So Patti Smith is playing the Vatican

When I first heard the news on Facebook the other day that Patti Smith was going to play the Vatican Christmas concert in Rome on Dec. 13, I thought my friend was just pulling my leg. Since then the news has gone viral. She’s the talk of the town, much as she was when I arrived in NYC in 1995 to see her on the cover of the Village Voice. I’ve loved Patti as much as anyone, I suppose. Her music and her style have influenced me (at least the me of my twenties) more than most. That said, it’s been a while since I’ve really followed her. I began to rethink our relationship after I went to see her at the Auditorium in Rome in 2007. She had draped a Palestinian flag over the stage. I have nothing against the Palestinians, mind you, but I was there for the rock-and-roll, not the politics. But, as my friend retorted, you don’t get Patti without the politics. So be it.

Which brings us to Pope Francis and the Christmas concert. A great many people are enthusiastic to see Patti accept the pope’s invitation. There is even a photo of the two of them greeting each other in St. Peter’s Square earlier this year (staged, no doubt). Patti has always had a strong spiritual streak throughout her work, though she has been quite critical of (organized) religion. Her most cited lyric, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins / but not mine…” might even have pitted her as a papal antagonist. So what’s going on here?

I don’t mean to piss in the Christmas pudding (if that’s the expression), but I’m a bit disappointed in Patti for having accepted this invitation. I’ve been at odds with myself for a day and a half over just why, having had some trouble putting my finger on what irks me. And I’m not sure I’ve figured it out (perhaps I’m just being Grumpy Atheist Guy, who knows?), but I do feel the need to try and put my thoughts down. Especially because I can’t find another atheist blogger who has had anything negative to say about this yet.

I’ve spent quite a lot of blogspace writing about the Catholic Church (see my list of posts Crucifixes and Creationists) and its invasion of Italian life, both public and private. In my view, they are not a jolly bunch of men running around Rome in antique dresses. They are, rather, a powerful, power-hungry and enormously invasive political machine – the oldest institution in the Western world, as they love to say – with retrograde ideas about human well-being and dogmas which are largely incompatible with modern conceptions of human rights. They are also losing ground and numbers in a way which has forced them to reposition themselves in society.

Everyone knows religion depends on follwers to thrive, not unlike social media. In a world which is becoming more and more secular, with more and more Catholics leaving the church, the Catholic Church is in a existential crisis. Sometimes I tune in to Radio Maria, the official Vatican radio station, while I’m in the car. I like to keep up with what they say to their constituent, so to speak. It’s not uncommon to hear them speaking at length about how the Church is focusing on how to reach out to the youth. It even has a name: la Nuova Evangelizzazione (the New Evangelization). I see things like the Patti concert not as an interesting side note on Francis’ musical tastes (“Hey, he likes Patti Smith. Cool!”) but as part of a larger re-make/re-model strategy in the Catholic Church. It’s marketing, plain and simple, and Francis is their cover girl.

I’m a cynic, I know. Why am I attempting to ruin something so benign? If it’s true, as my friend pointed out, that “you don’t get Patti without the politics” then what is her political message now? I can’t imagine she is unaware of how antagonistic the Catholic Church is to the cause of abortion, contraception, euthanasia, secularism, and a host of other problems which are par for the course. Not to mention Francis’ recent involvement in an exorcists’ conference in Rome, and all the superstitious nonsense that entails.

Here is Patti’s unforgettable portrait of Dot Hook:

She’s real Catholic, see. She fingers her cross and she says
Theres one reason. Theres one reason.
You do it my way or I push your face in.
We knee you in the john if you dont get off your get off your mustang Sally…

(“Piss Factory”, 1974)

Perhaps Patti Smith is just another of the millions who want to believe that Pope Francis represents change in the Catholic Church. He has swept aside his unsmiling predecessor Benedict XVI with one of the greatest institutional facelifts in history. But, here in Italy, we haven’t seen much actually change on the ground. Despite Francis’ rhetoric, the Church is still a tax-exempt, multi-billion dollar business. It still clings to its innumerable fiscal privileges. It still insists on preaching to children when they are just barely out of diapers. It is still a greedy, self-serving tinpot kingdom living off the Italian State at the expense of its citizens. For these resons and many others I can’t bring myself to sing “Gloria” at the news of the upcoming concert.

Perhaps “Free Money” would be more appropriate for her new cronies. It’s something they know well.

Italian towns

I wanted to share this wonderful (and disheartening) cartoon. Anyone who has ever been to Italy has noticed that Catholic churches are far grander than any other structures. It’s no mystery that immense amounts of public money are funneled directly to the Vatican through various fiscal mechanisms such as the 8 per mille tax when they aren’t forked over directly for maintenance and the construction of new churches. Churches which are getting emptier every year, one might add. In these hard economic times, the grand old churches which make Italy such a quaint country-sized museum are beginning to look rather suspect.

"Italian towns"

Here’s Mark Twain on the Milan Cathedral (from The Innocents Abroad):

Howsoever you look at the great cathedral, it is noble, it is beautiful! Wherever you stand in Milan or within seven miles of Milan, it is visible and when it is visible, no other object can chain your whole attention. Leave your eyes unfettered by your will but a single instant and they will surely turn to seek it. It is the first thing you look for when you rise in the morning, and the last your lingering gaze rests upon at night. Surely it must be the princeliest creation that ever brain of man conceived.

The building is five hundred feet long by one hundred and eighty wide, and the principal steeple is in the neighborhood of four hundred feet high. It has 7,148 marble statues, and will have upwards of three thousand more when it is finished. In addition it has one thousand five hundred bas-reliefs. It has one hundred and thirty-six spires—twenty-one more are to be added. Each spire is surmounted by a statue six and a half feet high. Every thing about the church is marble, and all from the same quarry; it was bequeathed to the Archbishopric for this purpose centuries ago. So nothing but the mere workmanship costs; still that is expensive—the bill foots up six hundred and eighty-four millions of francs thus far (considerably over a hundred millions of dollars,) and it is estimated that it will take a hundred and twenty years yet to finish the cathedral. It looks complete, but is far from being so. We saw a new statue put in its niche yesterday, alongside of one which had been standing these four hundred years, they said. There are four staircases leading up to the main steeple, each of which cost a hundred thousand dollars, with the four hundred and eight statues which adorn them. Marco Compioni was the architect who designed the wonderful structure more than five hundred years ago, and it took him forty-six years to work out the plan and get it ready to hand over to the builders. He is dead now. The building was begun a little less than five hundred years ago, and the third generation hence will not see it completed.

Now doesn’t that sound like a colossal waste of resources to you?

Ratzinger’s blood libel against atheists

Not exactly a denial of God, is it?

It reminds me of Durban: a gathering of peace-minded folks from all over the globe getting together to discuss problems which afflict us all. But all they can talk about is Israel. The love-fest turns into a blood libel against the Jews.

Joseph Ratzinger knows that he can’t aim his pious invective at the Jewish people as his predecessors did. So this most contemporary pope takes aim at the next best enemy of his faith: atheists. It’s another blood libel in the making. Here are his words from Assisi yesterday*:

The enemies of religion…see in religion one of the principal sources of violence in the history of humanity and thus they demand that it disappear. But the denial of God has led to much cruelty and to a degree of violence that knows no bounds, which only becomes possible when man no longer recognizes any criterion or any judge above himself, now having only himself to take as a criterion. The horrors of the concentration camps reveal with utter clarity the consequences of God’s absence.

Do we really demand that religion disappear? Or do we just demand that it know its place and stay in it, and not meddle in things which aren’t its business? And there in that last line is the blood libel: that Nazism was the outcome of atheism. But Ratzinger was in the Wehrmacht as a young man, and knows perfectly well that Nazi anti-Semitism was a Christian inheritance. Adolf Hitler was a Catholic who has never been excommunicated and Mein Kampf was never added to the Index Librorum Prohibitorum as, say, Kepler, Voltaire, Locke, Mill and Galileo were. Kettle black enough for ya’?

The absence of God leads to the decline of man and of humanity. But where is God? Do we know him, and can we show him anew to humanity, in order to build true peace? Let us first briefly summarize our considerations thus far. I said that there is a way of understanding and using religion so that it becomes a source of violence, while the rightly lived relationship of man to God is a force for peace. In this context I referred to the need for dialogue and I spoke of the constant need for purification of lived religion. On the other hand I said that the denial of God corrupts man, robs him of his criteria and leads him to violence.

See? There it is: “the denial of God corrupts man, robs him of his criteria and leads him to violence.” While religion can be used either as a means to violence – as Ratzinger knows only too well – or peace, atheism inevitably leads to the degredation of humanity and the violent corruption of society.

He’s telling fibs again. The happiest societies on Earth are the most secular. Sociologists know this. Ask anyone who has escaped from religion and they will likely tell you they are happier and feel “free” for the first time in their lives. This is not uncommon at all, no matter which religion is being left behind.

This knowledge is making the pope shit his pants.

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* One year ago, almost to the day, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said some disturbingly similar things about atheists. And he published them in a Vatican newspaper, to boot.

An unwelcome guest

Don’t expect to hear many voices pipe up in opposition to the pope’s visit to Assisi tomorrow. There will be no demonstrations, occupations or black bloc terror (thankfully not this last). Maybe in other countries, but not in Italy. Just phony respect, ecumenical backpatting and “reaching out” to atheists, heretics and other people who would’ve been tortured and burned not so long ago – possibly in this same city square.

Allow me to register one clear voice in opposition to this man and the rapacious organization of politicized religion he heads. Don’t let the pomp fool you; we haven’t ALL been taken in. There are people in Italy, in Assisi even, who detest this man, his church and all that they stand for: superstition, ignorance, bigotry, greed, corruption, falsity and the pretension that they alone are above the laws that govern the rest of human society.

I, for one, do not welcome Joseph Ratzinger to Assisi.

An embarrassment

I still haven’t seen the controversial statue of Pope John Paul II at Rome’s Termini Station. Next week I’m taking a train in and hope to gawk at it as it deserves.

Openly criticized across the political spectrum, on social networks and by commuters, the statue has also brought dim views from the Vatican’s daily newspaper itself. L’Osservatore Romano said it ”resembles a sentry box” and that its head is ”excessively spherical”. The city commission has listed several points it sees in need of intervention. Among them are the statue’s face, the head’s welding and inclination, the arm, the cloak, and the shoulder.

And that it reminds not a few of a very famous Italian dictator:

Some Romans and tourists think the giant artwork looks more like Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.

”That bullet-like head on top, it reminds me of Mussolini,” said Enrico, a 42-year-old computer programmer who commutes from Latina south of Rome.

American tourist Sandra Hillhouse, 24, from Arizona, said: ”I don’t understand it at all. He looks more like one of those weird creatures from Star Trek”.

Well, anyone but the conservative religious leader Karol Wojtyla. But here’s the surprise:

Rome Mayor Gianni Alemanno has since been facing calls from political and cultural figures to ”do something” about a statue some think gives visitors an embarrassing impression of Rome’s contemporary cultural scene.

He said he would bow to popular opinion.

”If public opinion coalesces around a negative view, we’ll have to take that into consideration”.

So, presumably, if popular opinion were to express a largely negative view of the Vatican, Mayor Alemanno would have it renovated. It seems a negative view has been steadily coalescing for a few centuries around the papal palace, and has taken a turn for the worse in recent years.

But who ever took a politician at his or her word?

Dear Pope: God is dead, and we killed him

The pope, in his new book, apparently asserts that the Jews didn’t kill Jesus. So what? Who cares anymore? Are we really going to let the pope decide our opinion on such matters as, Are Jews intrinsically evil? That sounds pretty ridiculous today, but for centuries the pope’s opinion on such matters really mattered. Thankfully, his words are now grist for the mill of Twitter jokes. Here’s my attempt at an elegant controbattuta:

Pius XII and his crystal ball

If I told you that Pius XII spent the war years peeking into a crystal ball or shuffling tarot cards in order to divine the future, you might say something like, “What a nutcase!” And you’d be right, I suspect. So what’s the difference when John Cornwell tells us – citing beatification testimony of Pius’ own nephew – that:

…the Pope was in the habit during the war of conducting a form of exorcism to cast out the devil that he assumed inhabited the soul of Hitler – which he did in the dead of night in his private chapel in the papal apartments.

That’s not nuts? Ooga-booga, the Pope communing with the spirits in a private seance (true, one wonders how his nephew knew this) in his most private of Holy Holies? The valiant Pius wrestling with angels for the soul of the world, while Satan stalks the heart of Europe in the form of the Third Reich. Apparently, a papal encyclical would have been wasted on mortal eyes; ditto a radio broadcast in condemnation of Hitler. Pius XII produced nothing of the kind for the duration of the war.

But he wrestled with the Children of Darkness in his private chapel at midnight. How spiritually elevated of him.