on the backs of the poor, any more than you can save the whales while killing the babies, and thereafter morally justify your actions in the eyes of God. As quoted above, when our society is so corrupted and falling apart that everything is relative – the profit motive, sexual morality, and yes, creation itself – then we have a very serious problem as a species. If this Encyclical made you uncomfortable, as it did me, then good: now go off and do something about that.

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The Curtain Begins to Fall on “Poirot”

Last night PBS here in America screened “The Big Four”, a television adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel featuring her world-famous private detective, Hercule Poirot.  This kick-off of the final season of the long-running British period television series, “Agatha Christie’s Poirot”, is something of a cultural watershed.  Not only is it a remarkable example of acting longevity, in that David Suchet has now played Poirot in an adaptation of every novel and major story featuring that character, but it also raises some questions about how popular culture has changed in the 25 years since the series began.

I was not surprised to learn, while researching this post, that writer Mark Gatiss adapted the screenplay of “The Big Four”.  Gatiss is the co-creator of the popular series “Sherlock”, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman; he is also one of the writers for the equally popular revival of the “Dr. Who” series.  Last night’s “Poirot” episode at several points felt like a rehashed version of “Sherlock”, complete with an unexpected explosion nearly killing off the master detective.  Regular readers will know that I dislike “Sherlock” intensely.  Nor am I a fan of the revival of the Dr. Who series, even though on both of these points I realize I am in the minority.

That being said, the perceptible changes in the “Poirot” series are not down to Gettis alone, since many writers have worked on the show over the past quarter of a century.  Early episodes, for example, featured a spry, Wodehouse-like dialogue, belying the serious nature of the crimes depicted; there was also a generally bright, Art Deco look and sense of optimism to the series.  Later, “Poirot” developed a more shadowy feel, giving rise to a moodier, more Byzantine atmosphere.  The proceedings seemed to grow darker, with murders showcased in increasing detail, rather than being briefly witnessed and later alluded to.  More recently, murders on the show have often accompanied by acts of outright cruelty and humiliation beyond a simple shooting or stabbing, veering into torture.

A contributing factor to the change in tone arose from the whittling down of the regular cast.  Supporting characters such as Poirot’s sidekick, the sporty Captain Hastings, the perpetually glum Inspector Japp, and Poirot’s ever-efficient secretary Miss Lemon, created more of an ensemble feel in the earlier shows.  The actors played off of each other well, mixing seriousness and humor in an outstanding example of good casting.  The absence of these characters from more recent episodes allowed Suchet to really shine as an individual actor, but it also seemed to turn Poirot in on himself: he found himself doubting, questioning, and losing his cool more regularly.

It was obviously a joy last evening for long-time fans of the series to see the old, familiar characters in the opening scenes of the premiere of this final season.  We were treated to shots of Hastings on his ranch in the Pampas, Miss Lemon with her latest cat companion at her London home, and Japp at his desk in Scotland Yard, all within the first three minutes.  Yet even though they returned to the side of their old friend, Poirot himself is clearly not the same man whom they had last worked with years earlier.  There were moments of the old, upbeat sparkle, but on the whole the levity was long-gone, replaced with a more ponderous, sometimes sinister undertone.

Those who know how the Poirot books came to an end, as indeed shall the series, will not find these shifts entirely out of place. Over the years, Agatha Christie grew tired of her most famous literary creation, and in the 1940’s she wrote “Curtain”, the final Poirot case, to be released whenever she thought the series should finish.  The novel was kept in a bank vault, and remained unpublished until shortly before Christie’s death in 1976.

If the final episode of “Poirot” is anything like the original novel, “Curtain” will present significant ethical problems for some viewers and not for others.  Today, the seeming moral ambiguity of Poirot’s last case is something which our contemporary culture not only accepts, but demands.  Today’s audience, apparently, does not want black and white, it wants shades of gray, as it were.  Viewers want conflicted heroes who find difficulty in distinguishing right from wrong.  “There ain’t no good guy, there ain’t no bad guy, there’s only you and me and we just disagree,” as the old song goes.

Although I find it a pity that Christie chose to end Poirot’s career in the way that she did, it would be unfair to the producers of this final series to blame them for the darkening tone which is completely appropriate to the conclusion of this series.  This ending will also be an opportunity, for those who watch it, to observe what transpires, and ask whether there is a right and a wrong, or whether morality is always ambiguous.  The fact that we would even have such a discussion, of course, shows us that quite a lot has changed in the past quarter century, since the “Poirot” series was first broadcast.

Pauline Moran, Philip Jackson, David Suchet, and Hugh Fraser in "The Big Four" (2013)

Pauline Moran, Philip Jackson, David Suchet, and Hugh Fraser in “The Big Four” (2013)

 

Do We Have a Moral Obligation to Shopkeepers?

Although I celebrate the principle of historic preservation, there are times when it can go a bit too far.  The recent case here in Washington of the hideous Christian Science Church near the White House is a good example of how people confuse “old” with “historic” in this country.  However there is a different topic in historic preservation which often gets overlooked, and that is the historic business.  The question I want to pose to the reader is, do we have a moral duty to shopkeepers to preserve their old business, or does that business have to rise or fall through its own merits?

My favorite city in the world, Barcelona, is a very ancient place, founded by the Carthaginians and later populated by the Greeks and Romans.  While no garum shops survive from Roman days – although you can find their amazingly well-preserved ruins in the underground streets atop which sits the City History Museum – there are some businesses still trading that existed a century or more ago.  Set Portes restaurant down near the harbor, for example, has been serving seafood and rice dishes since 1836.

As of January 1st of this year, many of the older shops in Barcelona and throughout Spain are facing almost certain closure.  A national law which we might translate as the “Urban Lease Act”, created substantial changes to the property leasing market throughout Spain.  It contains a number of common-sense reforms, such as clarifying rights and responsibilities for landlord-tenant agreements for university students, but as part of these reforms, the new law also does away with existing rent controls for commercial properties.  This means that many historic shops which lease their premises, and have existed for 50-100 years or more, are now facing extinction.

One early victim, the nearly 70-year-old Canuda bookshop in the Gothic Quarter, has already shut its doors.  So has the superb Monforte toy store, which first opened its doors in 1840.  And it has recently been announced that the lovely old Quilez grocery/delicatessen/liquor store, where I used to go to buy a very specific brand of Russian vodka one cannot find in this country, is going to have to close as well.  The rent hikes on its prominent and prestigious building, located on the corner of a fashionable shopping street downtown, were too great to bear.

Of course, the change in the law will not affect all historic businesses the same way.  As one might imagine, luxury dealers in items like women’s accessories or jewelry/watch dealers will probably survive.  And although it will be too late for many historic businesses, Barcelona city officials are now scrambling – better late than never – to try to come up with some sort of municipal plan of action to save what is left, perhaps through tax breaks or zoning changes.

So this situation brings us back to the question I asked at the beginning of this piece, which is whether we have a moral obligation to protect businesses such as these from changes in the economic environment, or whether the effects of the market on such businesses are morally neutral.

No one likes to see a beautiful old business shut its doors, leaving a hole in a community where it had long-standing ties.  There is something tragic about the loss to the fabric of a neighborhood when this happens, even if it the business in question was only open for a few decades rather than a few centuries.  The departure of several old taverns in my Washington neighborhood of Georgetown for example – particularly The Guards – left me and many others genuinely saddened by the loss.  Georgetown’s commercial district more and more comes to resemble an outdoor shopping mall for people who do not live in the neighborhood, and less of an actual neighborhood for those of us who do live there.

Yet the impetus to engage in commerce, lest one forget it, is in most cases not a charitable one.  Commercial property ownership is not entered into with the expectation that one will lose money by engaging in it, any more than a commercial business sets up shop just to be nice.  The parties are there to make a profit, and to ignore the profit-making principle is to sentimentalize their motives.  In fact, to argue that a business should be preserved simply because it sells nice things that no one wants to buy is arguably a form of idolatary, in which we are asked to worship a golden calf in the form of a book or a marionette or a bottle of gin.

It seems to this scrivener that if there is a moral obligation to preserve an historic business, it is at best one limited to specific instances and not a universal principle – although I rely on you, gentle reader, to upbraid me in the comments box if you disagree.  When customers are not buying, or profits are non-existent, that is unfortunate, and perhaps it is time to shift to trading in something else.  However, that does not mean that the original commercial enterprise must be renewed ad infinitum simply because it is old. Otherwise, we would still have blacksmiths and wig makers on every corner.

The Colmado Quilez on Rambla Catalunya, Barcelona

The Colmado Quilez on Rambla Catalunya, Barcelona