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.

The freedom of unbelief

Liberi di non credere
By Raffaele Carcano
Editori Internazionali Riuniti, 2011. 379 pages (in Italian)

The PD should be advocating a more secular agenda.

Raffaele Carcano, who heads the UAAR, Italy’s association of atheists, has written a vademecum on the current state of secularity in Italy. Here the reader will find no philosophical arguments for atheism, no attacks on religious belief or even a catalogue of indecent behavior by the Catholic Church and its hierarchy. Instead, Carcano guides the reader through the routine abuses of the rights of non-believing citizens: from the suppressed atheist bus campaign in Genoa to the Lautsi vs. Italy ruling that crucifixes in public classrooms are not in violation of freedom of conscience, the hand of the Vatican is never far from the puppet theater of Italian politics.

Secularism is on the rise, however. Non-affiliated Italians, according to a recent study cited, represent nearly 20 percent of the population and the number is growing. Compare that figure with the only two percent belonging to minority (non-Catholic) religions and you realize they represent a fair slice of the citizenry. Yet they have almost no voice or visibility. Moreover, their rights are trampled by such institutional perversions as the “8 per thousand” religious tax (income tax routed to the Church), Catholic religious teaching in public schools, and the ostentatious display of (exclusively) Catholic symbols in public spaces. Add to this the tendency of Italian media to pander to the Catholic Church and report every grunt and groan of its leaders uncritically.

Then comes the political class, to which the author devotes two full chapters, serving up an analysis of the near-total abandonment of secular causes to which few politicians — right or left — give more than lip service. In fact, the Democratic Party takes the brunt of the criticism for being practically the only center-left party in Europe that doesn’t lift a finger to advance a secular agenda. The only parliamentarian noted for her devotion to secular causes is Emma Bonino, who was shot from both sides during her 2010 campaign for the governorship of Lazio.

The Italian situation is contextualized throughout the book with reference to the European Union and the United States, even going back to ancient times (the first recorded book burning, according to Carcano, was of the “impious” Greek author Protagoras). The tone is sober, but not without the appropriate irony. The reader comes away with the impression that Italy is less a modern secular nation than a kind of milquetoast theocracy. Non-believers may no longer be tortured or burned for their impiety, true, but they are consciously marginalized and proselytized to by a cynical political class and their hubristic clerical bedfellows. Which, one might add, is nothing to be proud of in the 21st century.

From The American

The cost of the Catholic church

Well, it seems the new government expects everyone to do their part in getting Italy out of its current economic straits – except, you guessed it, the Catholic Church. When asked a direct question on the subject, PM Mario Monti reportedly answerd that “he hadn’t yet considered” making the outlandishly privileged Church pay tax on its commercial assets (an estimated 1 out of 5 properties in Italy are in Church hands). Which is outrageous. Really, the list of offenses just gets longer and longer. Why should anyone be this privileged – above all the richest (and arguably most corrupt and morally bankrupt) country – yes, it’s another fucking country! – on Earth? Can anyone explain to me why those of us who oppose such privileges haven’t yet reached a critical mass?

There’s a new website (icostidellachiesa.it) detailing the actual cost of the Catholic Church. It’s a frightening read. And since most Italians have absolutely no idea how they are financing this freeloading institution, the time has come to educate them. This is the elephant in the room, Italy.

Abolish the Lateran Treaty!

Sometimes I wonder which is preferable: to live in a place like the US, where religious nuttiness is rampant among the population (and certainly not unknown among politicians), or a place like Italy, where the population is largely complacent and indifferent thanks to an unoffical State religion and politicians submit sheepishly to the whims of the State church.

American separation has led to a lively “cafeteria style” marketplace for all religions to compete for customers. Italy, on the other hand, has the Vatican: it’s a separate country nestled in the city of Rome, an autocracy and a theocracy (the last in Europe, I believe) which has the constitutionally-recognized right to interfere in Italian political life and – and this is the kicker – immunity from interference from the Italian government.

In fact, the Italian constitution is schizophrenic on this issue.

Art. 3

All citizens have equal social dignity and are equal before the law, without
distinction of sex, race, language, religion, political opinion, personal and
social conditions.

Art. 7

The State and the Catholic Church are independent and sovereign, each
within its own sphere.
Their relations are regulated by the Lateran pacts. Amendments to such Pacts
which are accepted by both parties shall not require the procedure of
constitutional amendments.

Art. 8

All religious denominations are equally free before the law.
Denominations other than Catholicism have the right to self-organisation
according to their own statutes, provided these do not conflict with Italian law.
Their relations with the State are regulated by law, based on agreements with
their respective representatives.

And it goes on like this, first establishing perfectly reasonable things like freedom of conscience, and then goes on to contradict itself by stating that the Catholic church has an entirely separate set of rules which govern its relations with the state (rules which highly favor the church and undermine the secular nature of the constitution.)

The Lateran Treaty (“All foreigners in official ecclesiastical employment in Rome shall enjoy the personal guarantees appertaining to Italian citizens, in accordance with the laws of the Kingdom of Italy.”) is the basis for an immense amount of biased and unfair treatment of non-Catholics in Italy as well as enormous and completely unjustified privileges for Catholics and clergy. They need to be abolished if Italy wishes to become a truly European nation based on secularism and rule of law and emerge from its illiberal, fascist-tainted past.

Of course, without Italy’s gentle nursing, the Vatican would probably wither away and disappear from the face of the Earth. Which wouldn’t be a bad thing for anybody.

Making sacrifices

A Catholic government?

“Mario Monti has guaranteed sacrifices for everyone. Now we expect him to trim the more than 5 billion Euro a year in public funds which are diverted to various guises of the Catholic Church.” – Raffaele Carcano, UAAR

It seems almost unbelievable that an Italian government could be even more Catholic than Berlusconi’s banished crusaders, but the Mario Monti’s new technical government didn’t get the Vatican stamp of approval for nothing. So basically everyone is expected to make sacrifices except the clergy and, of course, the politicians who propose making sacrifices. And round and round we go…

Now why does that little word “sacrifice” sound so artificial to my ears?

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?

Nichi Vendola on being gay

It almost slipped by me as I was writing my last post, but a reader caught it in the comments. Quoting from the Haaretz profile, which still appears to be the most substantial yet in English on the rising star of the Italian left, I wrote:

Vendola does not see any contradiction between being a devout Catholic and his declared sexual identity. “I have always been Catholic and gay, I have never concealed this and I refuse to adopt feelings of guilt,” he said in interviews with Italian media. “It is easier to talk about this with priests than with politicians.”

Of course the reader in question (and this is why comments matter) asked, “Hm, suppose they have more gay priests than gay politicians in Italy?” How could I have overlooked that one?

It occurs to me that Mr. Vendola was skirting the issue a bit. Instead of looking the homophobic dogma of his Church in the eye and challenging it, he clips his sails to the prevailing winds. It’s easier to talk about these things with priests than politicians; that is, with those responsible for perpetuating the idea that homosexuality is an “evil” among huge swaths of the voting public, and inculcating a mechanism whereby politicians court the vote by adopting the rhetoric of the Church, which is itself bursting with homosexuals dressed up as Clark Kent.

It’s a tricky, Orwellian shtick abounding with smoke and mirrors. I’m always a bit baffled by devout gay Catholics. What exactly do they love about their Church, which is so consistently and stridently opposed to their sexual freedom and does everything in its power to deny them the same rights afforded to heterosexuals, endlessly manupulating the political processes of Catholic-majority countries like Italy to achieve their ends?

I’d love to see an Italian politician courageous enough to stand up to the unlovable Vatican. I bet a lot of disenfranchised Italian voters would support that, too. It might finally give them the voice they’ve been denied for so long by cowardly hypocrites prepared to steamroll democracy every time the pope hiccups the word “relativism.”