The Pope & The Guru

Perhaps we’ll finally stop falling for the fairytale of infallibility

When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was ordained pope in 2005, Austrians felt nearly as proud as the Germans that one of their own had, for the first time in nearly 500 years, been elected to lead the Catholic Church. After all, he was from Marktl am Inn in Bavaria  — which all Austrians realize is actually the long-lost Bundesland of North Tyrol, that through some clerical error ended up on the German side of the border.

So there was rejoicing in the land. 

Perhaps we should have been more circumspect. To be sure, there were signs of potential trouble: For one thing, Cardinal Ratzinger had made a career out of being inflexible: appointed Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, it was his job to make sure that the church held firm to tradition in the narrowest sense, that it avoid all appearance of taking into consideration the world as it really is. He was also 78 years old, the oldest papal appointment since Pope Clement XII in 1730, and thus unlikely to experience any sort of 11th hour enlightenment.

Still, he made enough of the right noises that we gave him the benefit of the doubt. We wanted “our” Pope from the North Tyrol to make us proud, and perhaps even make our national church relevant again.

Which perhaps helps explain the depth of the outrage at his recent blundering: with belated explanations of trying to heal old schisms, Benedict lifted the excommunications of four schismatic bishops from the ultra-traditionalist Society of St. Pius X, including British Bishop Richard Williamson, a Holocaust denier who claims there were no gas chambers and no intended genocide.

“Well, at least that settles one thing,” said German Vice Chancellor Franz Münteferung gleefully, “Now we know the Pope is not infallible.”

And to add insult to injury, Benedict then appointed the Reverend Gerhard Maria Wagner as the auxiliary bishop of Linz, a man who says homosexuality is “curable,” and ascribes natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina as God’s Righteous Wrath, showering down divine justice on us sinners for our evil ways. If there was ever a Pope who lacked a sense of humor, this is the one. Or maybe he just doesn’t like jazz. Still, one can’t help fantasizing the pope jokes that must surely be making the rounds of the Beisls along the Linzer flood plane, where the Danube overflowed its banks in August 2002, leaving 90 dead and hundreds of thousands homeless.

Now there must have been some serious sinning going on.

Back in Financial Crisis Land, we are still reeling from the hubris of the leader of another great religion, The United Church of the God of the Self-Regulating Markets. This earthly embodiment of Eternal Truth is none other than Alan Greenspan, for 18 years Chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve and Guru of the Zealots of Neo-Conservatism. This is the man who helpfully pointed out the “irrational exuberance” of the bubble, and then when the pressure was off was happy to see proof that severe recessions were a thing of the past and modern markets could only go up.

Today Greenspan describes himself as in a “state of shocked disbelief;” He had truly believed, he said before Congress in October, that lending institutions would do a good job of protecting their shareholders and that regulation would only get in the way.

At the hearing, Chairman of the House Oversight Committee Henry Waxman scratched his head in amazement.

“Our regulators became enablers rather than enforcers,” he observed. “Their trust in the wisdom of the markets was infinite. The mantra became that government regulation is wrong. The market is infallible.”

So as the world economy continues to unravel and Catholics are leaving the Church just as millions are losing their jobs, where does this leave us? Sadder but wiser, perhaps and very short on “irrational exuberance.”

And if we’re lucky, we’ll put concepts like infallibility in a glass case in the Museum of Anachronism. Institutions of god or mammon are still made by people, and however fancy the trappings, Armani suit or Papal Mitre, a leader can always err.

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