Column on What’s with the Pope

What’s the Pope’s Problem?

Tibor R. Machan

Salzburg, Austria. BBC TV broadcast the news a few days ago that Pope
Benedict has condemned “popular culture and consumerism” during his trip
to Australia. I am not sure why this is important to report—would BBC TV
inform its viewers about the pronouncements of the “Reverend” Moon, the
current leader of the Mormon Church or, indeed, of the leaders of the 4000
plus different religions registered in the USA alone? What makes this
particular church leader so special?

I ask this as a former Roman Catholic, one who was raised in that religion
as a kid in Communist Hungary and who is fully aware of the myriads of
negative side effects this can produce for a person (namely, guilt, guilt,
and more guilt for just wanting to have a reasonably joyful life). Since
that time I have come to be very, very suspicious of the claims of Roman
Catholics and, actually, members of most other churches to having a sound
understanding of human affairs. And one area where I am especially weary
of what men like the Pope say is concerning the mundane purposes people
have, such as wishing to live prosperously, wanting to gain some pleasures
and wealth in their lives, of hoping to enjoy themselves instead of
suffering, which is what many religions teach is the noble way for us all
to live. No, that just won’t do for me and, I suspect, for increasingly
many people.

It is, by the way, one thing for Jesus to have suffered since, after all,
he was supposed to be both man and God and as such suffering couldn’t
possibly amount for him to what it does for an ordinary mortal. So
imitating Jesus in this and many other respects simply cannot be something
humanly noble—why should a mortal human being seek to suffer? There is
simply no sense in that at all.

But even apart from the wrongheaded idea that we ought to reject what
pleasures and enjoyments this world can offer us—i. e., condemn
consumerism—there is the sheer audacity of the head the Vatican City
chiding other people for their embrace of abundance and wealth. Have you
ever visited the Vatican? I have and the measure of its ostentatious and
very mundane wealth—no, opulence—is something to behold.

Indeed, the very first attraction on the way around the City is a gaudy
shop with thousands of Catholic trinkets for sale. Talk about
consumerism—few places match this blatant display of commercial savvy.
(If you don’t know the place, just think of those shops you find at art
museums, with all those reproductions of the works displayed and the books
about them for sale! And then multiply these several hundredfold.)

All of this really comes down to the great likelihood of Papal hypocrisy.
And this cannot be news to most Catholics, either, given their awareness
of the display of splendor, glitter, and pomp at high mass. I don’t know
where else we would find the likes of this other than at some of the
palaces that remain as reminders of the obscene plunder of kings and other
monarchs and the dictators such as “communist” Rumania last dictator.
Who, then, is the Pope to condemn consumerism which, by my study of
history, is a feeble attempt of ordinary human beings, ever since the
emerges of relatively free markets, to acquire, honestly, a tiny fraction
of the world’s goodies compared to what the upper classes, including
religious leaders, of the past got their hands on mostly illicitly.

Yes, just think of it: consumerism amounts mainly to folks making a try at
acquiring, fair and square, all sorts of useful and enjoyable goods and
services now available to millions of us. In the past comparable stuff
was only available to a select few and they didn’t come by it honestly but
mostly by plunder and conquest. We today go shopping, after we have
earned some coins in the market place doing work that other people freely
chose to purchase from us.

Honest trade is a central feature of consumerism and this is what the Pope
finds so abhorrent. Would he rather have us return to an era when only the
leaders of Church and assorted monarchs were in the position to obtain
such merchandise, mostly by intimidation and extortion—such as selling
forgiveness to gullible well to do folks who went along with the deal
through ignorance and fear rather than free judgment and by threatening
subjects within the realm, respectively?

Furthermore is it not curious that the Pope’s pronouncements seem to
escape the scrutiny of the chattering classes? Perhaps not, since the bulk
of them also lament it endlessly that ordinary human beings would rather
go shopping than sacrifice themselves for various more or less dubious
objectives like taking precaution with the environment (whatever that grab
bag idea really is supposed to mean). Although many of these intellectuals
are doubtful about religion, they do share with the myriad of churches a
disdain for the popular pursuit of earthly joys.

So no wonder that the Pope condemns popular culture and consumerism—they
are in competition with him in the effort to gain people’s devotion and
loyalty. Trouble is what the Pope claims to offer is something quite
elusive and mysterious, whereas what we find in the market place, at the
mall for example, has the advantage of bringing us concrete, clearly
understandable satisfaction. No wonder we are implored to feel guilt for
wanting it in our lives!

Maybe I am just harboring resentments against the Catholics for having
made my childhood and adolescence so full of misery—guilt, shame,
self-denial, self-loathing, and so forth. Probably I just wish to warn
people off of falling for the ruse I went along with for a couple of
decades of my early life.

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